Discovering Kolkata

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A warm hello and a very happy New Year to all you wonderful readers of mine :-)

I’m sure you all must have done a bit of mulling over your accomplishments in 2015. Well, I did ;-)

Last year, I fulfilled my dream of travelling through all 29 states of Incredible India! YES, I DID IT!!! I stamped my footprints on each and every state of the beautiful country :-) And not only that, I have visited each of its borders (including LOC with Pakistan) with neighbouring countries (except for the India-Burma Border, about which you will read in a later post on Mizoram).

In the beginning of the year, towards the end of January, I travelled to Gujarat. Later, in May and June, I visited Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In October, I went to Bihar and Jharkhand. A month later, I was in Rajasthan. And finally in December, I covered the North-eastern states of Tripura and Mizoram. That’s 10 states in 12 months!!! Yeah, I sure did a good bit of travelling :-) And then, I ended my incredible solo journey across the country in a surprisingly wonderful city…Kolkata! And at a wonderful place in this sprawling city…Belur Math! Now you’re probably wondering “what’s that?” Good, keep your curiosity aroused as I take you on a quick tour through Kolkata :-)

A bit about Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the state capital of West Bengal and one of the largest cities in India …

In 1690, Job Charnock, an agent of the British East India Company, bought three villages – Gobindapur, Sutanati and Kalikata and combined them to build the city which was then known as “London of the East”. It was the capital of British India till 1911.

And now, about my five-day stay in Kolkata :-) Happy reading!

Sunday, 20 December 2015

At around 10:30 am, I arrive at the Netaji Subhash Chandra International Airport at Dumdum, which is 17 km from the city centre. For the first time on my solo travels within the country, I have pre-booked my hotel stay. Well, MakeMyTrip.com, was offering up to 60% off on online domestic hotel bookings, so I jumped on the amazing deal. Since I’m flying to Agartala tomorrow morning, I have chosen a hotel close to the airport, alongside VIP Road. Based on good reviews on Trip Advisor, I have booked Swagatham Inn.

The pre-paid airport taxi fare to my hotel is 130 rupees. It takes 10 minutes to reach the area which has a good number of hotels. I’m slightly disappointed when I see the place. It’s a small guest house with a restaurant below. Location-wise it’s ideal, next to a Big Bazaar store which serves as an excellent landmark. The hotel manager (or owner) at the reception desk on the upper floor, is helpful and provides me the details of moving around in local transport to the places that I plan to visit. Moreover, I get a deluxe room (the best room in the hotel, I’m told) even though I have paid for a standard one.

The bus stop is just outside the hotel. I board the first bus going to Howrah. It’s a rickety-looking minibus. The bus fare is 10 rupees. I get a good view of all the areas on the way for around 30-40 minutes. The Hooghly River comes into sight. And then, the bus is on the iconic Howrah Bridge. The last stop is Howrah Bus Depot, just outside Howrah Railway Station. I climb down, cross the road and take this photo…

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Watch my video: Howrah Bridge

“Welcome to Rabindra Setu”. Popularly known as the Howrah Bridge, this eight-lane cantilever bridge with suspended span is an engineering marvel, which took six years to construct. It is the world’s third largest cantilever bridge. Opened in 1943, the truss bridge was originally named the New Howrah Bridge because it replaced a pontoon bridge at the same location linking the two cities of Howrah and Kolkata. In 1965, it was renamed Rabindra Setu (Bridge) after the renowned Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first Indian and Asian Nobel laureate.

Ferry services are available for crossing the Hooghly River. The jetty is near Howrah Station. I buy a 5-rupee ticket to Babu Ghat.

Watch my video: View of the Howrah Bridge

There are plenty of tourists around and when the boat arrives, it gets filled up immediately. Cruising across the river for a while, it halts at this lovely ghat (series of steps leading down to the river), Fairlie Ghat …

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View of the Howrah Bridge on the way to Babu Ghat…

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Watch my video: Full view of Howrah Bridge 

Reaching Babu Ghat, there’s not much to see except for the lovely view of Howrah Bridge to the east and Vidayasagar Setu to the west.

