Kolkata : City with indefinite history, culture and traditions.

Date of the trip: 11th Jan 2020 to 13th Jan 2020

What better way to start the new decade than to get lost in the largest delta in the world? None other than the delta of Ganges of course! Here the mighty river finally merges with the Bay of Bengal. Here, Ganga Mayiya (as she is fondly called in India) turns into multiple untamable  distributaries and channels that changes the everyday life of those liing in the delta region. This area had always intrigued me, and we jumped in without second thoughts when this trip was suggested. It has always been an unusual and mysterious place to us. Although much is known, yet much is yet to be discovered. The weather was somewhere between pleasant to chilly. A light jacket and covered legs sufficed for me during the whole trip. Summers are not recommended for this trip as it can get quite hot & humid ruining the vacay mood. Monsoon, despite being extremely wet and humid, is a good time to visit Kolkata to experience a completely different side of the city but due to its close proximity with the Bay of bengal, Bengal coast experiences violent storms, hurricanes and typhoons. So Sundarbans is not really recommended in such scenarios.

The excellent sunset over river Hoogly

Our group was made up of three generations. Starting from the top, my 87 year old grandmother (whose adventurous, courageous and curious genes runs through and through in mia familia) her daughter and son inlaw, her son (my father) and daughter inlaw (my mother), my brother, me and Sunny. All who know us know, it was an unusual group. Each one of us had a different area of interest, different levels of energy and patience and different requirements. It made this trip very colourful, unique and fun. It also gave me a chance to review each part of it in different perspectives.

The story of our journey started from the land of river Hoogly (a distributary of the river Ganges), Kolkata. Capital of the state of West Bengal, one of the most historical cities of the country, and known world wide to be the epicenter of arts, culture and literature. It has been the center of food and culinary delights since forever and holds it’s pride high with uncountable stories of freedom fighters and social reformers. Also, most importantly, as the capital (and entry point for East India Company) of British India for the longest time.

This post is divided into two parts and is about a week long break from office: 

Part 1 – Is about the first half of the trip spent in Kolkata, the capital city of the state of West Bengal.

Part 2 – Is all about travelling and staying in Sundarban, the largest mangrove forest in the world.  

Both the places are worlds apart and deserve their own space. These posts are a part of a bigger segment ‘Following Ganga’. Sundarban is the last stop for Ganga where it merges into the Bay of Bengal. The only way to go from there is upstream.

Colorful Lohri decoration.

Part 01

Here it goes,

:Day 01 – 11th Jan 2020 – Saturday:

All of us arrived from all parts of the country and checked in at the ‘Red Arrow Residency’ at 4pm.

Red Arrow residency is a great & economical place to stay. Especially for a family get together or 4 couples travelling together. It is somewhere in between a hotel and an airbnb/guest house. Imagine a 4 bedroom apartment turned into a hotel. Each room is occupied by one couple and all of them share the sitting room and the dining room. Kitchen service is from another apartment and breakfast is complimentary. It is like a house out of the old Agatha Christie’s novel, with house guests and all that (minus a murder, offcourse!). The rooms are very comfortable, clean and spacious. There is no view in particular but it is decorated very tastefully. There is an outstanding chef who prepares breakfast and the staff is very helpful and ever-smilling. It is as comfortable as your home but with the luxuries of a hotel. It is centrally located and proved to be a great place to start an evening walk around the block around the most important sights of Kolkata. Our first night in Kolkata, to get into the Kalkutta groove, we decided to walk around the block to the Park Street. The street has the best night scene in Kolkata. My grandmother had stayed back in the hotel, it had already been a hectic day for her, with all the travelling, and going for long city walks was not her style anymore. We had already ordered some kathi rolls and tea in the hotel so dinner was more or less done. We walked to Park Street and went straight to Trinca’s for some drinks and fish tikkas.

This is one of the oldest hotels in the city. It has live music and a chill ambiance. The guest list has always been star studded and the stage is where the spot light was first shone on famous Usha Uthap. The food was good but personally, not my type of place. I could see people enjoying the live music, but for me it was a bit too dark and loud. Food was good and the service was up to the mark – maybe worth a visit if that’s your style! 

