Kolkata (Calcutta) Travel Guide
About Kolkata (Calcutta)
The capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, Kolkata is a mesmerising blend of elegant, but crumbling, Raj-era architecture, graceful gardens, crowded marketplaces, flower-bedecked temples and mammoth civic monuments.
Delhi may be the political capital of India, and Mumbai the financial hub, but Kolkata is India's cultural heart and a major centre of literature, spirituality, music and cinema. This is, after all, the hometown of national poet Rabindranath Tagore, revered guru Ramakrishna, sitar master Ravi Shankar and legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
Although its problems of overpopulation and poverty are well documented, modern Kolkata – known as Calcutta until 2001 - is far from the depressing slum depicted in many Western novels. Sprawling along the east edge of the huge Maidan Park, the streets of the city centre are dotted with graceful monuments and grand civic squares built by the British but renamed in honour of freedom fighters in the years since Independence.
Nevertheless, the bustees (squatter settlements) upstream and downstream from Howrah Bridge (which spans the Hooghly River, linking downtown to the city's main train station at Howrah) are a powerful reminder of the inequality that has dogged the city throughout its history. Volunteers still flock to the charitable foundations established by Mother Theresa hoping to make a difference.
Most travellers base themselves around the New Market, close to the impressive Indian Museum and Kolkata's signature monument, the gleaming Victoria Memorial, whose hybrid, east-meets-west architecture falls somewhere between London's St Paul's Cathedral and the Taj Mahal.
Perhaps the most fascinating areas to explore, however, are the bustling bazaars along Rabindra Sarani and the alleyways of Kumartuli, where sculptors create the thousands of idols of the goddess Kali that are ritually immersed in the Hooghly during the riotous Durga Puja festival each September or October.
For many travellers, Kolkata is the gateway to eastern India, a leaping-off point for trips to Darjeeling, the eastern Himalaya and the tiger-stalked waterways of the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. Nevertheless, almost everyone spends a few days roaming the streets of the Bengali capital, soaking up its atmosphere of faded grandeur.