Just opposite the road is Eden Gardens. Built in 1864, it’s one of the oldest and biggest cricket stadiums in the world. I board a bus to Esplanade (also called Dharamatala), which is a short distance away. The place got its name from this heritage building “Esplanade Mansions” which was built during the British colonial era when Kolkata was the capital of British India …

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Esplanade, the city centre, is a bustling place surrounded by colonial-era heritage buildings. It reminds me of the South Mumbai areas of Colaba, Fort, Churchgate and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus…

Spying a K.C. Das restaurant around the corner, I walk in for yummy rossogollas (a popular Bengali sweet)…

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After wandering around aimlessly for a few hours, I climb into a bus to I-don’t-know-where on the Jawaharlal Nehru Road. Kolkata has an extensive network of public and private buses. From air-conditioned Volvo buses to rattling minibuses, the city roads are full of them. Private buses in steel body colour with green borders connect the suburbs, while red mini buses with yellow border in between stop at fixed points all over the city. Yellow ambassador taxis and blue-white AC taxis are easily available too. (They run on meters but all the taxis that I travelled in during my five-day stay in the city charged me otherwise.)

Getting off the bus, the first building that I see is the Birla Planetarium. Built in 1963, it was the first of its kind in India, the biggest in Southeast Asia and one of the largest in the world. Beyond it, I see the towering white spires of the 19th century St Paul’s Cathedral…

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It starts getting dark at 4:30pm. So I take the Esplanade-Airport Volvo bus to my hotel. The bus ticket cost 45 rupees. I get off just opposite my hotel but there is no road crossing so I have to hop into a cycle-rickshaw that charges me 30 bucks just to go a short distance and make a U-turn to stop outside my hotel.

In the morning, the hotel room boy had given me a mineral water bottle that smelt bad just like the place. I doubted the genuineness of the mineral water. So I have purchased one extra bottle for tomorrow. For dinner, I satisfy my hunger with four juicy chikoos (sapota fruit) bought near Howrah Bridge. The one good thing about the room is that it has one-way glass window. From my bed, I watch the outside world go by until sleep catches me…

Monday, 21 December 2015

 

At 4:30am, I receive an sms from Air-India customer service. My flight has been rescheduled to 5:35pm. A delay of eight hours! The hotel checkout time is 12 noon but the owner-manager is kind enough to let me keep the room till 2pm. Still, the hotel isn’t to my liking. So I look for a better place in the neighbourhood for my next visit. An hour later, I discover that the best hotel in the neighbourhood is Celesta. But its single room tariff starts from 5500 plus taxes. It doesn’t fit in my budget, even after the MakeMyTrip.com discount. I choose Hotel Orbit which is near Raghunathpur Bus Stand.

The yellow taxi (that’s supposed to go by meter) to airport costs me 300 bucks. My flight is further delayed by another hour. A total delay of nine hours!

 

 

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

 

My Indigo flight from Agartala arrives at Kolkata airport around 11:00am. I have booked my stay at Hotel Mayur Residency on S.N. Banerjee Road. It’s next to Kolkata Technical School, and a 5-minute walk from Esplanade.

The pre-paid airport taxi fare is 280 rupees. Unfortunately for me, it’s the taxi driver’s first day at the airport. He is concerned about encashing his fare till someone tells him that he has to do that later. Furthermore, the irritating character keeps insisting that I check the hotel that he is recommending despite my telling him that I have made a hotel reservation. Reaching the hotel, he calls out to one of the doormen. “There’s no room available for Madam, right?” Confused, the doorman agrees with him. I blast them both before making a furious arrival in the hotel reception.

Mayur Residency is an excellent choice for city-centre budget accommodation at 3000 rupees or so. It is centrally air-conditioned and very well-located, but the food served here is strictly vegetarian.

I’m happy with my 5th room. The Esplanade Metro Station is just five minutes down the busy, noisy road. When I walk out, it is lunch time. People, mostly office crowd, are tucking into street food at the numerous roadside stalls. Crossing the busy roads is a bit dicey. At one place, in the middle of the road, I grab an arm of the nearest person walking alongside me. Fortunately, he is a nice sort and does not misinterpret the impulsive act.

