There are various theories about the origins of Kolkata, one claiming a reference to the port in ancient Chinese manuscripts, another that it appears in Bipradas Pipilai's classic fifteenth century Hindu work 'Manasa Mangal', still others that it is listed in Akbar's 'Ain-i-Akbari'. Whatever Kolkata's origins, it is likely to have been inhabited in one form or another for thousands of years. But it was the British who, at the end of the seventeenth century, began the development of what is today a lively, modern state capital.
Conceived by Lord Curzon and built long after the British had moved their capital to Delhi, the Victoria Memorial was opened in 1921. Some say it is India's modern day rival to the Taj Mahal. The building was closed when we visited (if you want to see inside, avoid Mondays) so Jamie and I contented ourselves with a walk round the immaculate grounds. It's an imposing piece of late Victoriana in gleaming white marble, extremely well tended – not a crisp packet or plastic bottle in sight – and cleverly showcased among its gardens and lakes. Although impressive and photogenic, for me it lacked a little magic. The Taj Mahal it ain't.
Kolkata is packed with British Raj architecture: churches litter its lanes and streets, ancient cemeteries house gigantic mausoleums, commercial buildings dominate the BBD Bagh, and the fabulous crumbling mansions of the East India Company's mandarins dot the city. 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 built 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 current day paper pushers. Scattered throughout the city, and in various stages of disrepair, these gorgeous reminders of an earlier time (often with Georgian windows and balustrades) are squeezed between new concrete houses, offices and shops.
Walking north from the Writers Building we found the charming and unpretentious Armenian church, a serene detour from Kolkata's choked alleys. Its understated white-washed walls and wooden interior lent it a Mediterranean feel. The entrance was manned by guards and officials (although there is no entrance fee), and a cleric of some sort bustled about inside the church. We were the only visitors in this silent holy haven, a rare luxury in India.
Built in 1784, the imposing family mansion of India's Nobel prize winner in literature, Rabindranath Tagore, proved to be another quiet retreat from the human stew bubbling outside. Living in the lap of luxury, every whim of the Tagore household was catered to by silent servants. No wonder the family had time to direct its energy at creative, highbrow activities. The house is a shrine to all things Tagore, although much of the original building is now Rabindra Bharati University.
In the late afternoon, we escaped Kolkata's grandeur and stopped off at Babu Ghat on the banks of the Hooghley. Hidden behind a grubby archway, wide steps lead down to the river bank. Here some of Kolkata's poorer residents wash their clothes (and themselves), prepare evening meals, lie down to sleep, and offer pujas. Incense smoke drifted in the darkness under the roof of the oddly greco-styled entrance gate, and people sat quietly on the floor or benches. We passed through this area of meditation to the river, and Jamie went off, camera in hand, to talk to the men drying themselves at the top of the steps. Further down and away from the naked men, I drew an inquisitive and hospitable crowd around me who all wanted to know where I was from and whether I liked India.
Beginning to tire after eight hours of walking, we headed towards the Maidan (a cross between London's Richmond and Regent's Parks) for an off-road short cut back to our hotel. As the sun made its rapid descent, the sky began to fill with black kites, some of them tiny specks a mile high. At first we took them to be of the raptor variety, but as we emerged from the undergrowth into wide grassland we saw a hundred boys and men wrestling with long pieces of string that stretched into the distance. They were flying kites, and the reason the kites were black was because they were all made from bin liners wrapped round bamboo struts. The passion for kite-flying is strong in north India, evidence of this enthusiastic pastime often to be seen tangled in the wires and cables slung between narrowly spaced buildings. We picked our way through knots of concentrating fliers, following the tight twine as it reached into the twilight. As the light began to fail I walked straight towards an invisible taut line, and was saved from a nasty garotting by Jamie's quick reactions. It was time to head home.