It has been a clear day most of the way from Bangalore. As we approach Kolkata by a final descent, I see the city coming into view through parting clouds. No matter what people may say of this congested city, from the air it has a romance of its own, particularly in the suburbs. I see patchworks of brown and green fields. Ponds are enclosed by man-made embankments, sometimes surrounded neatly by village houses. Occasionally I see smoking chimneys of brick kilns, the first signs of pollution. Few seconds later, the river Hooghly, though murky, glimmers in the morning sun. Roads and railways appear in an immense network of intersections and turns. The plane circles in the air for a good five minutes for landing space and in the process I get a good view of entire Kolkata.
The flight is on time. I pick up my backpack and walk out to the entrance lobby. A tourist office of the West Bengal Government stands to the far left. I walk in trying to find some information about the Sundarbans. The woman at the counter doesn’t say a word. She simply hands me a brochure that gives details of a tour operated by the department to the region. I am not interested in tours. Her service is bad. She is not interested to give me the information I require.
I take a bus to Ultadanga because I wish to go to the Arunachal Pradesh office to apply for a permit. Before that a good lunch is in order. I sit at a restaurant and look at the menu. The fried rice section reads interestingly,
Veg. Fried Rice
Egg Fried Rice
Chicken Fried Rice
Mutton Fried Rice
Prawn Fried Rice
Human Fried Rice
This is clearly a typo for Hunan Fried Rice. I settle for the vegetarian option and the bill comes out to Rs. 74. I take an auto-rickshaw to the office of Arunachal Pradesh, finish my business there, take a bus to Sealdah, walk around and eventually find a room at the Hotel Savoy. This is an old establishment, run by a non-Bengali family settled here for many generations from elsewhere in the country. The hotel is in colonial style with Ionic pilasters and stucco work on its facade. The room is quite basic but I like it.
The hotel is near the junction of Sashi Bhusan Dey Street and B.B. Ganguly Street. From here I can walk to Sealdah station heading east or the Chandni Chowk Metro Station to the west. Not just in this neighbourhood, Kolkata is a city of long street names named after Indian personalities. I think any historian can write a book based on just these street names alone. Surely the streets had English names in colonial times but the municipal officials have been busy renaming them to gather instant popularity. They have nothing better to do as the city grapples with traffic jams, swarming pedestrian vendors and growing slums. The divide between the rich and the poor is more obvious here than elsewhere in India.
On the day I arrive at Kolkata, I do some necessary shopping in the evening. I walk towards Sealdah station. The market here is a bustle of activity. I buy a raincoat. Lychees are in season and I buy lots of them. They are not easy to find in Bangalore. I am unable to find any decent place for dinner but left with no real choice I settle for something below my usual expectation of hygiene. The guy takes ages to serve my order and when he does I find that there is meat in it. I send it back to the kitchen. It takes another age for my vegetarian order to be served.
I am going to be in Kolkata for a few days. This is a convenient place to apply for permits to states of North-Eastern India. By first impressions, I am excited to be in this old historic city though I am not quite as sanguine about the city’s upkeep.
This is the Ramakrishna Math founded by Swami Vivekananda on the right bank of the River Hooghly. I get here by bus but due to a traffic jam, I had to get down and walk the rest of the way. It was faster. Once inside the ashram premises, the ambience is like Gandiji’s ashram at Sabarmati.
The main temple is a fantastic mix of Indian and European styles. The chaitya arch at the entrance is an inspiration from Buddhism but it seems to have been modified by Islamic pointed arches. Capitals of pillars at the entrance are like the bell capitals from Ashoka’s times. The vaulting of the main hall suggests Christian influence. So too does the main dome over the sanctum, a ribbed dome in the manner of Rome’s St Peter’s Cathedral. Many elements suggest chhaparkhats and jarokhas of ancient palaces of Hindu royalty. Brackets bearing elephants and lotus pendants closely resemble those at Amber palace.
