Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is the capital of West Bengal and
one of the largest cities in India. Kolkata is an 'in your face' city
that shocks and charms the unsuspecting visitor. Long known as
the Cultural capital of India and home to the Bengal
Renaissance, Kolkata continues to spawn generations of
poets, writers and film directors. If your trip only allows for a visit
of one or two of India's metropolitan cities, than definitely
consider placing Kolkata on your itinerary. Love it or hate it, you
definitely won't forget the city on the Hooghly river bank.
The term Kolkata or Kolikata is thought to be a variation
of Kalikkhetro, meaning "Field of the goddess Kali".
Simultaneously noble and squalid, cultured and desperate, Kolkata is a daily festival
of human existence. And it’s all played out before your very eyes on teeming streets
where not an inch of space is wasted. By its old spelling, Calcutta, India’s second-
biggest city conjures up images of human suffering to most Westerners. But Bengalis
have long been infuriated by one-sided depictions of their vibrant capital. Kolkata is
locally regarded as the intellectual and cultural capital of the nation. Several
of India’s great 19th- and 20th-century heroes were Kolkatans, including guru-
philosopher Ramakrishna, Nobel Prize–winning poet Rabindranath Tagore and
celebrated film director Satyajit Ray. Dozens of venues showcase Bengali
dance, poetry, art, music, film and theatre. And while poverty certainly remains in-
your-face, the dapper Bengali gentry continue to frequent grand old gentlemen’s
clubs, back horses at the Calcutta Racetrack and play soothing rounds of golf at some
of India’s finest courses.
As the former capital of British India, Kolkata retains a feast of dramatic colonial
architecture, with more than a few fine buildings in photogenic states of semi-
collapse. The city still has many slums but is also developing dynamic new-town
suburbs, a rash of air-conditioned shopping malls and some of the best restaurants
in India. This is a fabulous place to sample the mild, fruity tang of Bengali cuisine
and share the city’s passion for sweets.
More than four-fifths of the population is Hindu.
Muslims and Christians constitute the largest minorities, but there are
some Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists. The dominant language is Bengali and
Hindi, but Urdu, Oriya, Tamil, Punjabi, and other languages also are spoken.
Kolkata is a cosmopolitan city: other than Indians, groups present include a
variety of peoples from elsewhere in Asia (notably Bangladeshis and
Chinese), Europeans, North Americans, and Australians. Kolkata was segregated
under British rule, the Europeans living in the city centre and Indians living to the
north and south. The pattern of segregation has continued in the modern
city, although the distribution is now based on
religious, linguistic, educational, and economic criteria. Shantytowns and low-
income residential areas, however, exist side-by-side with more affluent areas.
The density of population is extremely high, and overcrowding has reached
virtually intolerable proportions in many sections of the city. Kolkata experienced
a high rate of population growth for more than a century, and events such as the
partitioning of Bengal in 1947 and warfare in Bangladesh in the early 1970s
precipitated massive population influxes. Large refugee colonies also have sprung
up in the northern and southern suburbs. In addition, a great number of migrants
from other states have come to Kolkata in search of employment.
Kolkata is perhaps the most important cultural centre of India. The city is the
birthplace of modern Indian literary and artistic thought and of Indian
nationalism, and its citizens have made great efforts to preserve Indian culture
and civilization. The blending of Eastern and Western cultural influences over
the centuries has stimulated the creation of numerous and diverse organizations
that contribute to Kolkata’s cultural life. In addition to the universities, these
include the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the Bengal Literary Society (Bangiya
Sahitya Parishad), the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, the Academy of
Fine Arts, the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, and the Maha Bodhi Society.
