Howrah Train Station at 4am is as bustling and busy as Cambridge train station at peak time. No, stop. It’s busier. The train station is one of the biggest in India. Leading from it is the equally grand Howrah Bridge – one of the last things the Britishers (as they are at times called in India) built in Kolkata before the Indian independence. The bridge is massive, constructed of silver steel and very industrial in appearance. We caught an Uber from the edge of the bridge to our old-fashioned hotel, where we awaited Philipp’s arrival later in the day.
While waiting for Philipp we went for a short walk through the streets of Kolkata. This city, as already mentioned is very busy and full of people and consequently has a lot to offer. There seem to be food stalls offering yummy street food on every corner. The architecture is an eclectic mixture of European and Indian styles. There is so much history to discover around Kolkata. The city certainly has its vibe and charm, but it also has it’s share of social problems. Pollution is overwhelming – the streets are covered in rubbish and the air is at times hard to breathe. There are very wealthy people in Kolkata and there are the extremely impoverished. Brand new high-rises get built next to buildings practically falling apart.
We stayed in Kolkata for about 4 days, taking a day out to see the Sunderbans National Park. During our time in the city we visited the Ramakrishna world headquarters, the flower market, the neighbourhood where Hindu idols are made of straw and clay, an old British cemetary at Park Street, Victoria Memorial, St. Pauls Cathedral and ate plenty of yummy food starting with street food and ending with a fancy meal in one of Kolkata’s oldest restaurants. We tried Indian variations on Chinese and European food, both tasty but we definitely preferred the Chinese. We also discovered what the thing we dubbed ‘the eggy spice’ was, when an over enthusiastic sugar cane drink seller put lots of it into our drinks.
For those interested the seasoning in question is called kala namak, literally meaning black salt, but it often looks like normal salt and is light gray/white in colour. Kala namak contains a lot of sulphur, hence the ‘eggy’ taste. This salt seems very popular in India and as well as being occasionally added to sugar cane drinks it is also used in the Chaat Masala spice mix (note to self: avoid).
We stayed in the anachronistic Broadway Hotel, opened in the 1930s and still featuring uniformed porters and a caged elevator. Undoubtedly dusty and decrepit, the hotel still maintains a certain charm, and throughout our stay we happily spent time just sat on the balcony listening to the cacophony created by Kolkata’s traffic. It was from here we conducted our forrays into the city to see the sights. We travelled using a combination of ubers, cabs and Kolkata’s surprisingly clean metro. We also even managed a journey on the confusing auto-rickshaw network, where the tuk-tuks run in straight lines only and the destinations can be indecipherable (occasionally they are written in English rather than Bengali in a shortened form e.g. MG road is Mahatma Gandhi Road). From our experiences we have extracted summaries of some of the things we saw, which we have created into a short guide to Kolkata’s sights.
The Ramakrishna Math and Mission and the Belur Math
I have to admit ignorance. Before visiting the Ramakrishna Math and Mission in Howrah I thought the Ramakrishna and the Harekrishna (the friendly lot that hang around near to UCL and SOAS giving out free food and singing the Harekrishna mantra) are one and the same. In fact these two are two distinct movements. The mission in Howrah is the world’s Ramakrishna headquarters and it’s where the movement originated over 100 years ago. These days Ramakrishna disciples can be found across the world. Philipp says they are present in Düsseldorf and hang around across the road from the Scientology people, who offer to connect you to their stress measuring machine free of charge. In Düsseldorf the Ramakrishna followers wear the easily recognisable attire, talk to people about the Ramakrishna mission and give out books on the subject for small donations. Philipp probably knows a lot more about the topic than David or I. I found it interesting to find out more about the Ramakrishna believes and about what guides them. The Ramakrishna motto is: “For one’s own salvation and for the welfare of the world”. Following this motto the Ramakrishna followers are involved in numerous charitable projects across the world, including “hospitals, dispensaries, mobile medical units, schools, colleges, rural development centres and many other social service institutions”. Moreover the Mission encourages “adherents of different faiths to meet in a spirit of friendship and mutual appreciation, and to learn from one another without having to give up one’s own faith”. The Ramakrishna Mission seems to encourage a pretty decent and humanist way of being. [Text in quotation marks comes from Below Math’s official website: click here. For more information about the Ramakrishna Mission please check out this site.]
Crossing the Hooghly River
The Hooghly River separates Howrah on the West bank from Kolkata on the East bank. A boat across the Hooghly, from a jetty not far from the Belur Math goes few times an hour. A boat to Bagh Bazaar, where we wanted to be isn’t as frequent, so instead we went on the short boat across ending up on a small jetty on the opposite bank. We wandered around the narrow roads shooting off from the jetty and spent good 30 minutes trying to change a 2000 rupee note to buy a pretty kurta from a seller who had no change, only to find he closed his shop for the afternoon and wouldn’t be back till gone 6pm. We had some coconuts instead and headed on to Bagh Baazar and the Idol makers’ street.
The Idol Makers
A short cab ride in one of Kolkata’s yellow ambassador cabs took us to the Idol maker’s street (Bonomali Sarkar Street). Here simple figures made from straw bundles are coated in layers of clay, then expertly carved and painted into the forms of Hindu gods and goddesses. Also apparently sometimes into Spiderman.
We could see examples of all the stages of this work drying in the sun or awaiting the next stage of work. They ranged from miniature Ganesh’s which would sit happily on a mantle piece to ten-foot high pieces with multiple figures in. A stroll further brought us to railway tracks, littered with rejected partially completed idols. This site is easy to miss without a guide, but very much worth the effort.
The flower market
Not for the faint of heart, this flower market lies just next to Howrah bridge, on the opposite side of the river to the station. Inside the narrow covered part of the market the cloying smell of flowers both fresh and rotting from the day before can be a little overwhelming. Don’t however try to escape this by heading for the river, the banks of which are used both as a refuse tip and a toilet. Strolling along the main road of the market parallel to the river is preferable, and still allows you to see the colourful garlands, mixed with some of the more bizarre spiky Indian plants, the names of which remain a mystery, but which the baffled vendor told Philipp he shouldn’t eat.
Park Street Cemetery
Much of Kolkata’s colonial architecture was built to impress, notably Victoria monument and Howrah bridge. While this may be logical for an insecure empire trying to sell “progress”, it is surprising to see in a place like a cemetery. Park Street Cemetery is however considerably grander than any european burial ground, with magnificent pyramid memorial stones towering like multi-storey buildings. Under these lie the remains of many East-India Company men, although sadly there seems as of yet no easily available record of the graves there. We walked among the tombs at the end of a very busy day of sightseeing, which was a delightfully calm experience suffused with a mysterious feel. This was aided by the most impressive stone bearing only a tribute with no name. As far as I am aware, its owner remains anonymous to this day.
The undoubted crown of the colonial architecture of Kolkata, the Victoria Monument was built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, but took so long to complete that by the time it was finished Queen Victoria died. The monument itself sits in the middle of a vast garden filled with fountains’ statues, exotic flowers and trees and perfectly kept, green lawns. The gardens offer a bit of peace and quiet and a breath of almost clean air in a very busy city. The imposing white marble memorial is symmetrical in design and has a high domed roof. Inside it houses an art gallery and a big statue of young Queen Victoria.