Same work, same desk and same city, a routine can get monotonous. No matter where you live, be it in India or abroad, an escapade is always needed, especially during summer. Many dream of beaches, mountains, parties etc., but if you are someone looking at a dip into a cultural feast, with colonial architectures, spirituality and much more, then follow me to the City of Joy – Kolkata, also known as the Paris of the East.
Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is the capital of West Bengal. As you walk in the city you will come across many buildings built during the British Raj. Calcutta was in fact the capital of the British during most the period of colonization, before New Delhi. Situated on the Eastern coast of India, it can be accessed by an overnight train journey from New Delhi or a 2 hours-30 minutes flight from the Indian capital. Five to seven days are enough to discover the city and enjoy Bengali hospitality, the intellectual discussions in cafes, tasty cuisine, the unique culture and a spiritual vibe.
This article unravels some interesting places for you which don’t flash on Google immediately. Bon voyage !
1. Indian Coffee House : coffee, cigarettes and philosophy
From outside, the building is not very impressive or beautiful. A blue board indicates the entry to the Indian Coffee House. Opposite to it, is the famous Presidency College on College Street. As I enter the place, the first things to catch my eye are an old staircase and Bengali posters on the walls. A rusted bicycle and couple of vintage letter boxes lie in front of a wall which has a book-store besides it. It sells old books written in Bengali but also cigarettes. On the first floor, a huge corridor accommodates about 100 people who were sitting in various groups, when I was visiting. The hum of whirring from the overhead fans was relaxing along with the nice coffee and a cigarette. Yes, indeed, here some people do actually smoke.
It isn’t the best of coffee to have but the ambiance is worth reeling in and is unforgettable. You’d see all waiters wearing hats and uniforms which date back to a bygone era. Students, old friends, women and men of all ages come here to spend a nice time, play cards, discuss about life, politics etc. On the walls, unique pieces of art including a big portrait of Rabindranath Tagore are displayed. The steam from my hot black coffee, the brouhaha around and shadow-trails made by sun rays from broken windows take me back to independence period, where history was written, coffee and cigarettes were shared and of course debates raged… here in this same place.
2. Bengali Food : Rice and Fish ?
Fish and rice, is what anyone would expect for a meal in Kolkata. Bengali food is certainly one of the most sumptuous of cuisines in India… at least for me! The options are numerous and interestingly the prices are very low as compared to other cities in the country. For INR 30, one can easily find a rice and fish dish on the numerous street corners.
Bengali food is clearly more suited for non-vegetarian and fish or sea-food lovers but there are couple of vegetarian options like gourds, plantains, potatoes, water lily roots, brinjal. There are more than forty types of fresh water fish that are popularly served in West Bengal, amongst the famous one are : rohu, pabda and koi. A much-loved local delicacy in Bengal is an oily fish known as ‘Ilish’. Bengali cuisine is a special blend of spicy flavors: mustard oil, poppy seeds and turmeric with sweet undertones that warm spices like cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and mace impart.
If you want to eat the local cuisine like a king, try the restaurant, ‘6 ballygunge place’. It’s an old house bought by 3 friends who maintain the architecture and have made it into a restaurant. Over years this restaurant has become an icon for Bengali cuisine. Among the dishes to try: Dimer Dhokkar Dalna and Luchi, a dish of steamed cakes made with eggs, potatoes and spices and simmered in an aromatic curry. Bhapaa Aloo, potatoes tossed in local flavours of panch phoron, coconut paste and mustard oil. Baigun Bhajja, Pan fried eggplants, sizzling with aromatic spices. Sandesh, a Bengali dessert made of cottage cheese.
3. A cruise on the Ganga
Kolkata is well known for its ghats by the Ganga river. Many visit these spiritual places where Hindu rituals are performed. But if you want to see life on the Ganga from a different angle, try a cruise on the river. The boat company, Vivada, proposes different cruising options.
I decided to try the 3 hour tour starting at 4h30 pm. There are two levels in the boat, the top one that gives an open view and that is the best and the ground level that is a close air-conditioned restaurant. As you move forward you will see all the iconic monuments like the Howrah Station, the Howrah Bridge and also many temples or churches. You observe the life of the locals on the ghats, washing clothes, playing in the water, doing rituals,…
The water from the Ganga river is indeed used for various purposes. A few others boats cross, most of them carrying locals from one side of the river to another, some kids jumped from the boats and fishermen threw their nets. As I sit and relax with a nice cup of tea and some snacks, the sunset on the Ganga is a unique moment. The sky took different colours before putting on its black cap and letting the stars shine. At that moment, the entire city illuminated, conferring to the Ganga its most romantic aspect.
4. Tribal theater and Baul Music
In my mind, Kolkata was about Rabindranath Tagore, the illustrious Renaissance type artist and Literature Nobel Prize, and about some famous Indian freedom fighters. It is also about art and all its forms, through music, theater, fine art… West Bengal is in fact known for its Baul musicians. Bauls are mystic minstrels living in rural areas. Their music and way of life have influenced a large swath of Bengali culture, most powerfully the compositions of Tagore.
To discover the authentic rural culture of Bengalis, I step out of the city and in just an hour’s drive, come across many small villages. One of them situated in Dolgapur has a unique theater group composed by Bengali tribal population. The group is called Ebong Amra and presents performances counting the tribal life. After a nice local meal prepared with great hospitality by the villagers, I relaxed around this green environment, listening and dancing with the baul musicians.
5. Night Life at Park Street
Kolkata is definitely a place where you can party and enjoy a cool ambiance with your friends. The best place to head to is the Park Street, a little bit like the Champs Elysées avenue in Paris, France, you will find many bars and pubs on each side of the road. The alcohol is once again much cheaper than other metro cities in India!
Someplace Else is a pub that stages live music every day. Artists perform with aspiring performers on stage. The pub is situated inside the Park Hotel, which is regarded as a heritage spot in the city. The pub offers drinks, lunch and dinner. Famous bands like Skinny Alley, Hip Pocket, Lou Majaw, Prestorika, Parikrama, Indian Ocean, Krosswindz, Underground Authority, Them Clones and international bands have also performed here.