On the way to Park Street we had crossed the Birla planetarium, Metro office and US consulate. Multiple food stalls were getting ready for the busy Saturday night food fever. Kolkata has always been in ahead on competition with Delhi when it comes to street food. Although the steaming hot momos, samosas, bhajjas, puchkas, tea, luchis and curry were looking very tempting, our tummies were already full so we walked on passing the hustle and bustle of the pavements, wide enough to be occupied by food stalls yet comfortably walkable.

On our way back we picked up some cake from Flurry’s in Park Street as dessert to take back to the hotel. It was an old school cake and everyone except me, my brother and Sunny could relate to it. We were too used to soft, light, melting cakes with creamy icing, and this was a heavy sponge cake, not too soft and had hardened sugar icing – all of us enjoyed it anyway, it was delicious!

My first reflection of the city was that although it was a metro city, it was still at a slower pace compared to Mumbai. Bengal had always been a more intellectually advanced state and Kolkata is where it all started. It has its own organised chaos. Traffic follows independent rules which is typical of any big city in the country (still shocked me at multiple times).

Cuddly chilly nights.

Dear Patna airport,

We had the pleasure of visiting you today morning. We had to change flights on our way to Kolkata so things were quite rushed and we did not get a chance to meet you properly. The little time we got gave us a chance to witness the best circus that we have seen in a long time. You are a major port to a major city and the main inlet & outlet point for people visiting the state of Bihar, it would not hurt to expand a little, right away – if possible. Especially because you claim to be an international airport. It is 2020 afterall, more people are preferring and affording air travel to train travel and security check, however daunting, is a necessary step in maintaining inflight security.  A dingy dark corridor can no longer be used to pile people up for this process. It is suffocating and people with power are continuously jumping lines and are being ushered right in front of us common citizens of this country. The lines are serpentine and people are not aware of basic etiquette and safety rules of an airport almost always irritating people who do. At this point I would like to appreciate the CISF and other officers who are on duty and are responsible to manage this chaos. They are very patient and polite, trying their best to make travelers understand the basic requirements. In the wake of fast infrastructure development in the rest of the country, why are you left behind?? A bit of better space organisation, educating the travelers and assigning more staff to control the misbehaving, rule breaking crowds would help a lot in uplifting your morals. A more pressing matter is that of the washrooms. It needs urgent attention according to me. Rather quickly too! The number of loos is very very low, although well kept, the space is not utilized very efficiently. More staff is required guiding the more uneducated visitors. I literally saw a couple of ladies trying to use men’s washrooms due to lack of multiple women’s washrooms (or lack of understanding of sign boards!!). You need to grow up man!! with the growing number of visitors, an expansion is unavoidable. For ignorant, unruly visitors, more patient, polite staff/volunteers to help the security personnel and a better space organisation is the need of the hour. The VIP treatment culture needs to be demolished as soon as possible. It is completely old fashioned now – c’mon! Lastly, how about getting a better looking and equipped food court, a book store and a handicraft shop to flaunt the oh-so-popular and ancient cuisine, arts and crafts of the state. Hope you get more attention from people responsible and are taken care of like other ports of other state capital cities. Because you are important and deserve to be better.

 Hope, when we meet next, you are feeling better!

Lots of love,

When on a Break

:Day 02 – 12th Jan 2020 – Sunday:

Our sun rose early this day. As others decided to sleep in, me, Sunny, my parents & brother decided to go for a morning walk in the gardens of Victoria Memorial. The cold wind from the side of the river Hoogly freshened us up instantly. The tea stalls on our way had just started to put up water for boiling for their first round of sales. After a 5 min walk from where we were, we entered the back gate. Sun was still hidden behind the morning haze and a subtle golden light was hitting the angel on top of the large white dome in the center of the garden.

The awkward banana tree. 😀 . Hats off to the gardener who decided to plant this one and only banana plant right in the center of the spectacular view.

