Kolkata India – still famous by its old name ‘Calcutta’
By Sangeeta Sinha
Kolkata is one of the more interesting travel destinations you’ll find of India’s big cities. Kolkata, a phonetic spelling from 2001, is still famous by its old name ‘Calcutta’, and is the capital city of West Bengal.
The state language is ‘Bengali’ and the people are also called ‘Bengalis’. Both the state and the capital are known for its rich cultural and historical heritage as well politics and business.
Kolkata is the ‘think-tank’, and ‘intellectual and cultural’ capital of India. A very famous personality, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, once said, “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.” It is very rightly said, and why not? Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Rabindranath Tagore, Nandlal Bose, Jamini Roy, and more—all these famous Bengalis made Kolkata proud, India proud, and the world proud. Not only this, India’s freedom movement saw some great sons from Kolkata—C.R. Das, Subhas Chandra Bose, and Sir Suren Banerjee, to name a few.Proscenium theatre came with Satyajit Roy, so did the Nobel Prize with Rabindranath Tagore, C.V. Raman, Sir Ronald Ross, Mother Teresa, and Amartya Sen. Kolkata is also known for its sweet language, art and culture, appreciative audiences, and highly cultured Bengalis.
Going Back the Calendar in Brief
Job Charnock, a well-known British merchant (till recently, recognized as the ‘founder of Kolkata’) first reached the then ‘rural backwater Kolikata’ is 1686. On his recommendation that River Hooghly (passing through Kolkata and draining in the Bay of Bengal) bend would be a very ideal British settlement, the villages of Gobindopur, Sutanoti, and Kolikata were handed over to the British East India Company in 1698.
That time, the British were looking for a singular suitable name for the cluster of villages; hence, ‘Calcutta’ (derived from Kolikata, which posed a pronunciation problem for them). They transformed ‘Calcutta’ into mini London in no time—churches, gardens, big buildings; like London-on-Thames, Calcutta became ‘London-on-Hooghly’!
Calcutta flourished as the capital of British India in the 19th century; 1857 was the year when the first modern Indian university, the ‘Calcutta University’ was set up. The city became the centre of the national movements for independence. The 20th century Calcutta was not so flourishing—partition of Bengal in 1905 created havoc (riots between the Hindus and the Muslims became common occurrence)—it was the beginning of the ‘Bengali Renaissance movement’.
In 1911, not being able to manage Calcutta any more, the British cleverly transferred their capital to Delhi, leaving Bengal literally in a broken condition—the British managed to successfully create an image of ‘Bengal in abject poverty’.
In recent years, the Kolkata High Court ruled out the fact that Job Charnock was the founder; in fact, Indian historians have proved that even before the advent of the British, a highly civilized society existed in Kolkata.
River Hooghly acts as a divider, that is, on one bank it is Kolkata, and on the other bank is the town of Howrah. The famous Howrah Railway Station is located here; people from Kolkata have to cross this river to reach the station.
Kolkata is divided into:
- North Kolkata – includes places like sealdah, Barabazar, Shyambazar, and Manicktolla among others. This area is very congested with very narrow roads, lanes, and by-lanes. One gets to see many old mansions of aristocrat families, some repaired and some in ruins.
- South Kolkata – includes places like Park Street, Park Circus, Ballygunge, and Gariahat among others. Built much later after India’s independence, one gets glimpses of wider roads, proper law and order, and well-equipped police force.
With expanding population, Kolkata is getting divided into many blocks—easy to manage, easy to remember.
Here are a few statistics:
- Country India
- State West Bengal
- City 185 km2 (71 sq. mi)
- Metro 1,886.67 km2 (728.45 sq. mi)
- Elevation 9 m (30 ft.)
- Population (2011)
- City 4,486,679
- Rank 7th
- Density 24,000/km2 (63,000/sq. mi)
- Metro 14,112,536
- Metro rank 3rd
- Metropolitan 14,617,882 (3rd)
The city is growing fast now after globalization, liberalization, and privatization of the Indian economy; the first thing that catches the eyes is its new image as one of the Indian cities, and not ‘London-on-Hooghly’ though the British colonial buildings are still seen at many places. A number of multiplexes, coffee shops, luxury hotels, condominiums, pubs, theaters, clubs, state-of-the-art hospitals, and the likes have been built; many more are coming up rapidly.
The Greater Kolkata stretches from Kalyani, a growing town in the District of Nadia, to Diamond Harbour in the District of South 24 Parganas.
IT industry is on the rise—it has become a pro-IT town after new towns being formed at Rajarhat and Salt Lake (Sector V). New businesses from parts of India are shifting and setting up new offices here. The old industries that have flourished in this city are jewelry, leather, steel, automobiles, railway coaches and wagons, electronic equipment, engineering products, etc.
The current trend of calling the Bengalis ‘Bongs’ is not taken in a light spirit; the elite cultured class of Kolkata, in fact, feels offended when addressed as ‘Bongs’.
Summer (March-May), monsoon (June-September/October), and winter (November-February) are the three dominant seasons. The summer temperature is about 100.4 to 104 degree F, and very hot and humid (touches maximum). The winter temperature is about 48.2 to 64.4 degree F. It is the best time for the visiting tourists.
Important Places to See in Kolkata
- Fort William – built in 1773.
- Maidan – lush green parkland known as the ‘lung of Calcutta’.