I spend some time in the hall facing the sanctum which is housed behind a glass panel. I then walk to museum next door. The exhibits are beautifully organized and presented. This is one of the finer museums of the country. Many items belonging to saints of the Ramakrishna Order are on display. Later I walk up a flight of stairs and find myself peeping into one of the private quarters of Swami Vivekananda. His footwear lies on the floor next to his four-poster bed. Pleated cloth in saffron decorates the bed. It waves in a draft coming into the room from where I stand. A monk dressed in the same saffron is busy clean the furniture with a clean white cloth. A little later another monk comes in, prostrates in the room at nothing in particular, converses softly with the other monk and moves on.
I may be only a visitor but here is a community of monks who pray and live together. They have dedicated their lives to a cause they believe in. They have forsaken the materialistic world and embraced spirituality. They have embraced freedom.
I browse for a while in the bookshop. I buy a book on meditation with chapters written by many saints of the order. It will be a book that will keep me good company on long train journeys as I travel through the North-East. I present a thousand-rupee note for the book. Anywhere else, I would have been rudely ordered to give exact change. Not here. The monk accepta my money and gives me the change due.
I walk to the river. There is a little jetty from where boats leave infrequently. I enquire if there is any boat going to Howrah. I am not in luck. I have to return to town by the same slow buses through traffic clogged streets.
Birla Industrial & Technology Museum
In the evening I happen to pass near the Birla Mandir. It is just about to open for evening worship. Like its counterpart in Hyderbad it is an impressive structure. This one has three tall shikaras rising in curvilinear fashion.
I am halted at the steps leading into the temple by a security guard, ‘Bags are not allowed.’
‘Is there a cloak room where I can keep them?’ I ask. I look around. I don’t see any.
‘No. Bags not allowed,’ he replies quite unsympathetically. I admire the work on the friezes lining the outer water of the temple. These are simple cement decorations and lack the greatness of stone sculptures. I look at the temple from the road, snap a picture and move on.
A little further down, turning left on Gugusaday Dutta Road is the Birla Industrial & Technology Museum. It is close to closing time but I think I’ll have a quick look. A lot of school kids here are making a racket in every gallery they pass through. Many of the interactive exhibits don’t work. They have been broken by years of overuse. Maintenance could be better. The general evil rampant in most of India is this – build once, use for forever. I still like the museum for its collection of many antique items pertaining to the field of science and technology. Outside are busts dedicated to famous Indian luminaries who have contributed to various scientific fields. Despite their successes and contributions, if India is behind in technology it is only because we are not able to carry the torch forward. Scientific progress doesn’t depend on a single generation of men and women.
I walk to a nearby Metro and take a train to Kalighat Station. Approach to the temple is closed to vehicles. A police barricade has been setup for the purpose. I pass through without any security check. The temple shikara rises above a line of uninteresting shops. I am not particularly impressed either by the size or the architecture of the temple.
When I take to the inner lanes leading to the temple entrance, I am hassled by touts. I walk ignoring all of them. The closer I get to temple with empty hands the more vociferous are there pleas. One of them forces a basket of offerings into my hand.
Another grabs me by the hand and attempts to drag me to his shop. He describes the expected routine, ‘Ganga jal se hath dona hai. Prasad lena hai. Fir darshan karna hai.’
I shout at him to mind his business. You have to be firm with these guys. I deposit my boots with a guy at the entrance. I am a little skeptical but he assures me that my boots are going to be safe with him. Inside, the scenes suggest another Puri, only smaller in scale. Devotees are dragged from place to place by self-professing priests who demand outrageous amounts for their services. All they do is utter some nonsense, throw water and paint devotees’ foreheads with red marks of sindur.
‘I will show you God,’ exclaims one priest and leads his train of pilgrims towards the sanctum.