It is known for its literary, artistic, and revolutionary heritage; as the former
capital of India, it was the birthplace of modern Indian literary and artistic
thought. Kolkata has been called the "City of Furious, Creative Energy" as well as
the "cultural [or literary] capital of India".] The presence of paras, which are
neighbourhoods that possess a strong sense of community, is characteristic of
Kolkata. Typically, each para has its own community club and, on occasion, a
playing field. Residents engage in addas, or leisurely chats, that often take the
form of freestyle intellectual conversation. The city has a tradition of political
graffiti depicting everything from outrageous slander to witty banter and
limericks, caricatures, and propaganda.
Think of festivals, think of Kolkata! Festivals in Kolkata are all
about celebrations, mirth and ceremony. The city absorbing a
population of over 13 million Bengalis, come alive during the
festive season. For the young as well as the old, its time for party as
well as celebration. The festivals that are rejoiced in Kolkata are
typified by food, fanfare, noise, religious hymns and processions.
The streets are choked by the huge mob of Kolkatans who walk
out of their respective residences, kitchens and are all set to be a
part of the festive mood. And the greatest festival in Kolkata being
the Durga Puja. Other important festivals are Kali Puja, Saraswati
Puja, Christmas, New Year, Holi, Diwali and the famous Kolkata
In Kolkata alone more than two thousand pandals are set up, all clamouring for
the admiration and praise of the populace.NThe city is adorned with lights.
People from all over the country visit the city at this time, and every night is one
mad carnival where thousands of people go 'pandal-hopping' with their friends
and family. Traffic comes to a standstill, and indeed, most people abandon their
vehicles to travel by foot after a point. A special task force is deployed to control
law and order. This is the best time to visit Kolkata, unless you are
Here I would love to quote from an article by Vir Sanghvi on Kolkata and Durga
“The essence of Puja is that all the passions of Bengal converge:
emotion, culture, the love of life, the warmth of being together, the joy of
celebration, the pride in artistic expression and yes, the cult of the goddess.
It may be about religion. But is about much more than just worship. In which
other part of India would small, not particularly well-off localities, vie with each
other to produce the best pandals? Where else could puja pandals go beyond
religion to draw inspiration from everything else?
In the years I lived in Calcutta, the pandals featured Amitabh Bachchan, Princes
Diana and even Saddam Hussain! Where else would children cry with the sheer
emotional power of Dashami, upset that the Goddess had left their homes? Where
else would the whole city gooseflesh when the dhakis first begin to beat their
drums? Which other Indian festival - in any part of the country - is so much about
food, about going from one roadside stall to another, following your nose as it trails
the smells of cooking?
To understand Puja, you must understand Calcutta. And to understand
Calcutta, you must understand the Bengali. It’s not easy.
Certainly, you can’t do it till you come and live here, till you let Calcutta suffuse your
being, invade your bloodstream and steal your soul. But once you have, you’ll love
Calcutta forever. Wherever you go, a bit of Calcutta will go with you. I know, because
it’s happened to me. And every Puja, I am overcome by the magic of Bengal. It’s a
feeling that’ll never go away.
A man in Delhi once asked me "What is so special about Durga Puja In Kolkata? It's
just as big as Diwali is here in the North''. I simply smiled and replied 'You have no
You can take the craze of Diwali in Delhi, Christmas in London, Summer Carnival
in Rio de Janeiro, Valentine's day in Paris and then add it to the month long
madness of Olympic Games or the World Cup and cram all that into a span of 5 days
and you still wouldn't know what you are missing if you haven't been in Kolkata
during Durga Puja".
THE BOOK FAIR!
The Calcutta Book Fair (or Kolkata Boi Mela) is unique and is the
world's largest non-trade annual book fair. Held on the Milan Mela
grounds, this fair attracts over 600 stalls, selling over Rs 18 crores
worth of books and attracting close to 500,000 visitors every year.
Started in 1975 by the Publishers' and Booksellers' Guild, it has
rapidly become one of the world's leading book fairs. It has a
Monmarte with budding poets and artists, an annual theme country
with authors visiting the fair as chief guests, a fairground experience
complete with candyfloss and hawkers, but most importantly, it
provides a place to view more than a million new and used book
titles at one go—a larger book conglomerate than any Barnes &
Noble or Borders superstore. It starts on the last Wednesday of
January, and continues for twelve days, including two weekends.