Kolkata’s Metro Rail – the first underground metro rail service in India – is the city’s lifeline.  A 5-rupee ticket from Esplanade gets me to Rabindra Sadan, two stations away, within a few minutes. Once there, I start looking for “Oh! Calcutta”, a fancy restaurant offering authentic Bengali seafood delicacies. I don’t have its exact address. Only that it’s located in a mall on Elgin Road. So I ask a few school boys passing by. They don’t know the restaurant, but they guess the name of the mall and show me the way to Forum Mall, the city’s first mall.

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“Oh! Calcutta” is supposed to be a great place for fish and prawns. So I opt for Matal Chingri (prawns) and Bhapa Ilish (hilsa fish) with steamed rice.

But first, Corona Beer with a complimentary accompaniment – roasted papads and yummy dips…

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The prawns look and taste absolutely delicious! (I remembered to take a photo only after finishing off two of them)

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I’m told that the ingredients in it included vodka. It sure worked wonders with the flavours!

Having tasted an absolutely delicious preparation of the famous hilsa from Bangladesh in Agartala just yesterday, I’m a bit disappointed with the boneless preparation of Bhapa Ilish (hilsa fish). It’s not bad but a bit different.

The Nolen Gurer ice cream is delightful…

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Nolen Gurer (or Nalen Gur) is date palm jaggery, one of the most important ingredients in the winter delicacies of Bengal, especially sweets. Natural nalen gur is available only during winter.

It is late evening when I return to my hotel. Just opposite the road, there is a small fish market with around a dozen fishermen selling different kinds of fish.

Hilsa fish…

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Watch my video: Roadside fish market in Kolkata

After the heavy lunch, dinner is light. Vegetarian soup. I go off to bed early at 9:00pm.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

 

The next morning, after a light breakfast, I start off for Esplanade. At 7:30am, there are hardly any people or vehicles on the roads. So I’m able to take a leisurely walk around the surrounding areas, past the Gothic-style New Market (or SS Hogg Market, built by the British), Bertram Street, Chowringhee Place … In this area, surrounded by colonial heritage buildings, there are 2-3 luxury hotels. Some more are located a short distance away on Sudder Street and Park Street. It’s a convenient location. The upscale Park Street is one of the busiest and popular shopping arcades of Kolkata.

A hand-drawn cart on the Jawaharlal Nehru Road at Esplanade…

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From Esplanade, I take the metro to Kalighat, six stations away. It costs 10 rupees and I reach within a short while.

Kalighat is home to the highly-venerated Kali Temple which was built in 1809, though the original temple is supposed to have been built 350 years ago. It’s dedicated to Goddess Kali, the deity of power. The temple is accessed through narrow lanes in a residential locality. The idol of the Goddess is made of black stone. Being early morning, there are not many people around. I skip the nearby Gariahat Market, a shopaholic’s haunt. It opens at 10:30am.

Back at Esplanade, I start for Princep Ghat.

On the way, I pass the iconic Kolkata electric tram. Though withdrawn in some areas over the years, the iconic electric tram can be seen running on road tracks.

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Morning view of Strand Road from Babu Ghat to Princep Ghat…

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This 2 km stretch of the beautified riverfront from Babu Ghat to Princep Ghat was inaugurated in 2012…

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It has illuminated and landscaped gardens and pathways, and renovated ghats. Prinsep Ghat also has a railway station named after it. The station is part of the Kolkata Circular Railway which is maintained by Eastern Railway.

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Watch my video: Prinsep Ghat

It’s one of the city’s oldest recreational spots. A quiet and serene place in the morning. But it would most probably get crowded in the evening and on weekends. People enjoying boating on the river, strolling along the bank, relishing something at one of the many ice-cream and fast food stalls, etc…

Watch my video: Serene Princep Ghat

Named after eminent Anglo-Indian scholar and antiquary James Prinsep, this ghat was built in 1841 during the British Rule. In its initial years, all royal British entourages used the jetty for embarkation and disembarkation.

The Vidyasagar Setu forms a beautiful backdrop against the Prinsep Ghat…

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Vidyasagar Setu, also known as the Second Hooghly Bridge, is the longest cable-stayed bridge in India and one of the longest in Asia. The construction work of this suspension bridge, a joint effort between the public and private sectors, was completed in 1992 over a period of 22 years. It is named after 19th-century Bengali educationist reformer Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.

