The train ride from Gaya conveniently pulled into Kolkata's vast Howrah station in late afternoon. Two European travelers and I got a taxi and rumbled across the 705-meter Howrah Bridge over the Houghly River's muddy waters. Next our taxi, a black and yellow Ambassador of a venerable 1950s British design, lurched through heavy traffic of central Kolkata to Sudder Street, the most popular traveler's enclave. I got a discounted room ($8) in the Plaza Hotel, the place where I had stayed on my last two Kolkata visits, then headed over to the Blue Sky Cafe for dinner.
Although this was my fifth visit to this Bengali city of about 15 million, I had not yet visited many of the major sights. One Sunday a taxi took me across the elegant Vidyasagar Setu, a high suspension bridge over the Houghly, to the Botanical Gardens. In the early days after the garden's founding in 1786, the British experimented with tea plants from China before the beverage became popular in this part of the world. Now botanical research seems to have ended and the gardens serve as a vast recreation area. I enjoyed strolling the paved paths beneath giant trees, rows of palms, past clumps of dense bamboo, and along the west bank of the Houghly River. Small lakes dot the landscape, and the largest has pedal boats for rent. Many trees have signs with their Latin names, and the 250-year-old banyan tree on the west side of the gardens is the most popular of all.
Back to nature in the Botanical Gardens
The Great Banyan Tree (Ficus benghalensis) is the most famous sight in the Botanical Gardens.
Although the central trunk of this 250-year-old tree rotted out and was removed in 1925,
the 2880 propagation roots have enabled it to spread out so that it's now 1.08 kilometers in circumference!
Palm patterns in the Botanical Gardens
Picturesque ruins add character to the Botanical Gardens.
The Hooghly River glides past the Botanical Gardens.
From the Botanical Gardens, I took Bus 55 back on a route that followed the Grand Trunk Road through Howrah, the part of Kolkata west of the Houghly. Shophouses hemmed in the busy, traffic-clogged not-so-grand road. A Muslim section had decorations out for the Prophet Mohammed's birthday. Finally the bus turned off on an elevated road past the Howrah train station and headed over the Howrah Bridge to a terminus at Esplanade near the center. Sundays make for the most pleasant travel through Kolkata as traffic tends to be light; on other days traffic jams can make travel through the center very tedious.
A bit farther south, I caught the last night of the three-day Sufi Sutra Festival, held at an outdoor stage on Cathedral Road, across from the Academy of Fine Arts. First a large group from Egypt performed, followed by a smaller ensemble from Kashmir. Lastly, musicians from all eight groups (Egypt, Hungary, Syria, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Denmark, Kashmir and West Bengal) joined together for rousing songs.
Sufi musicians of many nationalities assemble for the final songs of the three-day Sufi Sutra Festival.
Kolkata's top sight has to be the Victoria Memorial, not so much for the memory of the queen herself, but the beauty of the white marble building and the wealth of history and art inside. Exhibits use early paintings and drawings to tell the story of Kolkata's beginnings as a trading post, then growth into a great city and capital of British India and finally the rise of Bengali artists, thinkers, and leaders. Except for the odd statue of Victoria and other British royals, there's very little about the queen unless one looks up inside the central dome to see murals of major events in her life. The museum has a strict NO PHOTOGRAPHY rule inside, but I enjoyed a stroll in the surrounding gardens for different perspectives and photos of the building.
The Victoria Memorial, crowned by the Angel of Victory, is one of India's prettiest buildings.
Lord Curzon conceived and promoted the idea of a memorial in 1901, and the queen's grandson,
the Prince of Wales (later King George V), laid the foundation stone five years later. It opened in 1921.
East across Cathedral Road from the memorial, I dropped into St. Paul's Cathedral to admire the spacious interior and read some of the memorials of gallant soldiers and notable citizenry. Again, no photos allowed inside, so you'll have to go and see for yourself. Just south of the cathedral is a cluster of theaters where I caught some Bengali music. I later returned a couple times to see the varied contemporary painting and photography exhibits at the Academy of Fine Arts.
The 1847 St. Paul's Cathedral has many memorials inside from the British era.
