We had a wonderful twelve hours in Calcutta (now officially called Kolkata). It seriously exceeded all our expectations.
It happened by chance, when Air Asia emailed us and advised that our flight from Calcutta to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, had been rescheduled from 12.45 PM to 12.45 AM, the next day. We had planned to finish our Indian trip in Calcutta, leaving Port Blair, capital of the Andaman’s at the 8.15 AM and arriving at 10.30 AM. We were originally contemplating a lengthy layover at Calcutta airport. We tried to turn the Air Asia delay to our advantage and organized a day room at a hotel near Calcutta Airport, a car and driver, plus an experienced guide for a half day tour of the city.
We had arrived at Calcutta’s brand new, futuristic airport and went through exit formalities really quickly. We were in our hotel room at 11.30 AM and had agreed to start our half day city tour at 12.15 PM, so just enough time for a quick wash and brush up! We met our guide in the old city. He had a PhD in Anthropology but had earned his living for the last fifteen years as a travel guide – Bengali was his mother tongue but he also spoke fluently Hindi, English, Spanish and Italian.
We learned that Calcutta has a permanent population of 15 million, swelling to 22 million each day. We crossed the famous Howrah Bridge, over the Hooghly River, which is the busiest cantilever bridge in the world, with an amazing five million people crossing each day, including 71,000 cars. We drove through a large park in the downtown area and were advised that this was similar to Hyde Park, London, and also had a Speaker’s Corner and bandstand.
Calcutta is full of colonial history. The British East India Company, first arrived in the area in 1690, and in 1772, Calcutta became the capital of British India – this lasted until 1911, when the capital was moved to Delhi. Calcutta hosts some excellent examples of the best of British colonial architecture. There are some wonderful Victorian buildings, some in “Art Noveau” style, plus the original street lamps, that have, of course, been converted to electricity – also, still in place, are the original metal railings, lining the streets and all recently painted. These days, there is a major refurbishment program to restore the Victorian architectural glories – it’s all part of Calcutta’s rich heritage.
We spent a couple of hours walking around the heart of old Calcutta. The city has a very special buzz, with the traffic honking horns and jostling for position on the wide boulevards. We admired the architecture, the crafts, and trades’ people. We entered a number of historical buildings and visited the memorial to the original Black Hole, where one hundred and twenty-three British soldiers perished, after being incarcerated overnight in a cell measuring just 14 feet by 18 feet.
We then visited St John’s, one of the many famous, historical churches, which houses exquisite paintings by Johann Zoffany, a British artist of German origin, including to the left of the altar an amazing painting of “The Last Supper” that has been carefully restored to its original glory – it was splendid!
One of the downsides of Calcutta is the begging – we were not new to the sight of begging, which is common in Northern India’s major cities but in Calcutta, the begging was more invasive. Young children would grab hold of our arms or legs, women would sit in the street with their naked babies in their arms, with one outstretched hand. Our guide explained that most of the begging is part of a mafia-type organization, with the children seeing very little of what they collect.
The highlight of the afternoon was a visit to the Victoria Memorial. The monument is stunningly beautiful, with the afternoon sun reflecting off the white Makrana marble. The style is Italian Renaissance and Saracenic. The Victoria Memorial was conceived by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India and the foundation was laid by the Prince of Wales in 1906 (he later became King George V). It was opened to the public in Dec. 1921. The total area, with gardens covers 64 acres. The footprint of the building is 338 feet by 228 feet. The height is 184 feet, with a bronze statue of the angel of victory, weighing 3 tons and 16 feet high at the pinnacle. Many compare the memorial to the Taj Mahal – in fact, it is nicknamed “The British Taj”. The memorial is dedicated to Queen Victoria and houses a wonderful collection of rare memorabilia from colonial days, including canons and early arms. We enjoyed viewing the many beautiful paintings and sculptures that chronicled the history of the British in Calcutta.
Alf had worked in Calcutta in his twenties but did not recognise the area in which he had worked and stayed, (it was a long time ago!) At this time, Calcutta was in decline. From Indian independence in 1947 to the early 1990s, Calcutta had had a very tough time but these days it is growing strongly, building on its long history of education, culture and debate – it is actually the cultural centre of India. In modern Calcutta, the technology sector is an important employer for Calcutta’s educated classes. Whilst poverty is still a major challenge, the left-wing regional government has invested heavily to reduce homelessness in this famous Indian city.
Surprisingly, Calcutta is not a city that is on the main tourist circuit and so we were a bit of a novelty. We would certainly like to return and see it in more detail, perhaps if we go back to the Andaman’s!
We returned to our hotel at 5.00 PM to chill out until we left for the nearby airport at 10.30 PM. We had a leisurely meal, including famous Bengali fish curries – it was tasty, different but rather filling. Anyway, we toasted our last curry for a while! Our Air Asia flight left at 1.00 AM and we managed to sleep on the four hour plus journey. With time changes, we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia, at 7.30 AM. In twenty four hours, we had gone from the Andaman Islands, near Burma, to Calcutta, and then arrived in Malaysia. That was a full day! We had a wonderful, relaxing, weekend in Kuala Lumpur but that’s the subject of our next blog…