Watch my video: Vidyasagar Setu

Yours truly against the backdrop of Vidyasagar Setu…

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Crossing the railway track, I return to Strand Road. Before me, stands the entrance gate to Fort William, the headquarters of the Indian Army’s Eastern Command…

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Being a restricted area, the fort inside, built in 1773, is not open to public.

I return to Esplanade by a Volvo bus. The Volvo bus ticket for the short distance costs 25 rupees, while private minibuses charge 7 rupees for the same. On the way back to my hotel, I stop to check this potato-like edible tuber…

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I haven’t seen it anywhere before. The vendor tells me its local name, saukhali or something. It comes from the neighbouring state of Odisha.  After peeling the skin, it is eaten raw with a sprinkling of salt and chilli powder.

By eleven, there is plenty of activity in this commercial area, though not much, today being “Eid” day for Muslims.

A view of Hogg Street…

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A little before noon, I check out from the hotel and take a taxi for Sudder Street. I have booked a one-night stay at the high-end Hotel Lytton just to be close to Park Street which has worn a festive look for Christmas. The driver charges me 60 rupees for the short distance. I don’t understand why I’m told that the taxi will charge so-and-so amount to a particular place when it’s supposed to run on meter basis. I’m told that for short distance they don’t go by meter, but even for long distance they don’t go by meter.

The room at Lytton is good, but the one at Mayur Residency was even better and almost at half the price of this fancy but overrated place. Location-wise, it’s excellent. The Indian Museum is just around the corner. That’s where I go, a short while later.

Built in 1875, in Italian architectural style, the Indian Museum is the oldest and the largest museum in India…

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Watch my video: Indian Museum

Spread over an area of 10000 sq. ft., it has rare collections of antiques, armour and ornaments, fossils, skeletons, textiles and paintings. One of the special attractions is a “mummy” in the Egyptian Gallery.

Visitors relaxing in the quadrangle of the museum…

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After an hour at the museum, I proceed for one of the most visited places in Kolkata… the Victoria Memorial.

Someone tells me that it’s near Park Street, so I proceed walking. The city map that I’m carrying doesn’t give me a clear indication of its location. It’s a long walk and I end up covering one length of the 400-hectare green Kolkata Maidan. Around a corner, I watch a fruit seller making fruit chaat for some customers.

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It’s a mix of chilli powder, salt, mustard sauce and coriander leaves. The spicy mix looks good but I buy half a kilo each of the delightful-looking guavas and jaams (white syzgiums) instead. Hungry, I have some of the juicy jaams on the way. It’s a lovely walk alongside lush greenery. From far, I sight the beautiful vision in white, its reflection glimmering in the water tank near it.  At the entrance, there is a long queue for tickets to the large marble building, and the beautiful garden grounds – a perfect place to hang around in the evenings.

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Victoria Memorial is a majestic 184-feet tall white marble palace sprawled over an area of 64 acres. Dedicated to the memory of Queen Victoria (1819–1901), it was built between 1906 and 1921, and is now a museum and tourist destination under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture.

A large bronze statue of the Empress sits in front of the memorial. Atop the central dome is a 6-metre high bronze revolving figure with a bugle, made in Italy – the Angel of Victory.

Watch my video: Victoria Memorial

Yours truly in front of the Memorial…

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Photography is not allowed inside the building. The museum has 25 galleries spread over the ground and first floors housing a mind-blowing collection of British period memorabilia – paintings, portraits of eminent personalities, sculptures, maps, coins, stamps, textiles, etc. The galleries are flooded with visitors, so it takes some time to pour over each detail. But one thing is clear – it’s a storehouse of treasures and one of India’s most beautiful monumental legacies from the British period. The Calcutta gallery houses a visual display of the history and development of Calcutta from Job Charnock (1630–1692) of the English East India Company to 1911, when the capital of India was transferred to New Delhi. More than 200-year-old handwritten letters and documents, royal memorabilia of Indian kings, 18th and 19th century oil paintings of the city and other places in the country, ancient books, documents witnessing the city’s history during the British period, first-hand accounts of British and Indian life-styles in the 1800s, and more… and more… I’m dumbfounded by the immense wealth of knowledge contained within this beautiful white marble structure.