One morning I headed to the north side of town, burrowing underground on the Metro to avoid sluggish surface traffic, to the 1914 Digambar Jain Mandir. White marble, gilt, and brightly colored paintings filled the interior. Luckily I was able to take some photos, see below.
Gardens surround the Digambar Jain Mandir in north Kolkata.
This curious lighthouse-like tower stands in front of the temple entrance.
Statues of Jain saints face the four directions from the enclosures.
A detail of Jain saints in one of the shorter towers. They are “sky-clad.”
The main shrine in the temple's dazzling interior honors the 23rd tirthankara, Parswanath (877-777 B.C.).
This painting high on the wall in the Jain temple caught my eye because of its similarity to the story of the Buddha's
conception, when his mother dreamed of a white elephant. Both Jain and Buddhist religions began about 2600 years ago.
On another day, I visited a trio of Jain temples clustered close together. Why three temples of the same religion were built in the same neighborhood, I don't know, but each temple has a very different architectural style from its neighbors. I first went into the mirrored interior of the 1867 Sheetalnathji Jain Mandir, decorated on the outside with curious spires that are reminiscent of idiosyncratic Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi. The temple honors Bhagavan Sheetalnathji, the 10th tirthankara.
The gardens in front of Sheetalnathji Jain Mandir (left) are a popular evening gathering spot. That's a guesthouse on the right.
This man has gotten into a tight spot. Glass and tile work decorate the temple's interior and exterior.
Just to the east, I walked through a well-decorated gate to the 1810 Dadaji Jain Mandir, which my guidebook described as sedate, but today was jumping to wedding music. Guests filled the covered courtyard with men and women sitting on separate sides, chatting, and listening to the music. Sundays are the time for Jain weddings, I was told. Lastly, I entered the adjacent Sri Sri Channa Probhuji Mandir to see its well-decorated interior.
Across a lane, this grand gate leads to Dadaji Jain Mandir, oddly shaped like a tomb.
But the temple certainly didn't have a tomb-like atmosphere. It was rocking to wedding music!
Next door, the Sri Sri Channa Probhuji Mandir was peaceful and nearly deserted.
Also hidden away in north part of town, I searched out the Ashutosh Museum of Indian Art in the Kolkata University campus to see the ancient stone sculpture, bronzes, and Bengali folk art on two floors.
Besides sightseeing, I had the business to attend to of getting a visa for Thailand. Indians like to visit Bangkok and Phuket on holidays, but seem to face greater scrutiny than Western nationalities by Thai consular officials. I headed over to the Thai consulate on the southeast side of Kolkata, filled out the form, wrote a letter requesting a tourist visa, assured staff that I had sufficient funds in credit cards, ATM cards, and travelers checks, and gave copies of my tickets in and out of Thailand. The application process took more than an hour, and I was relieved when everything was accepted and I was told to come back the next morning. The visa cost a stiff $40, but would allow the 60 days that I wished.
Near the Thai consulate, I visited CIMA (Centre for International Modern Art) to see the lively and varied contemporary art. Some of the art looked familiar because CIMA had a show that I had seen in New Delhi a couple weeks earlier. The friendly museum director told me about hidden meanings in some of the paintings and sculptures and her thoughts on pieces that the artists were mum about. She also recommended several Bengali restaurants in the area, so I set out to the nearby 6 Ballygunge Place, which was both the name and address of a restored mansion. Bengali food has a very different flavor from other Indian cuisines, and I didn't recognize any of the names of the dishes. Bengalis tend not to be vegetarians, but they do love vegetables. The restaurant had six main dishes out on the buffet table, three vegetarian and three non-veg., along with rice, chutney, and sweets. When I told staff that I preferred vegetarian food, they brought out three additional vegetarian dishes. The food was good despite the unfamiliar flavors.
Sometimes local artists open their studios to the public, and I got to visit two of their shows. A woman artist, who specialized in stylized portraits with unexpected colors, displayed her show in rooms of her contemporary home/studio in a very nice part of the city near the Birla Mandir; she and a friend invited me for tea and a chat. I dropped by the very personal exhibit Night Watch, appropriately at night, to see two floors of very strange things in an old mansion; big steel boxes had shutters that slowly opened and closed to reveal scenes of forest leaves on the ground; another room had eerie semi-abstract nature photos dangling near the floor from long strings; video exhibits were just as bizarre with strange slow moving scenes taken in gardens and forests.