Although Taj mahal has no comparison, the first view of Victoria memorial in the morning sun was a sharp reminder of my recent visit to the king of mahals last month. Victoria memorial, constructed to commemorate the death of Queen Victoria in the colonial era is now one of the best kept museums of India and has its own unmatchable charm.

More history here.

The surreal sunrise.

Many people come to the gardens for morning walk. For the garden, the ticket costs only Rs20 per person for the whole day (single entry). The cool climate, green everywhere, away from city noise, this place is a great place to start a calm morning.

All gardens are well kept and have stone paths all around for walking/jogging. There are water ponds all around the memorial, taking a relaxed feel of the place to the next level. They act as reflecting surfaces for the grand white structure  for an irresistible photo moment. 

Birding is also great in the garden at this time. Pied mynahs zoom around you like war-aircrafts. Egrets snoozing lazily near the water areas. Green pigeons roosting quietly where the sun hits the dead tree.

Decorative detailed statues on the roof.

After a chilled morning walk we headed back to Red arrow for breakfast and freshened up..

Red Arrow has complimentary breakfast, made fresh in the kitchen next door. The chef is excellent and modifies the recipe according to the guest requirements. First stop, Victoria Memorial museum. This time the whole family was going together, so we had to take two (iconic) yellow taxis. The one with all the elders dropped them to the main entrance of the garden. Which is grander than and opposite the back entrance of the garden and is closer to the entry of the museum.

The guardian angels on the King George gate

Our trip had coincided with the birthday of Swami Vivekanand for which the Indian Prime minister Mr Narendra Modi was visiting Kolkata (Swami’s birthplace). This was also amidst a nationwide ongoing protest against the recent amendment bill about citizenship passed in the parliament a couple of days ago. This weekend was also a long one in Bengal (especially in Kolkata) due to the festival of Sakranti, celebrated very enthusiastically in this region. All this had resulted in road blocks and diversions, traffic jams and extra security all throughout our Kolkata stay. Our taxi guy dropped us at the back gate of the Victoria memorial garden. This time we had to pay Rs 30 per head to enter as we were planning to enter the garden as well as the museum. We re-entered the premises at 10AM. On Saturdays and Sundays the garden and museum are open till 8PM. Rest of the days everything shuts down by 5PM.

The white marble dome and the winged angel welcoming and announcing the arrival of King George.

During the day the garden transforms into a hangout for families and friends. It has a relaxed vibe to it. We saw couples getting their pre-wedding photos clicked there and these gardens seem to be ‘the place to be’ for such photoshoots. The exterior carvings, statues are exquisite and unique. Multiple gargoyles guard from the roof along with angels and cloaked celestial beings. The architect is said to be inspired by Taj mahal and specially ordered white marble slabs from Makrana (the origin of Taj Mahal’s marble too). The design is undoubtedly inspired by the Mughal architecture but is studded with European twists.

The lady who ruled half the earth. Queen Victoria.

We entered the memorial and were immediately struck by the massiveness of the place. The roof rose many meters up and is decorated with intricate murals, well preserved. The interiors of the building are well sectioned, displayed with different types of collections and exhibits. Everything from art, history and culture related artifacts are displayed with proper, informative signboards. The traffic inside the museum is controlled by the security and although it was a weekend morning, it did not feel stuffy. I am no art enthusiast or expert, yet the paintings displayed here attracted my special attention. The details and textures were unbelievable.

Check out the embroidery details in the painting !!

Kolkata is one of the cities which has a long and well documented history. Nowhere is it more evident than here in this museum. The history section deserves extra time as it is a vault of information. Each article and photograph excites even the ignorant. While leaving the museum one signboard lingered in my mind. This amazing building was a dream and design by British but was built by Indians using Indian money and now is dedicated to all the people who gave all to get this grand structure standing. All the atrocities of the British rule aside, we should not forget all the good they brought to the country too. This museum at multiple times reminded us of the British who left a good, positive imprint on the Indian society, culture and heritage.

The extraordinary interiors of the magnificent white dome.

 The lines at the entry were now fairly long and coming early was advantageous afterall.