Bells by their dozens hang chained. Metallic umbrellas give shelter to the deity in the sanctum. Kalimatha looks on with a fearsome countenance. Her black face is offset by an orange protruding tongue. Her beady eyes, three of them in all, are painted similarly in a bright shade of orange. She may represent the destruction of all evil but it is easy to mistake her otherwise. I am sure no one who visits Kalighat ever thinks about what is evil and what is good? Or is it only evil that can destroy evil? Or is there something called universal evil as opposed to one man’s evil being another man’s goodness?
It’s a bright sunny morning. The Metro is quite convenient for me to get to the city center. Among the buses, some have real character. They are old models that seem to hail from pre-independent India. No, I’m just kidding but they do look old. Sash windows line the length of the bus. The window shutters are wooden. The flooring and ceiling are also wooden. In Bangalore, such buses would be in a museum.
A tall column can be seen from quite a distance. I walk past what looks like a terminal for long distance buses and walk towards the column. This is the Shahid Minar. A board says that it is maintained by the PWD. It is enclosed by a high railing. The column stands on a plinth about 30 feet high. The column itself is fluted, has two circular balconies on top and is crowned by a heavily ribbed bulbous dome. It is quite un-Indian. I can only conclude that it is as eccentric as Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square.
It turns out that this was formerly called the Ochterlony Monument, erected by the British in memory of some general by that name. After independence it has been conveniently renamed and dedicated to unknown soldiers of India. But is it soldiers of colonial India or independent India? No one really knows.
Large open spaces near this monument are busy this morning. Some boys have just arrived on the greens with their gear. You might think it is cricket but it is soccer. I watch them for a while. Kolkata is the home of India’s soccer craze. Ever since Mohan Bagan Athletic Club lifted the trophy in 1911 after defeating East Yorkshire Regiment, things have never been the same here. I might say that soccer in Bengal is as popular as cricket.
‘Do you know which way is the Indian Museum?’ I ask a man standing under a tree. One thing leads to another and we start chatting about Kolkata and my visit to this lovely city. It turns out that his son is trying out for First Division soccer. He himself works 100 kms from here in Burdwan or Bardhaman.
‘Bardhaman is number one in agriculture in all of Bengal,’ he says proudly while adding, ‘Potatoes and rice.’
He enquires about my marital status, religion, social status, job and salary. He is satisfied. I qualify. You may think it’s odd I gave him all those answers but it’s all done in the spirit of fun and trying to understand the Bengali mind.
‘I can get you a nice match here in Kolkata,’ he says. ‘They will agree. What sort of a girl are you looking for?’
‘I don’t know. Never really thought about it.’
‘I will get a simple girl. No modern things. Saree only. You cannot imagine, but such girls are there even in Kolkota and such families exist,’ he explains. I never said anything about wanting a simple girl.
‘Very exclusive,’ he says as a final remark. I wonder what this really means.
I take my leave and head towards the museum but it is still early in the day. It is not yet open. I’ll have to come back here later. I find a nice park nearby, turn the stiles and enter it.
For a place that is in central Kolkata, with the Maidan and this Elliot Park, one cannot imagine that it is the most congested city of India. The gardens here were inaugurated as recently as 2004. I wander around for a while. I pass a few walkers and joggers but otherwise I find nothing of great interest. The landscaping is ordinary.
I sit under a large spanning fig tree. Little orange fruits pop out here and there on the branches. Broad heart-shaped leaves shiver. The hour is hot but the shade gives much relief. The sun has gone behind a cloud. A soft wind blows, cooling things further. I watch the antics of crows and mynahs living on the tree. For twenty minutes I watch them. One particular mynah shows application of the little intelligence it has. It is building a nest. It weights every twig and select the most suitable ones. Sometimes it collects two or three lighter ones and transports them at once to its nest. When it wanders too far to the other side of tree, the crow is quick to defend its territory. A yellow oriole flashes by. An Indian magpie comes by a little later. Earlier I had seen a couple of drongos in the park. In the heart of Kolkata, this park is a nice green oasis for many little creatures that live here.