The late-20th-century Birla Mandir temple, just south of CIMA, honors all the Hindu gods, but the highest tower shelters sweet images of flute-playing Krishna and his devoted consort Radha. Around the corner on the south side of the temple, I descended into the GD Birla Sabhagar, a theater underneath the temple for fine performances of Hindustani classical music in a three-day festival. Each day had a double feature.
Lord Krishna and his consort Radha reside under the highest tower of the Birla Mandir.
In an auditorium underneath the Birla Mandir, Kaushiki Chakrabarty sings beautiful songs. Samar Saha plays
tabla on the left and Rupashree Bhattacharya is on the harmonium (a hand-pumped keyboard) on the right.
The long-necked tampura have only three strings and provide a background drone.
On another day, more art—I strolled along the north shore of Rabindra Sarovar on the south side of Kolkata and crossed a field to the Birla Academy of Art & Culture. This large museum has some of everything, and I most enjoyed the well-displayed ancient stone sculptures and miniature paintings. Much of the modern art looked faded and had less appeal, though some pieces were intriguing. Local student artists also had an exhibition of paintings.
Also in the south, I visited the famous Kali Temple at Kalighat. Before reaching the temple, a guide “adopted” me and swept me inside past a long line of devotees to the main image of Kali, a black face with three big eyes and protruding red tongue. Her incarnation here is believed to be blood thirsty, and an unfortunate goat just outside the main temple was beheaded with a single stroke of a large knife. I was told that in the main annual festival a buffalo would be sacrificed here. Meat from sacrifices is then cooked and served to devotees in the afternoon. As is usual for Hindu temples, lots of shops in and around the temple compound sell red powder (Kali's favorite color) and all sorts of trinkets, fruit, and sweets to offer to Kali. My guide pulled out a (fake) donation book and suggested that I make a huge donation to the temple as other foreigners had done before, but this is an old scam and I was generous to give a small donation to the temple.
The Kali temple at Kalighat is the most sacred place for Hindus of Kolkata and may have been the source of the city's name.
Tilework decorates the interior and exterior of the current building, which dates from 1809.
This is the temple tank for washing, and the higher level is a gathering spot for devotees to take an afternoon meal.
This boy's hair will be offered to Kali. I was told that the woman had earlier come to the temple for
a blessing to have a child, and now she was returning in gratitude with her son to make the offering.
From Kalighat I walked past a very picturesque old jail from the early 20th
century, but was afraid to take a photo of it as Indians are very touchy about
security. I stopped for a quick look at the National Library, then found my way
to the Horticultural Gardens. Here, compared with the Botanical Gardens, the
emphasis is on flowers and small plants, though a few old trees towered high
above. I was lucky to time my visit with the Annual Flower Show, a huge event. Indoor exhibits featured floral arrangements including a tableau of scenes from Krishna stories depicted in flowers. The vast bonsai
display area had many very ancient looking yet very tiny trees; miniature banyan
trees were especially popular here. Outdoor displays had cacti, succulents,
roses, and exceedingly colorful displays of ornamental arrangements.
Colors of the Annual Flower Show, sponsored by the Agri-Horticultural Society of India
Anthuriums came in a rainbow of colors at the Flower Show. The name comes from Greek anthos (flower) + oura (tail).
A scene from the Floral Drama, Lord Krishna, at the Flower Show
Orchids were showiest of all, of course. Sexy too, as the name is
based on the Greek orkhis (testicle, in reference to the shape of its tuber)!
Photographers fluttered around the bonsai.
Finally, after 12 days in Kolkata, it was time to leave. Weather had been delightful with sunshine and near-perfect temperatures until my last day when light rains fell. Also on the last day, breathing the city's dirty air had given me a slight cold and I had picked up an intestinal infection. An old taxi took me on the slow ride weaving around dense traffic and potholes to the airport, where I checked in for my Air Asia flight. One of these days the authorities will replace the dilapidated international terminal, but it's far quieter and less crowded than one would expect at one of India's largest cities.
On to Thailand