There is a lot of walking on cobblestones, and there are stairs to reach the museum entrance. My grandmother walks well with just a bit of hand-holding to maintain balance. So she was okay all the way. There are benches inside the museum as well as in the garden so resting aching feet is not a problem.

The murals on the dome are excellent, it’s great to see them up close .

From here, the next stop was for our grumbling tummies – a short yellow taxi trip for lunch  @ 6Balleygunge place, Ballygunge.

Don’t let the pop-arty interior of this place fool your appetite. The food is as delicious as it gets.

Whoever tells you, you can reach the botanical garden from Balleygunge to walk out all the lovely food consumed, probably might be wrong. We tried and failed, and reached the garden as it was shutting down. It was time for quick decisions, and we turned around the same cab towards the Vidya sagar setu boating pier (Princep ghat) to catch the setting sun just in time. Taxis would normally stop at Princep ghat. The boating area is 5 min walk from there. Me, Sunny and my brother ran to the pier to get some pictures, by the time the family reached the sun was down and last dusky orange streaks were illuminating the hazy sky.

The view was still breathtaking. This bridge is a recent construction over the river Hoogly to ease the load on renowned Howrah bridge.

Vidyasagar setu over river Hoogly. Perfect setting to watch sunset.

Many boatmen were trying to usher us into their boat and charged us a whopping Rs400 per boat, 4 people on 1 boat. I have heard they normally should be taking Rs 200-300 per boat, but the sun was racing downwards and time was of the essence. I would say, sitting relaxed – away from the city rush was a good way for all of us to unwind. Having said that, I may skip this trip next time I am in the city. The boatman slowly directs the boat up to 500 mtrs till the bridge and back, lets the current of the river do much of the work. The boat is mostly just floating around with no serious intention of covering some area. The boatman is not chatty or even communicative. He just wants to finish his half hour and get to the next customer. Anyway, I think it is mainly something to do for love dripping couples who want to enjoy some quiet.  Although overpriced, for first timers like us, I think it was a great way to enjoy our first sunset on the river Hoogly taking in the view of one of the longest suspension bridges of the country. Yes, my grandmother was with me on the boat. Like I said earlier, she is fearless and (with a little support) is always up for any adventure 🙂

Even this tiny wobbly boat did not scary dadu

The pathway along the river is much like the Carter Road Promenade of Mumbai, hustle bustle of evening walkers, couples romancing  in corners and on the benches under the trees along the river. Friends clicking a million selfies at every viewpoint, hawkers trying to sell some chana jor garam and peanuts and balloons. It was Sunday, and this street was no less than a carnival. But we had alternate intentions, we had to rush to the Victoria Memorial, yet again. All the walking through the day had drained my grandmother, she opted to skip the next part and retired to her room. As unforgettable as it is during the morning sun, it is magnificent at night, when it is all lit up. Only on the weekends, the main entrance and the museum is open to the public till 8PM. If I had a chance to re-live this day, I would visit the memorial at sunrise, skip the late morning visit, and visit the museum and enjoy the exterior lights at night on a weekend.

The night lights just reinforce the grand image of Victoria memorial

A short taxi cab ride took us to Kaali ghat. Kaali ghat is said to be one of the most auspicious temples of goddess kali. A rather plain looking temple is built around the cave where the goddess statue resides. We reached this place around 9:30-10PM. I think it was the best time to visit the temple. It was empty and devoid of pushy crowd. As we walked towards the temple, many panda’s (men who claim to help fast track the visit, often charging unnecessarily) came up to us claiming the line to reach the cave to be 4hr long. Offcourse, it was not. We were in and out within 15mins. Proving our time of visit to be the most efficient one. One note: keep the pockets empty during the visit or keep only the amount you would wish to donate in the temple. All usual temple tactics would be in play here and the best way is to keep a lot of wits and no more cash than required on self. This place is very important for the believers and thus wrongly gives opportunity for ‘pandits’ to earn a bit on the side. A little donation is good as it helps in keeping up the place but be cautious of unnecessary donations. The male visitors are required to perform the prayers in this temple rather than the female visitors so don’t worry if they drag your husband/father/brother into a deep cave 🙂 Be clear about how much you are willing to donate from earlier on to attract less attention. The road leading up to the temple has a lot of shops selling souvenirs and pooja samagri, bargaining is offcourse a necessity.

