Getting under the skin of any big city is best done on foot. But Kolkatans are justifiably proud of their fabulous metro: it is efficient and clean (there’s not a plastic bottle, sweet wrapper or smelly puddle in sight). With fares ranging from 4 rupees to 8 rupees—that’s 5p to 10p—it would be churlish to miss this treat. The metro’s single line runs from north to south (or south to north depending on your perspective), so you can’t get lost. Combine it with a walk and get to know Kolkata on the cheap.
1. Cross the bridge
The Howrah bridge spans Kolkata’s Hooghly River, linking the neighbourhoods of Howrah (on the west) and Kolkata (on the east). Made from 26,500 tons of steel it is one of the largest cantilevered bridges in the world. Famous for not containing a single nut, bolt or screw, the entire construction is held together with rivets. But you better get there fast because it is being eaten away by Indian spit. The corrosive chewing treats of gutka (a kind of chewing tobacco containing a mixture of crushed betel nut, tobacco, paraffin, lime and other optional flavours) and paan (betel leaf filled with any assortment of spices, pastes and nuts and sometimes tobacco) are deposited on the the bridge every day by some of the 100,000+ people who cross it. One engineering solution is to coat the bridge in a fibreglass shield, and ingeniously it is hoped that by adding pictures of gods and goddesses into the coating, spitters will be frightened into leaving their deposits elsewhere.
Nearest metro station: Mahatma Gandhi Road.
2. Idolise a goddess
Kumartuli is the potters’ district of Kolkata. It was named by the British in the eighteenth century from the Hindi terms “kumar” (potter) and “tuli” (neighbourhood). The local inhabitants have been producing idols of every size and shape from clay and straw for generations. All made by hand, some of the larger figures take a week to complete. Production reaches fever-pitch before Durga Puja, the most important festival in the overloaded Bengali Hindu calendar, when outside help is brought in. Head towards Banamali Sarkar Street at any time of the year to pick your way past ateliers loaded to the ceiling with idols of Durga and other gods and goddesses. They are not for sale; each one has been pre-ordered for the festival, and many will be travelling overseas to meet their worshippers.
Nearest metro station: Shyam Bazar.
3. Mind the ghat
Ghats (literally “stairs leading to water”) are dotted all the way along the banks of the Houghly River. On the east side, follow the river south from the Howrah bridge for a few kilometres and you will pass the Armenian Ghat, Fairlie Ghat, Babu Ghat, Outram Ghat and Prinsep Ghat. Underneath the roof of the columned entrance hall of Babu Ghat the air swirls with incense, and people sit quietly meditating on the floor or benches. Wide steps lead down to the river where some of Kolkata’s poorer residents wash their clothes (and themselves), prepare evening meals, lie down to sleep, and offer puja. You can join the locals and walk the train track along the side of the Hooghly from ghat to ghat.
Nearest metro station: Esplanade.
4. Spot the East India Company legacy
Kolkata is packed with British architecture: churches litter its lanes, commercial offices dominate the BBD Bagh, and the fabulous crumbling mansions of the East India Company’s mandarins dot the city. In various stages of disrepair, these gorgeous reminders of an earlier time (often with Georgian windows and balustrades) are squeezed between new concrete buildings. Overlooking the BBD Bagh, the ornate Secretariat of West Bengal Government building is one of the city’s most impressive sights. Originally known as the Writers’ Building, it was erected in 1790 to house the clerks of the ubiquitous East India Company. Now its heroic red and cream façade dominates the area, and is home to 21st century bureaucrats.
Nearest metro station: Central.
5. Choose your religion
Walking north from the Writers Building, the chock-a-block Barabazar market area is sprinkled with Hindu temples, cathedrals and mosques. There is even a synagogue (look out for the red bricks of the nineteenth century Magen David Synagogue). To savour a silent haven in Kolkata, look no further than the charming seventeenth century Armenian church. It is a serene detour from the choked alleys. Understated white walls hidden behind leafy trees, and wooden interiors, lend it a Mediterranean atmosphere. The entrance is manned by sleepy, but friendly guards and officials. Although free to enter, it is customary to offer a small donation.
Nearest metro station: Mahatma Gandhi Road or Central.
6. Join all the people for some parklife
The Maidan (pronounced Moidan) is a cross between London’s Richmond and Regent’s Parks. It is known as the lungs of Kolkata, but this vast semi-wild “field” (the literal translation) is also its heart. It’s a magnet for old and young Kolkatans who walk, run and play here. There are clubs for every kind of team sport. Families picnic together and lovers coyly circle each other. It is home to exhibitions and fairs throughout the year. In the late afternoon a hundred boys and men wrestle with long pieces of string attached to kites made from bin liners, wrapped round bamboo struts. When the light starts to fail be careful to avoid being garotted by the tight twine as it stretches across the paths. You could easily spend all day in the Maidan.