PLACES TO VISIT
The incredible Victoria Memorial is a vast, beautifully proportioned festival of
white marble: think US Capitol meets Taj Mahal. Had it been built for a beautiful
Indian princess rather than a dead colonial queen, this would surely be
considered one of India’s greatest buildings. It was designed to commemorate
Queen Victoria’s 1901 diamond jubilee
This ancient Kali temple is Kolkata’s holiest spot for Hindus and possibly the source
of the city’s name. Today’s version, a 1809 rebuild, has floral- and peacock-motif
tiles that look more Victorian than Indian. More interesting than the architecture
are the jostling pilgrim queues that snake into the main hall to fling hibiscus
flowers at a crowned, three-eyed Kali image. There’s no need to join them to feel the
atmosphere. Behind the bell pavilion but still within the mandir complex, goats are
ritually beheaded (generally mornings) to honour the ever-demanding
goddess, or, as a local guide described it, to buy ‘God power’. To the direct east is a
pea-green ‘holy pond’ and just by the north perimeter a ‘tree of fertility’.
The heart of this vibrant riverside complex is a cream-and-red 1847 Kali
Temple shaped like an Indian Sacré-Coeur. The site is where Ramakrishna
started his remarkable spiritual journey, and his small room in the outer
northwest corner of the temple precinct is now a place of special meditative
The largest cricket stadium in India and third-largest in the world by
seating capacity, it is widely acknowledged to be one of the most iconic
cricket stadiums in the world. Eden Gardens has been called cricket's
answer to the Colosseum.
Howrah Bridge is a 705m-long abstraction of steel cantilevers and traffic
fumes. Built during WWII, it’s one of the world’s busiest bridges and one of
Kolkata’s greatest architectural icons. Photography of the bridge is technically
prohibited but you might sneak a discreet shot from one of the various ferries
that ply the Hooghly River to the vast 1906 Howrah train station.
And many more……
MAACHH, MISHTI AND MORE…
Fish is the dominant kind of protein in Bengali cuisine and is cultivated in
ponds and fished with nets in the freshwater rivers of the Ganges Delta.
Almost every part of the fish (except scales, fins, and innards) is eaten; unlike
other regions, the head is particularly preferred. Other spare bits of the fish are
usually used to flavour curries and dals.
There are numerous ways of cooking fish, depending on the texture, size, fat
content and the bones. It could be fried, cooked in roasted, a simple spicy
tomato or ginger based gravy (jhol), or mustard based with green chillies
(shorshe batar jhaal), with posto, with seasonal vegetables, steamed, steamed
inside of plantain or butternut squash leaves, cooked
with doi (curd/yogurt), with sour sauce, with sweet sauce or even the fish made
to taste sweet on one side, and savoury on the other. Ilish is said be cooked in
108 distinct ways.
Sweets occupy an important place in the diet of Bengalis and at their social
ceremonies. It is an ancient custom among both Hindu and Muslim Bengalis to
distribute sweets during festivities. The confectionery industry has flourished
because of its close association with social and religious ceremonies.
Competition and changing tastes have helped to create many new sweets, and
today this industry has grown within the country as well as all over the world.
The sweets of Bengal are generally made of sweetened cottage cheese
(chhena), unlike the use of khoa (reduced solidified milk) in Northern India.
Additionally, flours of different cereals and pulses are used as well. Some
important sweets of Bengal are:
Ahh.. This is a never ending list..
I can go on writing about this city, the city I was born in, the city I love.
There are a lot of other things which could have been included in this
presentation, but sadly, due to lack of time I have to end it here.
Truly called the City of Joy, one can easily fall in love with Calcutta.
I love you Calcutta!