Most of the displayed works were donated by the British but the funds to build this grand structure largely came from Indians. There is a staircase leading to the top floor where you get to see beautiful frescoes and an eye-catching view of the well-decorated ceiling.

Coming out of the over-crowded interiors, the garden view is welcoming…

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Marble statue of the Viceroy of India Lord Curzon, who suggested the creation of a fitting memorial to Queen Victoria on her death in 1901…

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The Victoria Memorial was funded by many Indian states. The princes and people of India responded generously to Curzon’s appeal for funds and the total cost of construction of this monument amounting to 10,500,000 rupees was entirely derived from their voluntary subscriptions.

Watch my video: Victoria Memorial Gardens

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Bronze equestrian statue of Edward VII…

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Exiting the premises, I search for a taxi to go to Park Street. I ask three of them and they all refuse. I’m tempted to complain to the nearest policeman, but I don’t find any around. I start walking, even though I’m a bit tired. The heavy traffic and noise on the road is bothersome. But as usual, I manage to find good after every bad. Little things like these colourful juicy fruits…

 

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The nearest metro station is Maidan. I get off at the next station, Park Street, which is close to my hotel. The heavy crowd on the road is in high spirits with eight hours left until Christmas. I rest for a while in my room. When it gets dark, around 5:15 pm, I set out for Park Street again, to experience its popular Christmas celebrations. It’s party time on the buzzing road, decked in blue. Groups of youngsters sporting red and white Santa caps and other festive accessories, taking a “selfie” here and a “selfie” there.

Christmas at Park Street…

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Watch my video: Christmas Celebrations in Kolkata’s Park Street

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Watch my video: Christmas in Kolkata’s Park Street

Park Street is most popular for its night life. Many of the city’s famous restaurants are located here. I walk into a crowded Flury’s for plum pudding and Christmas cake. Flury’s is one of the city’s best bakeries.

Next, it’s time for some shopping…Kolkata saris! After spending half an hour at a shop, looking over more than a dozen beautiful saris, I buy two of them – for Mom, of course. It’s a beautiful full moon night. I walk on, enjoying the festive spirit. Some time later, I stop for a light meal at one of the popular restaurants and then return to my hotel.

Tomorrow, I have to catch the noon flight to Aizawl, so I need to leave around nine in the morning as it takes an hour to reach the airport. The hotel desk clerk tells me that the yellow taxis charge 400 rupees to the airport. The pre-paid taxis at the airport charge 280 rupees for the same distance, so the metered-taxi fare should be 270 rupees, right?

 

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

 

 

My Air India flight from Aizawl lands at Kolkata airport around 4:00 pm. The pre-paid taxi fare to Hotel Orbit is 120 rupees. Since there’s no U-turn the taxi driver has to drive a kilometre further till the next signal. He starts complaining. Thinking that he wants me to pay extra for it, I get angry and more so because it’s irritating to hear him go on and on about it. He shuts up after receiving a severe tongue-lashing from me.

Hotel Orbit does not meet my expectations. I have to change rooms because the previous room given to me has a bathroom plumbing problem. My plan for the evening is to visit the Salt Lake Stadium grounds where a week-long Rajasthani Cultural Fair, Marudhar Mela, is being held from 6pm onwards. I leave for the place around 5:45 pm. The bus stop is close by and I get the AC Volvo bus within a few minutes. The ticket costs 25 rupees. After getting off the bus, it takes some time to find the place because instead of going straight ahead, I go left. Whatever, at least I get to view the stadium surroundings.

Youngsters practising rock-climbing on a tall column…

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Statue of Swami Vivekananda in front of Salt Lake Stadium…

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And then, I reach the entrance gate of the cultural fair. It is a replica of Jaisalmer’s Sonar Quila (Golden Fort) …

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The entrance ticket costs 50 rupees. The cultural repertoire includes a variety of traditional songs and dances…

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Entertainment provided by puppet shows, stilt walkers, acrobatic artistes…

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Fun activities like camel and horse rides…

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Bullock cart rides…

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Caricature artistry, games, Kid’s zone, etc… A television star is supposed to attend one of the entertainment programmes for which a colourful stage is ready on one side of the sprawling area.

