I know it has been some time since I posted, and I can only attribute that to being in a bad funk, where I just didn’t feel like writing. So I guess it is not very surprising that this post is about a trip I made to the city of Kolkata (also known as Calcutta) in West Bengal, in the month of November. Also, it is not surprising that my funk was finally broken on another trip, in Nepal. Yes, I am writing this post, about one of the oldest cities in India, sitting in a small district in North-West Nepal, surrounded by the Himalayan Range. Though I am sure I will be able to post this only once I am back in Delhi, since I can’t seem to get the internet on my system to work.
The trip to Kolkata is one of the rare trips I undertake for personal reasons, with my work related travel taking up most of my time. This trip however, was personal for lots of reasons, the most important one being that I was travelling for the wedding of one of my mother’s cousin. An aunt I dare say I hadn’t met or interacted with in over 20 years, I didn’t even know what she looked like. Probably one of the only reasons I did agree to go with my parents for this trip was that I knew that my aunt was an orphan and did not have much family to represent her, also that my grandfather had requested all of us to come and show our support, and I have always found it hard to say no to him. Lastly, Kolkata is also my mother’s birth place, and the place where she spend most of her childhood.
While I have been to the city on a number of occasions for work, having heard all of the stories from my mother I wanted to experience the city through her eyes, and knew I would probably not get such an opportunity again. So it was in keeping with this, I took a week off from work (only second time in 3 years that I have taken these many days off) and headed to the city that has been described by a photographer as one that never ends.
We headed to Kolkata via train from Delhi, travelling by the Rajdhani (one of the fastest trains for long distance travel) the journey took us a little over 16 hours to complete. I very happily used this time to get caught up on my sleep and reading, much to the chagrin of my mother, who forgot to bring her tablet along and was thus bored. One thing to be remembered about Indian weddings is that they are never a day’s event, the celebrations stretching to a week to ten days easily. We arrived on the day of wedding, just in time for a ceremony called the Haldi, which basically involves putting a turmeric paste on the bride, which when washed off leaves a nice glow on the skin.
Following this, we all (my cousins and my mom and her siblings) headed out for some last-minute shopping in one of the most popular markets in the city, the new market. It helped that we were staying just walking distance from the market. One of the most important pit stops made by us was to Shree Leathers, one of the most popular Indian brands for leather products and also very cheap. We got so excited with the price range and products offered that amongst the 9 of us we bought more than 15 pairs of shoes. One thing anyone visiting Kolkata should remember is that the city is dirt cheap in comparison to the rest of the metropolitans of the country and you are likely to get most products at very good bargain rates if only you know where to go. Another important purchase I made, which I would recommend to anyone coming to this city is that of what is known as Satya Niketan Leather. This leather is extremely flexible, of very good quality and of course, very cheap. This is used primarily for the production of bags and wallets, and is used to make interesting colourful patterned products. Once again, the product is cheap and lasts long, making very good gifts for women and if you find the right product then for men.
However, sadly, on that day we had to cut short our market ventures as we all had to get ready for the wedding. The wedding, like any other Indian wedding, extended into the wee hours of the morning and ended with the bride being sent off to her in-laws place after breakfast. After crashing for some time, we once again headed out, this time to explore the city with my mother and her elder sister, both of whom wanted to show us around their locality.
Our first stop however, was of a religious nature to one of the Shaktipeeths, Kali Ghaat in the city. The Bengali community prays to the Goddess Kali and the city has a number of Temples dedicated to her (known as Kali Badis, or the house of Kali). The most important of these are the Shaktipeeths. It is said that when the Goddess was disembodied, parts of her body had fallen in various locations of the city, where these temples were built. While, thousands line up every day to get a glimpse of this Goddess, for a price you can also get VIP access and can jump the line to go inside.
This temple is also famous for another reason, as it shows both the nurturing and destructive nature of the Goddess. While just like any other temple, this one has a statue of the goddess from which one seeks blessing, in another section of the temple, there is a slab of stone, which is right at the eye level of the statue. This slab is used for performing sacrifices to the goddess, with lambs being offered to the goddess by those who worship the destructive side of Kali. I am personally dead against the ritual of human or animal sacrifices and refused to enter the room being used for this purpose. My cousins however in their sense of duty to their father did go, and as my sister later told me, the room fills you with a sense of fear and dread. Having seen the dark walls and blood running out in a small stream from the room, I don’t doubt that assessment and perhaps that is the purpose of that room. However, personally I do wish this practice in any and all religions may just stop already, as I don’t really see how slaughtering a poor defenceless animal in front of a statue made of stone or wood is supposed to please any god, be it in a temple, mosque or church.
Following this rather dampening experience, we parted from our fathers and headed off to experience the city from our mother’s eyes. This journey was begun by taking a tram (one of the heritage items of the city) from Kali Ghaat to Tolleyganj. Followed by a walk down S. R. Das road, where my mother grew up and seeing our ancestral house (which is now occupied by someone else). While undertaking our trip down memory lane, we indulged in another thing the city is known for, its street food. Anyone travelling to this city, has to try the poochkas (a snack of fried hollow balls made of wheat with spicy tangy potato filling and spicy water) offered practically on every corner of every street. Apart from this we also indulged in Dum Aloo (a spicy potato preparation), kathi rolls and fish fry, while I admit I must have easily gained 1-2 kgs, it was sincerely all worth it. Another must have for anyone in the city is also the biryani offered in the city. While we were unable to visit the place during this trip due to a shortage of time, I would highly recommend the restraint Arsalan, for trying out not only the biryani (a spicy rice preparation) but the other Mughlai cuisine offered by the city. Another food love of Kolkatta is its affair with Chinese, while not authentic, you will find Chinese eating joints all over the city, I would highly recommend trying their dumpling (momos) – especially the pan-fried ones. Another dear wish of mine was to have authentic Bengali food, which was fulfilled in the reception thrown by the groom’s side, where I indulged once again in fish fry, fish chop (fish cutlets), begun bhaja (fried Aubergines) and biryani. Words cannot describe the satisfaction I felt after all that amazing food. Our final food experience in the city was of the sweets from one of the oldest sweet shops in the city. Apart from this we also had some amazing tea and gulab jamuns early morning.
But that is not to say that Kolkata is all about food, the city is rich in its heritage and culture and a pleasure for anyone who likes a little bit of history. I highly recommend visits to the Victoria memorial, the doll museum, the national museum, a drive down the Howrah bridges, a ferry ride in the river, a ride in the hand pulled rickshaws which are now available only in a few places and the planetarium amongst others. The city is also full of temples, most dating back more than 100 years, which are an absolute delight. One of the most popular ones is the Dakshineshwar, which was also our last stop in this trip. The Dakshineshwar is also dedicated to the Goddess Kali, but its unique feature is the ghat and the 12 smaller temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. The ghat opens into the river Hooghly and allows people to take a dip in the river, which is considered to be a purifying experience. The 12 temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, all house the shivling (a representation of the God). Each shivling is supposed to have a unique significance, and order of worship, however, unfortunately no one was able to explain the same to me.
I know, this account in no ways does justice to the city, but I would strongly urge everyone interested in culture, heritage, history and good food to definitely make a trip to this wonderful city which allows both the British era (Calcutta) and the modern times (Kolkata) to exist together in an unbelievable harmony. Coming up next, Nepal!!!!!!!