- Victoria Memorial – dedicated to Queen Victoria, and opened by the Prince of Wales in 1921. It has been built in Italian Renaissance-cum-Saracenic style.
- Race Course – built in 1819.
- Birla Planetarium – excellent for aspiring astronomers, and people interested in astronomy.
- Indian Museum – built in 1877.
- Raj Bhawan – built in 1803. The model is that of Keddleston Hall (home of Lord Curzon in Derbyshire, England).
- Shahid Minar – standing at 48 m, it was earlier called the Ochterlony Monument.
- Calcutta High Court – built in the Gothic architectural style (a copy of ‘Staadhans’ at Ypres, Belgium), and completed in 1872.
- Howrah Bridge – the first ‘cantilever’ bridge.
- Writers’ Building
- Marble Palace – build in 1840 by Raja (king) Rajendra Mullick.
- National Library – the biggest library in India that houses millions of books.
- Missionaries of Charity – formed by Mother Teresa in 1950.
- Eden Gardens – good for morning/evening walks and the stadium on one side hosts many world class cricket matches.
- Outram Ghat – best for leisurely walks!
- Princep Ghat – can avail ferry to go to Howrah; even to Howrah Station.
- Zoological Garden – built in 1876. The lake inside is the home to Siberian birds in winter.
- Horticultural Garden – a wide variety of flora can be seen here.
- Birla Temple
- Kalighat – the temple of Goddess Kali that was rebuilt in 1809.
- Dakshineshwar Kali Temple – built in 1847.
- Belur Math
- Nakhoda Mosque – built in 1926, has two minarets (46 m high), and an onion-shaped dome.
- St John’s Church – built in 1787. Job Charnock’s mausoleum is seen here.
- St Paul’s Cathedral – built between 1839 and 1847, and consecrated in 1874, it is in line with Gothic style of architecture with two Florentine frescoes, and stained glass windows.
- Armenian Church – built in 1764.
- Two Synagogues – Maghen David Synagogue and Bethel.
- Two Parsi Fire Temples
- Japanese Buddhist Temple
- Pareshnath Jain Temple
- Nandan – for movie buffs.
- University of Calcutta – established in 1857.
- Jadavpur University – established in 1955.
- Bengal Engineering and Science University – established in 1856. This was the first institute in Asia that had conducted degree examinations in 1864.
- Indian Institute of Management – established in 1961.
- Indian Statistical Institute – established in 1931.
Transportation – Old and New
Like many big cities Kolkata has busses and a railway system. In addition the city has a tram and the Metro, in operation since 1984, is the oldest underground mass transit system in India. Kolkata has three long-distance railway stations, located at Howrah, Sealdah, and Chitpur, which connect Kolkata by rail to most cities in West Bengal and to other major cities in India.
Buses are the most commonly used mode of transport and are run by government agencies and private operators. Unlike in the West you can find cycle rickshaws and hand-pulled rickshaws in parts of the city. These are used by the public for short trips.Because of the availability and abundant public transportation, privately owned vehicles are not as common in Kolkata as in other major Indian cities.
For Kolkata, that’s good because traffic congestion is bad due to several factors like an increase of registered vehicles and restricted “road space” compared to other big cities in the country.
The city does have an international airport about 10 miles from the center of the city. The Port of Kolkata, established in 1870, is India’s oldest and the only major river port. The port hosts passenger services to Port Blair and Nicobar Islands; freighter service to ports throughout India and around the world and ferry services connect Kolkata with its twin city of Howrah, located across the Hooghly River.
It’s always fun and exciting to walk around when one is traveling. There are always interesting sights and you will get a better feeling of the area and see ordinary people doing their thing, whatever that may be. Here are several of the many walks in Kolkata that are well worth taking.
- The Park Street walk goes down Kolkata’s foremost dining district with noted restaurants and eateries. Kolkata’s nightlife revolves around Park Street’s nightclubs, pubs and coffee houses. Park Street has famous buildings like the Asiatic Society, St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta and the Church of the Seventh Day Adventists, and the South Park Street Cemetery. One end of Park Street links up to Chowringhee Avenue and the Maidan while the other end goes to Park Circus.
- The Strand Road walk is the riverside walk past the “ghats” or piers, the palatial State Bank of India headquarters, the Kolkata Maritime Museum, the promenade in Millennium Park and Kolkata Riverfront. The Hooghly River makes for excellent riverboat and people watching. The Haora skyline is ramshackle but interesting. Look up and down the river and see the famous Howrah Bridge and Vidyasagar Setu.
- A walk through the Maidan takes one past clubs of every description from football clubs to the Press Club. You can see stadiums of the big three football clubs and Eden Gardens plus many more sights including the Royal Calcutta Turf Club. There are horseback tours through the Maidan, and horse drawn tours around it, are quite popular.
- The College Street walk is a walk down Kolkata’s most academic street. It has historical institutions like Presidency College, Calcutta Medical College, Bethune College, Scottish Church College, the University of Calcutta and India Coffee House. There are hordes of pedestrians on the sidewalks and the streets loaded with vehicles.
Here on this walk you’ll find literally hundreds of used book stores on either side of the street selling a potpourri of literature and textbooks. Thanks to Operation Sunshine, Kolkata’s drive to remove street hawkers, a special clause ruling out hawkers on College Street keeps them away.
Compared to the other cities of India, Kolkata is quite safe for people to move about, even at night.
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