There are charpais (traditional woven bed) to sit and enjoy the proceedings…

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At one place, visitors are offered a complimentary drink. Rabri, the traditional drink of Rajasthan.  It’s a hot beverage made of bajri (pearl millet), buttermilk, cumin seeds, etc. Tastes delightful. That it’s served the traditional way, in kulhars (handle-less terracotta cups), is very appealing…

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There is a large food court offering numerous kinds of dishes, both Indian and international. I buy myself a kulfi (traditional ice cream).

When I visited Rajasthan a month ago, due to lack of time, I was unable to dine at Jaipur’s Chokha Dhani. So it’s a lovely surprise. The meal coupon costs 500 rupees. It offers unlimited servings of more than twenty Rajasthani dishes.

The menu…

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It’s a pleasant experience, though very tummy-filling. Half an hour later, I board a Volvo bus back to my hotel.

Tomorrow is my last day in the city. I have planned to visit Dakshineshwar Temple and Belur Math. But time is short. I have to return to my hotel by noon because my IndiGo flight back home to Mumbai departs at 2:40pm. Fortunately, the airport is just 10 minutes away, but given the heavy traffic in the city, one never knows.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

 

 

I skip breakfast and leave the hotel around 8:30 am. Following the directions given by the hotel’s desk clerk, I take a bus till the next stop. There, I wait for one going towards Dakshineshwar Kali Temple. After a 10-minute wait, I climb into a yellow taxi. The driver charges 230 rupees for the trip. It’s a 20-minute drive with fewer vehicles on the road. The usual road to the temple is closed, so I have to walk through narrow, crowded roads for 15 minutes before reaching the temple entrance. It’s 9:30 am. Plenty of people around even at this hour. I join one of the long queues of devotees to the main temple.

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Situated on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River, Dakshineshwar Kali Temple is one of Bengal’s most popular pilgrimage spots. During festive times, it attracts more than 40000 devotees each day. Dedicated to Goddess Kali, the temple was built in 1855 by Rani Rashmoni, a path-breaking social reformer and philanthropist. This is the place where the influential 19th-century Indian mystic and yogi, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, attained his spiritual vision of the unity of all religions.

After visiting the temple, devotees come to this ghat for a dip in the Hooghly…

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Due to heavy smog, visibility is very low. Little away is the jetty from where boats leave for Belur Math…

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The boat ride costs 10 rupees.  It’s a 20-25 minute ride across the Hooghly. The boat passes under the twin bridges, Vivekananda Setu and Nivedita Setu.

Vivekananda Setu…

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Completed in 1932, Vivekananda Setu (also called Willingdon Bridge and Bally Bridge) links Howrah, at Bally, to Kolkata, at Dakshineshwar. It was built to provide road and rail link between the Calcutta Port and its hinterland. Over the years, it became weak due to heavy traffic and a second bridge, Nivedita Setu, (named after one of Vivekananda’s disciples, Sister Nivedita (Irish-born Margaret Elizabeth Noble), writer and orator, who later became Indian freedom fighter) was constructed parallel to it. It was opened in 2007.

Nivedita Setu…

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Watch my video: Vivekananda Setu & Nivedita Setu 

The Vivekananda Setu allows traffic movement upstream (Bally to Kolkata) while the Nivedita Bridge helps downstream transport (from Kolkata to Bally).

As the crowded small boat approaches the jetty on the west bank of the Hooghly, I get my first clear view of one of the significant institutions of Kolkata…Belur Math.

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From the jetty, it is a 10-minute walk to Belur Math. In the distance, a magnificent edifice looms before my eyes. It’s the main temple, the Math (or Mutt). I walk towards the nearest building which is to the right and get a surprise of my life when I read the words carved on a stone tablet. Swami Vivekananda Temple. This is the place where Swami Vivekananda’s mortal remains were cremated in 1902. And I never knew this before! I had thought that Belur Math was just another popular religious site across the river.

