British Raj churches litter the lanes and streets of Kolkata, ancient cemeteries house gigantic mausoleums, and the fabulous crumbling mansions of the old empire's mandarins dot the city. In various stages of disrepair, these nostalgic reminders of an earlier time are squeezed between twentieth century concrete and glass houses, offices and shops. Overlooking the BBD Bagh, the ornate Writers Building, home to the Secretariat of West Bengal Government, is one of the city's best. 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 the office of current day paper pushers.
Biplabi Trailakya Sarani, BBD Bagh, Kolkata
Google map: bit.ly/TaF5at
Conceived by Lord Curzon, and built long after the British had already moved their capital to Delhi, the Victoria Memorial was opened in 1921. Some describe it as India's modern day rival to the Taj Mahal. The interior is bland (if you want to see inside, avoid Mondays) but for two rupees you can walk round the formal grounds in which it stands. It's an imposing piece of late Victoriana in white marble, extremely well tended – not a crisp packet or plastic bottle in sight – and cleverly showcased among the gardens and lakes. Although impressive, its voluptuous curves don't quite match the splendour of the Taj Mahal.
Escape the madness of the city to a strange place, like an ancient lost city, damp and shaded, hidden on South Park Street in Kolkata. The gatekeeper to the British Cemetery will open the huge metal gates for a small donation and let you into a different world, a quiet tree filled oasis, where the huge graves themselves will tell the story of the Raj and The East India Company.
Here you will find Anglicised versions of Cenotaphs dating back to the 17th century. More than 800 old tombs remain of the original 2000, which will take your breath away. Wander through this eerie place and think about the many British who eventually succumbed to accidents, illness and disease, often at a very young age while the early Imperial outposts were being established.
Take time to ponder about how difficult their lives must have been before emerging back into the chaos of Kolkata.
65 Park Street, Park Street, Taltala, Kolkata, West Bengal 700016, India
+91 33 2217 2861
Google map: bit.ly/SDsIRn
On our final night in Kolkata we went to Kewpies for dinner. Tucked away down a narrow lane off busy Elgin Road, it is the kind of place you have to know about to find. Thanks to Lonely Planet and other assorted sources - and the fact that it was within striking distance of our hotel, www.ivebeenthere.co.uk/tips/33343 - we decided to give it a try.
Kewpies couldn't have been more different. They've knocked a couple of ancient buildings together with interconnecting doors, to form a warren of dining areas. An odd assortment of Victorian and Indian furniture clutters up the place. It has charm and originality in spades. The menu is simple, just a list of set meals ranging from a basic thali and rice to a full-on banquet. Jamie wanted the banquet, I wanted the basic meal. We settled for something nearer my end of the spectrum.
A few individual dishes, all vegetarian, were placed on the table in the ubiquitous brick-coloured un-fired pots you see everywhere in Kolkata. The rice came separately. It didn't look like much, and we hoped the dishes would be re-filled. The food was fresh, spicy, delicious and surprisingly filling, for me. Jamie clung to the hope that the bowls would be re-filled. They were whisked away, and we were left wondering if that was it.
Next came a pile of pappads and a selection of pickles. We tucked in. The pappads were light and crispy, and the pickles and chutneys homemade and tasty. Once every crumb and smear had been devoured we were presented with two blocks of white sweetened cheese. Our waiter told us it was 'like ricotta'. When we asked him if he'd ever tried ricotta he blushed, but told us that other people had assured him of this fact.
He was right.
Next we were given bowls of brown curd. Jamie doesn't like yogurt at the best of times. Although it didn't look particularly appetising, we discovered the colour came from the carob used to flavour this delicious, creamy pudding.
We thought we'd finished, but just as we were getting ready to leave, we were presented with the restaurant's own variety of paan. Zingy flavours sparkled in our mouths as we bit into the leaves. Heavenly.
2, Elgin Lane, Lala Rajpat Rai Sarani Kolkata, West Bengal 700020, India
Hours: 12.30-3pm & 7.30-11pm Tue-Sun
Google map: bit.ly/xjcD6Y
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 early settlers, and tropical disease was a common cause of death for many of them. Soldiers died in relentless skirmishes and shipwrecks took the lives of many mariners. Nevertheless, enough settlers thrived (or were replaced) to oversee the original three villages gradually turn into The British Raj’s great nineteenth century metropolis, Calcutta.