Nearest metro station: Esplanade, Park Street or Maidan.
7. Compare Queen Vic’s homage to the Mughals with the Taj Mahal
Conceived by Lord Curzon and built long after the British had moved their capital to Delhi, the Victoria Memorial was opened in 1921. It is not free, but four rupees (about 5p) is all you pay to enter the formal gardens. These symmetrical lawns and ponds, shaded by elegant trees, give uninterrupted views of this Edwardian homage to Mughal architecture (it is sometimes known as Kolkata’s Taj Mahal). Tended by barrow-loads of gardeners to within an inch of its life, there is not a plastic bottle or sweet wrapper to be seen. A short hop across Cathedral Road will get you to the Neo-Gothic St Paul’s Cathedral (entrance free, although donations are prayed for). The grounds of this mid nineteenth century holy marvel are also worth a turn around.
Nearest metro station: Maidan or Rabindra Sadan.
8. Remember the early pioneers
Kolkata’s South Park Street Cemetery, with its 18th and 19th century monolithic tombs, is full of the tales and tribulations of Britain’s earliest pioneers. India was filled with danger for its settlers, and tropical disease was a common cause of death for many of them. Built in 1767 for the early East India Company pioneers and their attendants, this latter day necropolis is packed with giant mausoleums, all vying for top billing: pyramids, colonnaded temples, oversized urns, rotunda, obelisks and sarcophagi. The cemetery is a roll-call of the soldiers, sailors, civil servants, merchants, women and children who succumbed to the rigours of an unfamiliar and disease-ridden life in the tropics. Much of the cemetery is overgrown, and many of the tombs are decaying: inscriptions no longer legible, corners falling off and columns crumbling. Someone is keeping the jungle at bay, though, because the pathways are reasonably clear and at over 250 years old the tombs would have been swallowed up without some attention. There’s no entrance fee, but the caretaker might ask for a donation for the upkeep of this spectacular cemetery. Read more here.
Nearest metro station: Park Street.
9. Head south
Kalighat, one of the three original villages that existed before the British came (now swallowed up by the city), lies to the south of central Kolkata. Stroll down Kalighat Road, a wide and peaceful thoroughfare (compared to the rest of Kolkata), flanked by stalls selling all sorts of household and general goods. The shopkeepers won’t pester you and are happy to pass the time of day. In the middle of this welcome ordinariness is Kolkata’s most holy place, the Kalighat Kali Temple. Entrance is free, but numerous touts and pandits will try to “give you a tour” and ask for money. The temple is regarded as one of the 52 Shakti Peetha of India, where the various body parts of Sati,Vishnu’s wife, fell (in this case one of her right toes). Opposite the temple is Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying, known locally as the Nirmal Hriday. Entrance is free, but donations are encouraged.
Nearest metro station: Jatin Das Park.
10. Pay your respects at the burning ghats
This is where modern-day Kolkatans come to cremate their dead. Take the metro to Kalighat station, then wander westwards towards the Keoratala burning ghat through a maze of roads lined with trees and middle class houses. The area is full of singing birds, but there are few people about during the day. When you hit Tollygunge Road the noise level ratchets upwards, and you will find your way to the Keoratala burning ghat. Like pretty much everywhere in India, the locals will encourage you to look around and to ask questions. The cheerful atmosphere here is an echo of the fatalistic attitude to life and death in India. Enormous shrines and monuments to the dead line the banks of the canal.
Nearest metro station: Kalighat.
A final word on the metro
It’s cheap, fast, efficient, clean and cool.
But don’t stand by the door. You will be pushed, shoved and smothered as people fight to get off at the next stop. There are no “let the passengers off the train FIRST!” or “move right down inside the carriage” announcements. (Luckily there are no gaps to mind either, so murders and accidents are few.) The rest of the carriage will be empty, but there will be a scrum by the door. Do yourself a favour and move down the carriage and leave the fighting hordes (sometimes consisting of no more than a handful of people) by the exits.
Remember this: everywhere in India it is your duty to try to get off, get on, get out, get in, go up or come down first. And it is the norm to stand so close to the person in front of you that you touch them with every bit of your body. This innocent frottaging happens in queues for tickets, queues in shops, queues for the lift, queues in the airport, queues for taxis, queues for the ferry … you get my drift. I must add that I use the term ‘queue’ loosely.
It’s easy to get irritated by this behaviour if you come from the UK—or anywhere else that values the notion of queueing—and even after living here for two years I have to remind myself that it is just a cultural thing. My western two metre diameter personal space requirement just doesn’t cut the mustard in this country of a billion people. My advice? Jump into the human stew and just bubble along with everyone else.