Updated: Apr 12, 2020
CALCUTTA (KOLKATA), INDIA
The mighty Himalayas drain into two major river systems on either side of the world’s greatest mountains. To the south, on the Indian side, is the sacred Ganges and its tributaries, which work their way southeast to eventually push their way out to sea in the Bay of Bengal. To the north, on the Tibetan side, is the Brahmaputra. It flows east for a good ways then improbably takes a sudden turn south cutting right through the mountains and empties into the Bay of Bengal as well. Together these rivers somehow encircle a better part of the Himalayas and then join to form the massive Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, which is a huge low-lying area of mud & silt, swamp, and sinuous interconnected river channels that’s about one fourth the size of California.
On the western edge of that delta some 400 years ago the British set up a remote trading outpost at what became Calcutta (Kolkata). Europe hungered for trade with the East. The British East India Company was formed and it would grow to control half of global cross-border trade. Calcutta grew with it. And became the center of the Bengali Renaissance – a great flowering in South Asia of artistic, intellectual and social progress during the 1800s and early 1900s.
With that noble geography, and storied history, Calcutta is well worth a visit.
My guide was a gentleman who’d lived in Calcutta all his life. Eighty years and one month, he told me proudly. He remembered the Japanese bombing the city during WWII. He’s probably slowed a bit since then but his enthusiasm was 100 mph, his knowledge encyclopedic, and he knew people absolutely everywhere we went. When I told him I didn’t want to shop for tourist gewgaws he grew even more enthusiastic about what he could show me. We had fun together.
An icon of the city are its hand-pulled rickshaws; they number in the thousands. Calcutta may be the only place in the world where they’re still in use. They have tall wooden wheels and are quite maneuverable – good for narrow crowded streets. Rickshaw pullers with bare feet may charge a ten rupee (15¢) premium because they’re able to stop more quickly in traffic than sandal-footed pullers. The rickshaws are also vital transportation during monsoon when seasonal flooding can make parts of the city impassible to motor vehicles.
Calcutta remains India's cultural and intellectual capital. It is a city of learning and debate, with a wealth of tea and coffee shops. Are those attributes linked? We stopped by three chai places of a weekend – one Socialist with a proud literary tradition, one Buddhist, and the third was a humble street-corner shop. Each of the three were well over a hundred years old and full of people of all ages and from all walks of life. The Buddhist chai-wallah brought me Calcutta's "double-hump" tea, which adds a shot of alcohol to the mix.
Once wealthy, Calcutta is now a poor city; probably one reason hand-pulled rickshaws are still in use. Gone are the days of it being at the center of global commerce. In recent decades the local government has been staunchly communist, which many in the rest of the country blame for the city lagging behind in development. Its tap water comes unfiltered straight from the polluted Ganges, until mid afternoon when it runs chlorinated for a short while and people fill what they can with more potable water.
My guide took me to Baboo Ghat on a bank of the River Hooghly, a distributary of the Ganges. Massages were on offer, but they looked more like wrestling matches to me.
We visited historic temples, the crowded bookshops of College Street in this most-literate of cities, and a colorful Sunday bird market. We crossed the famous, traffic-choked Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly and wandered through the expansive flower market at its base. Everywhere we went across the city, my guide was greeted by friends and acquaintances.
You know the phrase “Death where is thy sting?” It’s from the Bible, sure, but it also has adopted roots in Calcutta. It was appropriated by a scientist-poet who did groundbreaking malaria research there in the late 1800s, for which he won the Nobel Prize. After discovering the disease was transmitted via mosquito bites he wrote “ . . . This day relenting God hath placed within my hand a wondrous . . . little thing a myriad men will save. O Death, where is thy sting?” I think a worthy borrowing of that phrase.
We also went to Kumartuli, the city’s famous potters’ quarter. For centuries potters in Calcutta have been making clay effigies for religious festivals. When I was there they were preparing for a celebration of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning and wisdom, fine arts and science. She is worshipped by those seeking enlightenment through knowledge, and to rid oneself of ignorance and lethargy. A worthy set of goals. Production of statues was in full swing, from small to larger than life. Everywhere I turned, breasts and hips were overflowing from workshops and spilling out into the streets. It was wild. Calcutta recognizes over 500 holy days per year, so the potters are kept busy.
Click this camera icon for a link to some favorite photos from Calcutta . . .
As my wife and I travel, we enjoy getting off the beaten path a bit. We’ll often wander, and try to connect with some of the locals if we can. For us that’s part of the seeing when one is in a new and different place, whether across town or across the globe. After returning from Calcutta I sent a brief note of thanks to my guide . . .