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, obelisks, sarcophagi and stone cupolas. 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.
I felt nostalgia for a time I had never known. One hundred and fourteen years before I arrived there, Sir William Wilson Hunter’s eloquent words summed up the oppression which descended on me as I walked between the tombs.
“Most mournful of graveyards are those walled-up ghastly settlements, desolate spaces of brick ruins, and blotched plaster, reproachful of forgetfulness and neglect. It was difficult to restrain some retrospective pity for the inmates of those squalid tenements — for their hard, hot lives more than a hundred years ago, solaced by none of the alleviations which have become necessaries of our modern Indian existence; with few airy verandahs or lofty ceilings, without punkahs, without ice, without possibilities of change to the hills, or respite to their exile by visits home.
The mental stagnation of a small society given to arrack and heavy dinners in the heat of the tropical day, and dependent for their news of the outer world on three or four shipments a year, produced a tedium vitae even harder to bear… If the world dealt hardly with them in life, it has made no amends to their memory. As I thought of how much they achieved, and how little they have been honoured, I found myself involuntarily composing an apologia for the dead.” (Sir William Wilson Hunter, ‘The Thackerays in India and some Calcutta graves’.)
There were not many visitors to the cemetery on the day my partner and I were there, but then you do have to make a particular effort to go, it is not a place that you pass on the way to anywhere else. We bumped into one other western tourist, a few Indian couples and a small group of Indian soldiers during the two hours we spent there. But we were never alone, the caw-cawing of a hundred flapping crows accompanied us over the whole eight acres.
Among the monoliths, the prosaic British names on the oversized tombs are a long way from home: Elizabeth Jane Barwell, James Addison Webster, Captain Dennis Bodkin, Harriet Chicheley Plowden, Major George Dowlie, Thomas Cotterell, Capt W Mackay.
Edward Wheler Esq, “In his political character which will be best learned from the Pages of History he was an upright, just, and honest Man. And as his disinterested conduct garnered the esteem of all Ranks of Men So in the Memory he is honored, beloved, lamented.”
Near the entrance, and smothered in the edible scent from a curry leaf tree, lies Hastings Impey Esq, “son of Sir Elijah Impey, Factor in the Service of the Eaft India Company who died in the 24th year of his Age February 4th 1805″. His father — the most prominent name on the stone, and former Chief Justice of Bengal — fared rather better than his son. He left India and became the parliamentary member for New Romney, before retiring to Brighton. In 1809 he died, and was buried in the family vault in Hammersmith.
Much of the cemetery was 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 were reasonably clear and at over 250 years old the tombs would have been swallowed up without some attention.
As you read each new story in the names, ages, dedications and tomb designs, you are reminded of the bravery and stoicism shown by these settlers. The journey alone would have been a hardship, and then to end up in such inhospitable and unknown terrain would have been an even greater trial, especially for women in their layers of clothes and corsetry. For all their jingoism and arrogance, you can't help but feel humbled by their intrepidness. We call ourselves travellers today, but catching a flight over to the other side of the world for a quick jaunt up to Machu Picchu, or a guided tour round a wildlife park, doesn’t compare to the terrifying adventure into the unknown these individuals must had endured for the sake of commerce.
Mother Teresa Sarani, Kolkata, India
We arrived in the city late in the day, and no-one was more relieved than me to discover the hotel I'd booked wasn't half bad. I chose the no frills Hotel Trimoorti off Elgin Road. Its common parts were basic, resembling a cheap serviced office corridor, but the kingsize bed, crisp white sheets and modern, faultless bathroom of the 'super deluxe' room made up for no view and no hotel lounge. Speaking to the owner at the end of our stay, he explained that all the hotel's resources had been concentrated on comfortable rooms and efficient room service. At 8190 INR for three nights in a state capital, including a/c and breakfast, I'd happily recommend the hotel. (In my experience the best room in a cheap hotel beats the worst room in a top hotel any day.) The room service was fast and faultless and the food, particularly the local breakfast, excellent.
