It is The City of Joy, the home of Mother Teresa, the intellectual and cultural capital of India, and I hadn’t been to Kolkata yet. Clearly, this had to be remedied, so last spring, since I was traveling in India already to visit more remote locations, I decided to finally plan a visit to this intriguing city.
Seeing Kolkata is like seeing a city that had three different lives in the relatively recent past. First, Kolkata, then known as Calcutta, was the seat of power of the British Raj. This endowed the city with a European feel: beautiful colonial-era buildings, parks, and large avenues. It also imparted the city with a cosmopolitan flair as Calcutta drew immigrants from around the world. To this day, Kolkata boasts beautiful synagogues, an Armenian church, small Chinese Buddhist temples, a stunning Portuguese church, and a few Parsi temples, all a testament to the various ethnic communities that once blossomed here. In its second iteration, Kolkata went through tumultuous times and economic stagnation. Evidence of this period is still all too plentiful, as overpopulation led local residents to take over abandoned buildings and wide sidewalks and turn them into small businesses or dwellings for large extended families. In its third and current life, Kolkata is experiencing a rebirth of sorts. New information technologies and manufacturing having brought some signs of economic vitality to the city, as evidenced by the emergence of shopping malls and new suburbs. To fully enjoy Kolkata, one has to embrace all three personalities as they are each an integral part of this enthralling city.
As always, I tried to explore areas that are not considered tourist highlights, since as I am drawn to people more than landmarks. With the help of two phenomenal guides, Rahul and Ritwick, I managed to sample a few of the many colorful Kolkata neighborhoods. For this first post, I have selected images from these various neighborhoods and in a second post, I will focus on Kolkata’s famous hand-pulled rickshaws as well as a small group of potters that we discovered by chance.
As the city sits on the banks of the Hooghly River, there are a lot of activities on the ghats (embankments) that we visited early one morning. To get to a ghat near the iconic Howrah Bridge, we walked through the blindly colourful Mullik Ghat flower market. Nearby, we noticed a small gym where young men are trained in traditional Kushti wrestling. The trainers (gurus) were warming up using weights that look like juggling pins but weigh many kilos. The trainers and some of their trainees then kindly agreed to demonstrate their impressive wrestling skills, which they practice in a sandpit. Leading to the ghats are also a number of beautiful buildings that the local people have made their own, but one can still see traces of their past splendor. In one of them, we found a small temple where a priest was interrupting his music performance from time to time to give blessings passersby.
The early morning was also a good time to see the city waking up, with a priest giving blessings to shops on the street, a man delivering live chickens tied by their feet to his bike, men making sweets to sell at the temple, a young boy being blessed and what may be the most ornate barbershop in India. Later in the day, we explored the Kumartuli area where talented kumar (sculptors) work on giant god effigies that are used for Kolkata’s colorful festivals. The area is full of old statues that are waiting to be reborn.
A second day took us to the area of the Kalighat temple dedicated to the fearless goddess Kali, an important deity of Kolkata. Around the temple is a very lively market area with many shops, but it is also a neighborhood where lots of people live and work. Nearby is also Mother Teresa’s House of the Dying. The last two images were taken of a man standing right in front of the House and will stay with me for a very long time.