We took the metro from Kali ghat metro station (5 mins walk from the temple) to park street to try our luck in getting a table at Peter cat. Metros are never a good idea for grandmothers so maybe it was a good idea that she stayed back.

The murals all around the city are very interesting to see, always worth a moment’s pause, even if there is a rush.

Peter Cat had a long waiting line (expected!) so we tried another restaurant a bit away-Oasis.

The place looked a little downtrodden, suppressed by the surrounding well to do popular restaurants, not matching up to ‘Park Street standards’ and empty on a Sunday night. Reluctantly we entered, but soon found the staff to be very friendly, polite and accommodating. Although we were not very hungry (thank you 6 Ballyganj place!) whatever we ordered was super tasty!

What’s up with the yellow ambassador taxis?

When we were in Kolkata, we used a lot of these to get from one point to another. It was surprising for us to know that even for a short 5-10 min ride we were forced to pay INR100. Our group always required 2 of these and in a day we were easily spending INR1000 only on transport – even when we were staying in a very centrally located hotel. There was an electronic meter on every dashboard but the driver would insist on fixing the price before departure rather than sticking to the meter readings saying the meter is not working..etc..etc… Almost always this price was nonnegotiable. For us, coming from Mumbai – where meter reading in the king in 99% cases, it was a tough blow. Fishy, fishy… I decided to ask my colleagues who are from Kolkata when I came back home. It is after all a large scale tourist scam. They are supposed to charge the customers according to the meter. Any defiance can be reported to the nearest traffic police guy. They personally always take the metro as it is convenient and faster – like anywhere! As observed by me, metro stations are very closely located and are easy to find. Something to remember for my next trip.

:Day 03 – 13th Jan 2020 – Monday:

Last day in Kolkata and still so many things to do… breakfast table was full of yummy food and lots of discussions about all the places that were yet to visit. Very unlike me, I had decided to be spontaneous on this trip (a surprise for my husband). It was going to be a children’s special day and the zoo is where the day would start. Followed by a visit to the planetarium before going for lunch. Also we did not waste much time booking our evening fiesta! (more details in a bit!)

Alipore zoo (Kolkata zoological park) is the oldest zoo in the whole of Asia- that right there, if that doesn’t make you go there, the list of the zoo residents will surely do.

A humble gate to a grand park

A yellow taxi ride away from where we were staying, Alipore zoo has a grand entrance with the aquarium across the road. The ticket was Rs30 per person. From aviary to the carnivores and herbivores, this zoo is a paradise for all – age no bar! The South American collection of birds here is excellent. The most attractive resident of this zoo is the giraffe. A big family of giraffes, all healthy and tall, were enjoying a lick on the tree stump when we reached their enclosure. Yes, we enjoyed seeing them, but i think for me, best was to see the joy in my grandmother’s eyes when she saw these gigantic, graceful and beautiful beings walking around and stopping close to her in the cage. For that moment, she had become a 5year old and her eyes had lit up in sparkles. All of her life she had been wishing to see these elegant giants and had expressed her wish to see a giraffe while having breakfast that morning. We spent a long time near the Giraffe enclosure.

Hero of the show! Family which licks together stays together

Although I understand that the world is split between pro-zoo and anti-zoo people. I think I lie somewhere in the middle. If the animals are kept healthy and their enclosures are according to standards with enough cover area and healthy food – I don’t think I am against it. The human world does need to see the beautiful wildlife mother nature has to offer. It increases their interest in preserving it and forces them to wonder and realize how small a part humans are in this massive world.  Everyone is not equally lucky or economically booming to travel to different countries and regions to see this wildlife in their natural habitat. They live their lives looking at magazine photos and watching TV. But the reality of the wildlife beauty strikes only when they are right in front of you and you understand how fragile they are. In fact I’m proud to say, I’m one of those who would not mind buying a ticket to see these animals just so the authorities can afford maintenance and give proper living conditions. Having said that, I would still enforce that I am totally against the usage of animals for wildlife tourism / circuses and chores.