If you're anywhere near Kolkata, chances are you're hot, sweaty and dreaming of a dip in some nice cool (and more to the point, clean) water.
Well, a trip to Wet-O-Wild could be exactly what you need. This outdoor water park complete with slides and wave pool provided a fun and refeshing day out for me and three friends.
Because it's India, you have to wear your clothes in the pool - shorts and t-shirts are fine (girls, I wouldn't advise vest tops). The rules say cotton is not allowed, which flummoxed me until I tried to use one of the slides wearing an entirely cotton outfit. I stopped halfway down because of the friction. So, go for man-made materials such as nylon football shirts. These can be hired at the pool if necessary.
Decent food and drink is available on the poolside (dosas, noodles, chaat, tea, coffee etc).
Entry to Nicco Park plus the pool complex is 270 Rs (£3.70) - a bit expensive for India, you might say, but to me being able to cool down like that was priceless. There are theme-park-style rides in Nicco Park too, which require a separate ticket.
Nicco Park, Kolkata
We took a taxi from Sudder Street (near Park Street metro), which cost 160 Rs (£2.20) and took about half an hour.
HM Block, Salt Lake, Kolkata, West Bengal 700106, India
+91 33 2357 8101
Google map: bit.ly/kgE4q2
This cheerful eatery in the heart of Kolkata serves delicious dosas and other South Indian specialities for extremely good prices. I knew it was going to be good because it passed the two recommended tests of a) being busy and b) attracting lots of families. I was so impressed that I ended up going almost every day during my week-long stay in Kolkata.
The dosa is a kind of pancake made of fermented rice, stuffed with a spicy potato filling and served with coconut chutney and sambar, a tasty vegetable sauce. At Sarang, the dosa list takes up half the menu, and each costs 30-50 rupees (about 50-70p – normal for India). The price depends on which filling you choose. I particularly liked the ones with green peppers (capsicum) and onion.
Sarang’s chana bhatura (chickpeas served with Indian breads) is also particularly good and the puffed breads they serve with it are very fresh. I’d also recommend their lassis (the Sarang version is flavoured with rose water) and freshly squeezed juices. Lip-smacking stuff!
15/A Jl Nehru Road, Kolkata, West Bengal, India
(opposite KFC and Domino's Pizza)
+91 98 31 936175
Google map: bit.ly/mMrsX1
Amazing cheap snacks that are really filling and widely available. Kolkata was the only place I found them. If you're looking for something quick and delicious you should definitely try them. If you're in Kasbah try Shurav's, just off Rajdanga Main Road. Incredible!
Google map: bit.ly/9wDTFw
A must see, the temple is made out of mirrored glass. Thousands upon thousands of pieces of mirrored glass inset into the walls - if you have ever been to the Amber Palace in Jaipur.
Off Ras Dinendra St and down Badr Das Temple Rd
A fascinating little museum, not to be missed when visiting Kolkata. It covers everything from 1930s anti-British terror gangs (and a good selection of homemade wooden bombs), Dacoitism in the city and some rather gruesome modern murders.
113, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road
Kolkata - 700 009
Just read that stuff is cheap in Moscow? It doesn't have anything on Calcutta or Kolkata as they are now calling it. First of all let's talk about alcohol - it's less that 50p for a litre of vodka - and that is Smirnoff as well. Second, fags. The best prices I have ever seen - 200 for £1.50. I KNOW!!! However, some of you I know will be thinking that these cigarettes will not be real. This is probably true because in the real shops they are more expensive (around £8.00 for 200.) However, even if they are fake, they taste fine! And if you are arguing about the fact that they are full of poison, the real ones kill you anyway. That's just my opinion.
You'll find it on Park Street, (or Mother Teresa Sourani as they now call it) from a street vendor just beyond Music World. He will sort you out, but don't let him take you for a ride if you're a tourist. Don't pay more than £5.00, and if you're good at bargaining, he is known to let them go for as little as £1.50 for 200.
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