Posted November 7, 2008 by Rahul Aggarwal

After omelette and toast in the garden, I set off with my guide for the day to ‘Imperial Kolkata’, the main area where the British had built most of its grandiose buildings. I had heard from many travellers that out of the major Indian cities, Kolkata had the most character and I was starting to see why.

Kolkata had been the former capital of British India, and as a result a lot of the architecture resembled that of 19th and early 20th century Britain. This is perhaps the only city in India which has a functioning but creaking tram system and parts of the skyline of Old Kolkata are dotted with colonial reminders.

When people think of Kolkata, the first image that often comes to mind is poverty. Needless to say this does exist, but it is unfortunately commonplace in all Indian cities. Perhaps the main reason for this notion amongst Westerners is the media coverage of Mother Teresa’s selfless work providing care for the poorest of India’s poor. I was eager to see her ‘Missionary of Charity’ to learn a bit more about her and the work she started in Kolkata. Originally from Skopje (formerly part of Albania, but now Macedonia), she lived in absolute simplicity which was apparent from the set up of the missionary. One of the rooms has a very informative gallery of her life and her tomb lies in the centre of the room, which is visited by other nuns and the general public who pay respect on a daily basis. The missionary is run by volunteers from around the world who continue her good work.

Despite her immense popularity for the noble work she carried out, there are those who also criticise her for the often negative connotations of Kolkata and there are others who go further and accuse her of religious imperialism. Personally, I wouldn’t go so far as the latter, but I can understand how the media’s portrayal of her has led to an unfairly one-sided perception of this city.

From there I headed on to the imperial part of Kolkata. The roads are afloat with a sea of funky yellow Ambassador cabs, introduced by the British and still produced in India! No visit to Kolkata is complete without a visit to the Victoria Memorial, and it really is something truly breathtaking. The Lonely Planet is spot-on when it describes it as a cross between the US Capitol building and the Taj Mahal. As the name suggests, it was built as a memorial to Queen Victoria, despite her never visiting these shores. From the outside it is a majestic white structure surrounded by tropical greenery, and inside there is a very impressive gallery of Kolkata depicting the transitions this city has gone through, before, during and after British colonial rule.

Bengal used to be one state before the British divided it into two states, West and East Bengal. At the time of Paritition in 1947, East Bengal became East Pakistan and in 1971, Bangladesh. Kolkata was the original settling post of the British, under the auspices of the East India Company and it was from here that Indian raw materials were taken out of India and expensive British imports flooded India. Since West Bengal had been at the forefront of colonial rule, it was no surprise that there was a lot of political agitation in Kolkata, and in 1911, the British felt this was too much and shifted the capital inland to more stable Delhi.

OK, history lesson over! Moving on from the Memorial, I visited St John’s Church, the High Court (from outside) and then the somewhat bizarre Marble Palace. The building is very grand and contains the prized collection of a wealthy Indian businessman, which consists of an eclectic mix of art, chandeliers, furniture and massive mirrors. We then went on to the backstreets of Kumartuli which is where grand statues of Hindu deities are made – some are used for local puja festivals and many are also exported. It was amazing to see how these were made, first from straw, then covered and detailed in clay, and then left to set before finally being painted.

Later in the evening, I met up with Randeep at a bar in the Broadway Hotel, and he was joined by 2 Aussies and a British guy by the name of John who was also staying at our guesthouse. The 2 Australians had actually been living in Kolkata for the past 12 years and had started walking tours showing the hidden side of this city. Immediately I thought this would be ideal for our tours as well and Randeep spoke highly of his experience on the walk. After a few beers and a good chat, John and I pencilled in Nov 5 for our walking trip. Before that though, I am off to the Sunderbans tomorrow, the world’s largest mangrove forest. It should be an amazing contrast to the frenzy of Kolkata. I can’t wait!

This blog is part of an Off-The-Beaten-Track Travel Diary. Click on the links below to navigate through this journey.

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