A chilled one is all that is needed. Specially with a plate of famous ‘Chelo Kabab’. @Peter Cat.

The last sunset to our extra quick trip to this historical trip had to be historical off – course!

A sunset/evening cruise on the river Hoogly had been booked during breakfast for our evening fiesta! 

We had booked with Vivada Tours and it had costed us INR1000 per person (including evening snacks & tea & soft-drink).

The floating reception for the sunset cruise.

We reached the Millenium park pier by 3:40PM and boarded the double storied boat with a gigantic golden head and torso as the bow. The cruise boat started with long bellowing towards the famed Howrah Bridge. The staff were very pleasant, smiling and helpful. The upper deck was an open area where the cool river breeze could be enjoyed.

Cleopatra inspired bow, may make her weep in her sarcophagus! but it was hell pretty up on the deck, and very very comfortable indeed. The Howrah bridge at the back is where we go!

We were still just beginning to absorb the serene atmosphere, when the guide on board started welcoming and introducing us to the tour with the waiters walking around with snacks and welcome drinks. As the boat slowly crossed the Howrah Bridge, he started pointing out to various piers and buildings of historical and cultural importance and educating us a bit about the history of each one of them.

Crossing under an architectural marvel filled me with excitement and pride.

He soon informed us that we were now approaching the Belur Math – head temple for Ramkrishna mission  (Hindu religious and spiritual organisation) founded by Swami Vivekanand and we deboard to attend the evening aarti.

First glimpse of Belur Math.

This aarti is quite famous and attracts a lot of crowds from all over the country. Even the Honorable Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modhi ji had attended it a day before on the occasion of Swami Vivekanand’s birthday. Government runs regular ferries from various piers along the river to this temple. It is also accessible via road and train. The cruise ship eventually docked at the Belur Math pier as the sun set over the horizon. This temple has no frills attached to it and the aarti was extremely relaxing. The architecture includes features from all types of religious structures. The resonating sound of the aarti vibrates the core of each being sitting in the temple. At some point, I unknowingly drifted into meditation. The calming sound of the prayers makes it impossible to think of anything else. It was certainly a very pleasant experience, and something I would never forget. By the end of it, I was glad that we had included it in today’s plan and highly recommend visiting the temple for evening aarti.

Every one prepares for the aarti. People from all over the country come to attend this meditative humming and symphonies.

From here the cruise turns back towards the Millennium pier and the party starts. It takes a while to get out of the lingering effect of the temple and start enjoying the city lights all along the river. Soon we approached the Howrah Bridge, now all lit up. No photograph can justify how beautiful the moving lights looked. It was the best ending to the best evening spent and no other words could explain the evening better.

Ramakrishna memorial across the river from the river from Belur Math.

The food was awesome. It was a buffet of various snacks and dessert. Even after the cruise got over and we were back on land, I wanted to be around and enjoy this evening even more. Maybe take a taxi closer to the colorful Howrah Bridge and click a couple of more pictures. But I guess, it is always better to end a holiday when the list of things ‘to do’ is still pending – just to make sure that I come back for more.

The multitude of colours changing formation and designs s kept us glued to the bridge on our trip back.

The evenings on the river do get a little chilly so jacket is a good idea. A thick wind blocker for my grandmother would have been a good idea too. Nonetheless, it was enjoyed by her to the fullest. The washrooms were on the lower deck of the cruise, and were good. Belur Math also had good washrooms. Our tummies were full of the snacks as we returned to our hotel, so dinner was eagerly skipped.

No amount of photos can justify the feeling of this night.

The next day was going to be a change in the venue, far from the bustling city and in the lap of nature. Sundarban was calling and we had to sleep comfortably before we were ready to say ‘hello!’.

Mural at Belur Math pier

This trip to Kolkata was extremely short, a trailer of sorts.

Are you from Kolkata? Please suggest more places to visit and things to do in Kolkata, I will surely add them in my next trip. Leave a reply below!

Part2 of this trip nestled in the largest mangroves on the face of this earth is coming soon.

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