Queen of Bengal: 24 hours in Kolkata

15 Nov 2016 by Akanksha Maker

Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, has many names and faces. This city of joy bears a contagious, happy vibe that instantly overwhelms you with heartwarming smiles and welcoming faces of its people. It is also known as the cultural capital of India; expect conversations about theatre and music to be the usual fare with locals. Time and effort is invested into art, which is a way of life.

It is therefore no surprise, that some of the country’s best known literary talents hail from here. From Satyajit Ray, one of the greatest film-makers of his time, to Rabindranath Tagore, celebrated poet responsible for reshaping Indian art and music and writing the national anthem, called Kolkata home.

Its culturally inclined society has many interests, and food is an integral part of the city’s culture. Kolkata is known for an array of homegrown restaurants that hail food aficionados from across the Indian map.

Cited as the centre of the city, Park Street is populated with most of these iconic eateries. Star the day here. A subtle, colonial charm exudes from this part of Kolkata. To best experience its bygone sophistication, there is no place as ideal as Flurys (flurysindia.com). A quaint tearoom founded in 1927 by the Flury family, it has been a preferential meeting venue for Kolkata’s discerning crowd. Over the years, it acquired the name — “Queen of Park Street” — because of its authentic European confectionery. Its classic English breakfast priced at ₹410 or its single-origin chocolates (made from cocoa beans that are grown in a single geographic region) priced between ₹800 and ₹1,200 per box are indulgences worth your time and money. Particularly nice is sitting by the window, watching the bustle of Park Street while you sip on Viennese coffee alongside a Sacher Torte, that tastes almost if not as good as the original. Its Coffee Sprungli, inspired by David Sprungli’s creation for his tearoom in Zurich, is another speciality.

As you step outside, Park Street’s chaos filled with the banter of locals and blaring horns of Kolkata’s signature yellow ambassador taxis will politely take you out of England, soon enough.

To delve into Kolkata’s rich history, hail one and request to be driven towards Queen’s Way for a tryst with Victoria Memorial (10am-5pm Tue-Sun; Indian/foreigner ₹10/150; victoriamemorial-cal.org). Stop and take a few minutes to observe this daunting structure’s exteriors. Built in marble from Makrana in Rajasthan (the same material used to build the Taj Mahal in Agra) in memory of Queen Victoria, by architect William Emerson, the structure boasts of an architectural blend of Mughal, British, Venetian, Egyptian, Deccani and Islamic styles. Two marble lions guard the gate that open to lush gardens of the complex. It has a number of galleries that house some exceptional artefacts, paintings and sculptures. While Royal Gallery showcases portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the rather recent Calcutta Gallery (set up in 1970) exhibits the chronology of this once imperial city. Victoria Memorial also organises frequent temporary exhibitions and flaunts an impressive collection of rare manuscripts and books — a paradise for those interested in India’s British antiquity.

Just when you’re getting used to Kolkata’s regal temperament, it’s time to visit Kalighat Kali Temple at the banks of the old course of the Hooghly river, a ten-minute drive from Queen’s Way. The name “Calcutta” is said to have derived from Kalighat, the revered landing stage of this temple. Legend has it that Daksha, a descendant of Lord Brahma disapproved of his daughter Sati’s marriage with Lord Shiva. He held a yajna — a ritual sacrifice with a sacred pyre and invited all gods, except Lord Shiva. Despite this, Sati attended this yajna only to be insulted by her father. Unable to bear the derogation, she immolated herself in the pyre, which caused Lord Shiva to feel incandescent with rage. He performed the celestial dance of destruction or tandav and cut Sati’s body into 52 pieces which were flung across the Indian sub-continent. Sati’s toes are said to have fallen at this locale. An enchanting three-eyed idol of Goddess Kali resides here that invites patrons from across the length of India.

Avoid visiting this temple on Tuesdays, Thursdays or Saturdays, when it is most crowded. Try reaching before 8am and carry lesser valuables to ensure comfort. Shoes can be deposited at one of the many shops that retail offerings for the Garbagraha, a room where the idol is placed. Be wary of accepting participation in prayers or rituals as you may be charged heavy sums after. This experience might be intimidating for a few, as this is one of the few temples in India that still practises ritualistic animal sacrifice.

Balance this spiritual expedition with some culinary debauchery; drive back to Park Street. Kolkata has conceived several food trends — a personal favourite being “Indian Chinese”. China’s cuisine is often perceived to be bland for the Indian palate. Kolkata’s large Chinese population pioneered the evolution of a variant of Chinese dishes through a higher degree of spices and vegetarian offerings. “Indian Chinese” has made its way to restaurants across India. Park Street is dotted with restaurants that serve this tweaked cuisine with lip smacking dishes that are sharper in flavour. Try Bar-B-Q’s chilli garlic pepper chicken, some chilli chicken alongside Bar-B-Q special fried rice for a quintessential “Indian Chinese” experience. Inform the staff about your spice tolerance before hand to avoid any uncomfortable situations.

Kolkata’s multi faceted personality will charm you to spend perhaps more than just a day. From its abundant antiquity to its exuberant vibe, this city’s charm is quite endearing.

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