I am glad I took a break under this tree. In my urgency to see many places and experience many things on the road, this has been a welcome opportunity to slow things down.
This museum claims to be the ninth oldest in the world, started in 1814 and relocated to the present premises in 1878. It is an imperious building of classical look. Like many things in India, the building doesn’t look to be in good shape and seems outdated. If the curators and the management had any forward thinking, they would have fought for a modern building that is better suited to house its rich exhibits.
My initial impressions were confirmed when I found that many galleries were closed for maintenance. This ploy of long-running maintenance works is a standard in all government or government affiliated institutions. It is another means to swindle public coffers. So the grand Buddhist exhibits from Bharhut to which I had looking forward for months were denied to me.
Long corridors around a central quadrangle leads into many individual galleries. The place is vast but no clear signs and gallery summaries are displayed. Among the notable exhibits are Chola bronzes, though I think those in the National Museum at Delhi are better. Pala sculptures, Hoysala sculptures from Halebid, Kushan sculptures of early period of Indian art, Gupta art, the art of the Chandelas from Khajuraho and Amaravati sculpted panels are among the other exhibits I recall. Among the paintings are famous ones by Jamini Roy, some of which I own in my modest stamp collection. Works of Abanindranath Tagore and Rabindranath Tagore are also featured. As for the other galleries with stuffed animals and rock collections, nothing stands out. To be fair, with such a vast collection the museum demands a complete day from any visitor. A short visit is not enough to appreciate everything.
When I step out, it is pouring cats and dogs.
Victoria Memorial Hall
This is a beautiful monument not just in the building but in the park that surrounds it. Neatly manicured lawns and hedges line the paths. Clean ponds set off the greenery. Trees planted in the right places complement the grandeur of the monument. Gateways and statues on pedestals add interest everywhere. A walkway around the monument enables a visitor to get complete appreciation of the building from all angles, near and far.
Queen Victoria sits on a high throne in front of the main facade. A couple of pigeons have snugly built a nest in her warm lap. She doesn’t seem to mind this at all and seems to enjoy the constant tickling. Behind the twin pinnacles of her throne towers the main central dome. A high semi-circular arch at the entrance leads into the main portico. The corners of the building highlighted with square towers support domed kiosks and cupolas. The rest of the building is very classical in appearance but there is no severity in the scheme. Much of the credit goes to graceful curves seen in many places. Voluted brackets below the dome are graceful. By the sides are curving pillared porticos. Curves are also apparent at the intersection of projection porticos and the spanning wings behind.
Inside, there is a wonderful collection of old prints and paintings. Perhaps because I am doing this in leisure, I am enjoying this much more than my visit to the Indian Museum. Kantha is a type of embroidery popular in Bengali culture. It is used on sarees, decorative wall hangings or bedspreads. There is wonderful kantha on display here and it comes from 1891. Another thing to appreciate here are the Kalighat Paintings.
These are paintings that originated around Kalighat in the 19th century. Overtime they evolved into a distinct style. They are basically watercolours on paper, line drawings with thick colourful outlines. Initially they depicted religious themes but later started to depict everyday scenes with a emphasis on the victory of good over evil. They made a statement about the evils of society. As such, they lent their colours towards the country’s independence movement.
Among the paintings are Bengali women of beauty, known as pater bibi in these paintings. The display has a couple of fine paintings in this genre.
Kalighat paintings were part of an older folk art of Bengal called the patua. Tellers of folk tales travelled from village to village narrating scenes depicted on their colourful scroll paintings. These patuas were later influenced by the Kalighat School and Kalighat paintings came to be used as patuas but not really replacing the older and more authentic artform.
One excellent section of the museum traces the growth and development of the city of Kolkata. The entire history is beautifully presented. If it interests you, you can read every single poster and take hours to understand the rich history of the city. Everything about the city announces the beginning of modern India – the development of grand buildings along the Esplanade during the British era; the early beginning of what is today India’s postal system; the first horse-drawn trams of 1880 to the tram locomotives of 1902; the introduction of taxis in 1906 and then public buses in 1920; the first Chinese hand-drawn rickshaws coming in the 1920s and still going strong.
