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Travel
September 11, 2019

Just Passing Through Kolkata

Photographs by Neal Bhaumik

As Shreya Ila Anasuya revisits the city that she once knew so well, she takes us on a tour that highlights the multicultural make-up of various quarters in Bengal’s capital…

Over time, a city becomes rooted in the public imagination through its cultural heirlooms — ones that have become synonymous with a visit. The city of Kolkata is no different; a casual brush with it will bring up the same places of interest over and over again. There is merit in exploring these spots (that are often dismissed as tourist traps and omitted from itineraries) and experiencing what the city is well-known for, particularly the intensely diverse and consistently delicious food. But unlike other major Indian cities, what isn’t always acknowledged about Kolkata is the diversity of its population — from Anglo-Indian, Jewish, Armenian and Chinese communities, to those from every corner of the Subcontinent. There is an opportunity to taste some of this remarkable variety even on a quick trip. Here are a few worthwhile attractions….

The Hooghly and Mullick Ghat Flower Market, Strand Road

A ferry across the Hooghly River is one of Kolkata’s more famous pleasures and it is available from several spots, including a short walk away from the Sibtainabad Imambara, though the most popular one is by Prinsep Ghat on Strand Road.

Private boats, too, are available, and they take people much closer to venues such as the absolutely lush botanical gardens on the outskirts of the city or the Mullick Ghat Flower Market, one of the largest markets of its kind in the country. It is a riot of colour — from fiery marigold strings to white-and-red rose-and-jasmine garlands and from loose sunflowers to bunches of orchids, you’ll find all kinds of blooms here.

Sibtainabad Imambara, Metiabruz

In 1856, Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, was deposed by the British and came to Calcutta. Shah was known for his love of the arts and was seen as a decadent, ineffectual ruler by the colonisers. While his mother and brother left for England to petition Queen Victoria to return his throne, Shah’s physician deemed him unfit for the long voyage. The exiled king set about building a second Lucknow in Metiabruz (a neighbourhood in the southwestern part of the city), where he received several properties overlooking the Hooghly. Of this history, very little survives, most notably this gorgeous heritage site, which Shah had built in the image of the Sibtainabad Imambara in his beloved Hazratganj in Lucknow.

The Imambara is well-preserved, and the tombs of Shah and several of his descendants are always covered in fresh, fragrant rose and jasmine. On display are several artefacts, including a copy of the Quran written by hand, said to have been created by Shah himself. Old-world chandeliers hang from the ceilings and the guest book is filled with comments from moved visitors — who unfortunately, judging by the dates scribbled in the book, are few and far between.

Zakaria Street, Chitpur

Kolkata’s erstwhile design was, in one particular way, stark in its brutal simplicity. The city was divided into two halves — ‘White Town’, where the white colonisers lived and worked, and ‘Black Town’, where Bengalis lived. This binary does no justice to the actual diversity of the city’s populace, filled as it was (and continues to be) with communities from all over India and beyond. Zakaria Street in Chitpur, of the former ‘Black Town’, is a heady mix of history, architecture and culinary delights in the form of the city’s most delicious Mughlai fare, especially popular during Ramzan. It is said that each eatery boasts a secret family recipe, which has been passed down through the ages but is never revealed to the passing stranger.

The city’s biggest, most beautiful mosque, Nakhoda Masjid, looms over Zakaria Street. Try also to locate Salim Manzil on Chitpur Road, where the celebrated courtesan and gramophone star Gauhar Jaan once lived.

St John’s Church, Government Place

There is much to recommend about the visit to one of Kolkata’s oldest churches, built in the image of London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields — quiet grounds, with a lovely structure housing historical artefacts like a painting by the German neoclassical artist Johann Zoffany and a viceregal chair. There is a grave at the entrance, dedicated by a grieving widow to her beloved husband, Peter Pan.

Wife of Charles Canning, the Governor General and Viceroy of India, Lady Canning’s memorial lies here, and Job Charnock of the British East India Company, who combined three villages to form the city of Calcutta is entombed here as well. But, the real place of interest is a discreet memorial, at the very back of the premises, to Frances Johnson or Begum Johnson, who outlived four husbands and died at the ripe old age of 89. The memorial lists her many marriages and the birth of her children and proclaims her ‘….the oldest British resident in Bengal, universally beloved, respected and revered’ while neatly sidestepping the question of whether the venerable Begum was poisoning her bothersome spouses.

Indian Coffee House and Paramount Sherbats & Syrups, College Street

The coffee is sticky and too sweet, and the sandwiches can sometimes be dry, but there is an undeniable old-world charm to the Indian Coffee House in the city’s university district that makes up for all that it lacks in culinary prowess. Spread over two floors, it is known for being a space that the city’s foremost intellectuals — among them the celebrated poet and thinker Rabindranath Tagore, practically a deity in Bengal — regularly visited.

Revolutionaries hatched plans against the British at Paramount Sherbats & Syrups, close to the Indian Coffee House. As small as the Coffee House is expansive, Paramount is a great place to step into once you’re done browsing through the millions of books available for education and enjoyment all over College Street — or if you just need a bit of a break.

Old and New Chinatown

Kolkata is home to India’s only Chinatown. Unlike many other places of interest in this city, Tangra (New Chinatown) doesn’t immediately impress with its appearance. In fact, it is only during certain occasions, like the Chinese New Year, that the space announces itself in a huge, public way. But political and economic troubles chip away at the continuously dwindling Chinese population in the city — much has been published about this precious neighbourhood getting smaller as a result.

All is not yet lost. Efforts are being made to preserve its unique culture, from the churches and clubs to the daily morning Chinese newspaper that is published by a local press.

However, if you’re looking to sample a traditional Chinese breakfast, it’s best to head to Tiretti Bazaar (Old Chinatown) at the break of dawn and experience an hour or two of stillness, before the city descends upon the streets and all is chaos.

Magen David Synagogue and Nahoum and Sons, New Market

There is more than one place on this list that will make the visitor feel like they have, with one step, gone back at least a hundred years. Perhaps the most potent of these time-travel experiences is to be had at the Magen David Synagogue, which is only accessible to those who get a special permission slip from one of the city’s oldest bakeries, the Jewish-owned Nahoum and Sons, a tourist attraction in its own right.

The synagogue, built in the late 1800s, has an impressive clock tower, but the real delight of the visit lies in stepping inside and marvelling at its impossibly high ceilings and quiet grandeur. The city’s Jewish community may have reduced to only a few families, but this magnificent place of worship still stands as a testament to their presence in the former colonial capital.

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