Swami Vivekananda Temple…

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Watch my video: Belur Math

The Swami Vivekananda Temple stands on the spot where Swami Vivekananda’s mortal remains were consigned to flames in 1902. He had chosen the place himself three days prior to his death on 4th July 1902. He was only 39 when he passed away. Consecrated on 28 January 1924, the two-storeyed structure is topped by a 9-foot trishula (trident, a symbol of Lord Shiva) and has in its upper storey a marble image of OM (in Bengali characters). On the ground floor is the shrine with a marble relief of the Swami.

The construction work began five years after his death and was completed in 1923, twenty-one years after his death.

Now, the shameful fact: People, both within India and abroad, expressed their grief on his death saying that it was a loss to the entire nation, but they were not generous enough to fund his memorial, despite earnest appeals. Thousands would visit the Math to offer their obeisance at the unfinished temple and many thousands across the country would raise meetings in his memory. But there fewer funds to finance the temple.

The marble relief of Swami Vivekananda was thanks to the efforts of Sister Nivedita and the financial contribution from Mrs Leggett, an American associate of the Swami. After the opening of the temple, an American disciple, Josephine McLeod, got the flight of stairs leading to the temple designed in Italian-style. In 1939, she got the heads of the 9-foot trishula covered with gold.

Adjacent to the temple stands a bel (bilva) tree in the place of the original bel tree under which Swami Vivekananda used to sit.

Photography is strictly prohibited within the premises but I can see some people taking pictures on their cell phones. It is an amazing complex, a visual treat, with beautifully maintained gardens and flower beds.

The grand temple of the Math…

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The temple is notable for its architecture that fuses Hindu, Christian and Islamic motifs as a symbol of unity of all religions – the philosophy of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, whose mortal remains are housed in this grand temple.

Belur Math was founded in 1899 by Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), the foremost disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. This magnificent place is the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, founded by Swami Vivekananda.

Within the premises is the room in which Swami Vivekananda spent his last years, and his last hours. He loved his room and was always glad to return to it after his travels. Most of the articles preserved in this room were used by him at different places and times.

In the courtyard in front of his room stands a mango tree, “Swamiji’s mango tree”, under which he used to sit on a canvas cot, writing or reading, and meet visitors and devotees.

Near the Math’s main entrance gate is the museum which houses a fascinating collection …interesting information, rare displays… The leather footwear used by Swami Vivekananda catches my eye. There are plenty of things to see and absorb, but time flies quickly.

I would have liked to stay back for the bhog (temple food offering) for which there is a long queue. But it is nearing 11:30am and I have to reach my hotel by 12 noon. I visit the office to check whether they have laddoos as prasad to carry home. They don’t, but the monk offers me three small paper packets containing batasa, a hard biscuit-like sweet made of jaggery. Yum!

Everything here is clean and systematic. They have ticket coupons for using the washroom too. One rupee for the urinal and two rupees for the toilet.

I hurry towards the jetty and immediately get a boat which, luckily, leaves soon with just 4-5 passengers on board.

A few pictures of the beautiful place that I leave behind as the boat noisily crosses the river for Dakshineshwar…

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Menfolk bathing at one of the ghats on the way…

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And the Dakshineshwar Temple comes into view…

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Watch my video: View of the Dakshineswar Kali Temple

I jump out of the boat and head at full speed for the main road, where I get a yellow taxi that charges me 200 rupees to my hotel. There is a bit of traffic on the way. Since my hotel stay has been pre-paid and there are no bills to settle, I make a quick exit from the hotel.

Rushing through everything, I reach the airport around 1:00 pm. After the security check, I make a beeline for the Biswa Bangla store. I visited it twice before, but just for window-shopping. Their entire sari collection is gorgeous, but expensive… the quality is amazing though. The most expensive among them costs 150,000 rupees! I have already decided what I’m going to buy: three beautiful cotton saris of 2000 rupees each, two tubes of nalen gur, a bottle of kasundi mustard sauce, a small bottle of sweet-sour kasundi mango, and a box of Bengali sweets.

With forty minutes left for my flight, I think about the places that I have visited and the ones that I haven’t. For a five-day visit, I think that I have done quite well. Though I would have liked to visit the 230-year-old Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden, which is the largest and oldest in South-east Asia and the second largest in the world. Its 230-year-old banyan tree is one of the largest in the world. Now that’s interesting…

My flight takes off at 2:45 pm and I say a silent goodbye to Kolkata…

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