Then came the Bengal Renaissance with Raja Ram Mohan Roy who founded the Brahmo Samaj for the revival of Brahmanism. They stood against the long standing social evils of the country – sati, child marriage, caste system, dowry system and the ancient practice of the eccentric Churuck Puja. With such personalities including Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo Ghosh, Bipin Chandra Pal and Rabindranath Tagore, the Renaissance was the Indian version of the awakening that had spread through Europe some centuries ago. Radhakanta Deb advocated women’s education. Raja Ram Mohan Roy setup the Hindu College in 1817 with a view towards liberal scientific education. Free press and journalism was supported and under his leadership many newspapers were launched in the early part of the 19th century. William Jones, the founder of the Asiatic Society, translated works of Kalidasa for the West. In short, India was coming of age on the world stage.
Despite its achievements, the Bengal Renaissance has not had much impact in rest of India. It remained limited to the elite of society and did little to change the lives or outlook of the masses.
The Art Galleries
If art is alive anywhere in India it is here in Kolkata. Not that art doesn’t exist elsewhere in the country but elsewhere I find mostly traditional art whose forms and expressions have been established over centuries. But in Kolkata, art is new, modern and experimental. It is truly a medium of expression that continues the past but explores new ways of looking at things.
There are many galleries in town. I found myself this evening exploring some of them. Entrance is free in most of these. Paintings and sculpures of young artists are on display. The crowd is definitely not the usual band of tourists who are quick to come and go in a hurry. Visitors hang around in the galleries looking, admiring and analyzing. People stand around in passageways and corners discussing intently the finer points of art. True fans of art stand mermerized before canvases that hang on these walls. I too found many of these paintings beautiful. I can see that their inspiration comes from the works of Jamini Roy and Abanindranath Tagore, to name a couple.
I am tempted to do a sketch here but I don’t think it’s a good idea to be seen copying a work of art that’s probably for sale. I walk out and arrive at the Rabindra Sadan, a famous cultural center of the city. I enquire if there are any performances for the night. Yes, there is something happening right now but it is closed for the public. It is an annual festival of some society. Kolkata, like any other metropolis, is a city packed with clubs and societies of all kinds.
I walk out disappointed. I look around for dinner. I find a restaurant of Haldiram’s, the same guys who are famous the world around for their sweets. I order a vegetarian thali of rumali roti, vegetable kofta, daal makani and pulao. The restaurant is posh, nicely decorated and a popular place for the Indian middle class of Kolkata. The place is run like a fastfood joint. I pay up and collect a coupon. I stand in a queue to take delivery. I carry the tray to my table. No one is there to serve me water. I have to walk to a dispenser and fill up my glass. The food is superb but at Haldiram’s, gone are the good old days of table service.
I have been happily taking pictures of the Howrah Bridge until I saw a notice that announced rather officiously that photography is not allowed. Some of these rules are really silly but being an Indian I am not surprised. It does come as a surprise to a couple of foreign tourists who had not seen the sign. They have been clicking away their shutters when a policeman comes around to caution them. Disappointed, they look away at the river below thinking what I may never guess.
The bridge itself is a marvel of 20th century engineer. It is of cantilevel type with a single 450 m span. It was opened to traffic in 1943. Walking across it, the network of iron bars criss-crossing one another in all sorts of angles is quite a picture. It reminds me a little bit of the Eiffel Tower close up. Like many other things in the city, the bridge was renamed later as Rabindra Setu. The modern bridge from 1992 called the Vidyasagar Setu further downstream is just as picturesque. It is a cable-stayed bridge with its longest span of 457 m. The bridge itself 823 m long.
The scenes around Rabindra Setu are quite chaotic. In the early hours of the morning a busy flower market displays colourful varieties of flowers. Orange marigolds take centerstage. The worker classes, the homeless, the sadhus and others living in these parts gather at all times of the day under the bridge to take a dip in the river or wash their clothes. On the left bank is the famous Burrabazar, a wholesale market so huge and so confusing that it can barely be imagined.
‘You will not believe how small the shops are here,’ one guy tells me. He measures up spaces in the air with his arms. ‘Barely a single guy can sit in there. For that size, their transactions run into lakhs of rupees per day. Everything happens elsewhere in large godowns.’
I take a boat across the river to the other side, the right bank. I do not buy a ticket and no one on the boat asks me for one. In any case, I buy a ticket after completing the journey. The man at the counter is surprised. I walk to the railway station.
Howrah Railway Station
This is yet another landmark of the city. I better get familiar with it since I will be coming here again for my return to Bangalore. Anyone will tell you that the first passenger train to run in India was from Bombay to Thane in 1853. In Kolkata, some people take pride in the dubious fact that the first railway track was actually completed in Bengal. The first train was scheduled to run from here to Bardman but due to logistics, the engine arrived many months later. By then, Bombay had beat them to it for the record books. I don’t know if this story is true but it surely is an interesting one.
The building that stands today is no doubt a newer one but it is typical railway architecture. It is not the Bombay Gothic of Mumbai’s CST or the temple-like construction of Varanasi’s. It is railway architecture in its original form and facade. It was once probably a red-brick building but today it wears a red coat of paint with highlights in cream. Semi-circular arches are typical of this style. I am no expert to analyze this any further but I like what I see. The warehouses here are massive. The scenes make quite a sight – of trucks loading and unloading, of workers scurrying across like ants in and out of nests, of yellow ambassador taxis pulling up in continuous streams, of porters balancing heavy loads and of commuters rushing around.
Indian Botanic Gardens
From here I walk along the river for quite a distance. I stop at a workshop where workers are weaving cloth carpets on mechanized weaving machines. I later pass the Vidyasagar Setu. Tired, I take a bus to the Indian Botanic Gardens.
It is not a bright day. There is a light rain coming down. I walk in the rain enjoying the fresh air. I study many of the fine specimens of plants and trees. I take lots of interesting pictures. The place is huge and it is quite easy to miss parts of the gardens. I wish the guy at the ticket counter had given me a map of the place. I am not even sure if they have one for visitors.
To say the least, I am almost inspired to start my own garden. The variety of palms alone is staggering. In ponds, lotuses and water lilies bloom. Thick layers of green moss cover other ponds. Bamboos cluster thickly together and reach for great heights. Flowers unknown to me litter the pathways. Heliconias dangle amidst shades in their vibrant colours. Laburnums bloom in abandon on a particular tree. Shaded and quiet walkways are lined with fine specimens of old trees. Storks stand perched on the high bare branches of a tree across a lake. Cactuses sprout pretty flowers in the shelter of a greenhouse. A mightly canonball tree sports proudly its pretty flowers.
The fame of the gardens is the Great Banyan Tree. I am quite amazed by what I see. The tree sprawls a large area. From a distance it is almost a forest on its own. The statistics are remarkable: more than 250 years old, stands on an area of 1.5 hectares, has a circumference of 1.08 kms and has 2880 prop roots. An iron fence surrounds it and prevents people from gets close to it or climbing on to it. It does not prevent the branches from reaching out, the prop roots from taking a firm hold in the soil outside the said boundaries. A couple of these roots have become objects of worship. They bear red bots on a canvas of turmeric paste. Some of the branches are supported by iron rods in places where prop roots alone might not suffice.
I walk around searching for the main trunk. It is difficult to make it out. I learn later that the main trunk was removed in 1925. This tree represents a transformation from centralized to distributed control and responsibility. At places it looks like some parts have become independent. They are no longer connected to the greater parts of the tree. There are roots that look like trunks growing from the ground up. There are roots entwined with others. There are roots laid on top of another. This tree is a wonder.