We expected the worst from Kolkata (Calcutta). We had heard of a city full of slums and abject poverty but were surprised to find nice, treed neighbourhoods, organized traffic and clean sidewalks.
Kolkata was the capital of British India until 1911 when it was moved to New Delhi. As a result, there are quite a few old colonial buildings. The problem is that most of these buildings have been taken over by the city’s sprawl. What had been beautiful old mansions are now either decaying ruins or are surrounded by falling-down apartments buildings. Even still, we were able to find a few well-kept remnants of the British era.
Having said that, Victoria Memorial is in Kolkata and is one of the nicest buildings we’ve seen in India. It was built as a memorial for Queen Victoria after her death in 1905. The gorgeous white marble building was built in the Indo-Saracenic style and has giant pillars, and a domed roof with towers at each corner and small chhatris (domed shaped pavilions) on top . There’s a black-bronze angel with a horn placed atop the dome called the Angel of Victory. The building is set in a large well-manicured park with small ponds, paved pathways and many trees. It’s a picturesque setting as the building reflects nicely off the ponds.
At the front of the building is a large, bronze statue of queen Victoria sitting on her throne. Around the building are statues of British Noblemen and an Indian Raj. There’s a large memorial arch at one entrance in memory of King Edward VII, Queen Victoria’s son. It’s a nice place to go for a walk and enjoy the park. Many young people were in the park on dates. When we were there, a bagpipe band of Indian pipers was playing Scottish music on the steps. It was an unusual site.
Across from the Victoria Monument is St Paul’s Cathedral. Built in Indo-Gothic style architecture, the white stone building has a large central spire and a vaulted entrance way. It would have been a grand building during its day, but today its white exterior looks very weather-worn with large black streaks blemishing the paint. The inside of the cathedral looks as though it’s straight from 12th century Britain with stained glass windows and a long nave with wooden pews. It’s so different from the temples we’ve seen lately and even though we’re not church-goers, it feels familiar.
There are two more Victorian era churches in town with different architecture than we usually see. They both have typical steeples, but the base of St. Thomas is a plain white colonial building with red trim. St. John’s stone steeple is on top of a square, yellow base surrounded in tall, smooth columns.
One of the most famous residents in recent Kolkata history was Mother Theresa. The catholic nun’s work is still being carried on today. There are many charities carrying on her legacy. Her home, Motherhouse, is a functioning nunnery in downtown Kolkata. The modest building also houses a small museum of her life with a few of her belongings
There are a few other historical buildings in downtown Kolkata. The High Court building has interesting architecture. With Gothic style windows and doors, the large red and cream coloured rectangular building takes up a few city blocks. Its design and size makes very imposing.
Nearby is the grand, golden-domed, City Hall. It is locked inside a large gated garden so we could only see a glimpse of it down the large yard. A little further away we found two old mansions, Marble Palace and Tangore Mansion. Getting around to the different sites was fun in the old 1950s yellow taxis.
Kali is the most important goddess in Kolkata. The black goddess is the destroyer of evil forces but also the vehicle for creation and rebirth. We went to the most important temple in Kolkata, Kalighat Kali Temple. The temple itself is hidden behind a few local run-down buildings, but we could see its domed roof above. The temple’s busy courtyard contains a few shops selling incense and flowers to be used as offerings. The main temple is a small building covered in colourful tiles. When we arrived we were accosted by a temple ‘volunteer’ and were brought inside the temple where he had us purchase and then place a handful of flower petals on the shrine. It was followed by a made-up English chant to the goddess. Then we were asked for our compulsory ‘donation’. Even seasoned travelers that we are, we still get caught in these situations. At least we only spent $4 on the flowers and donation.
Every morning priests sacrifice a goat at the temple to satisfy the blood-thirsty Kali. Once a month they sacrifice a water buffalo. The goats are typically donated by wealthy Hindus wanting a blessing. It is then used to make lunch for the local poor people, so at least it’s not wasted. We were glad to have arrived in the afternoon, after everything was cleaned up from the slaughter.
Walking through Old Kolkata we saw many homeless and beggars. It was very difficult to see many families living on the sidewalks. They would take over sections of the sidewalk by sleeping and cooking as people try to walk by. Only a few blocks away are many very expensive restaurants with posh settings with the waiters and busboys dressed in suits,. It was a strange mix with such extremes.
South of Kolkata, in the state of Odisha, is the town of Puri which touts itself as a beach town. Technically Model Beach is a white sand beach that is 100m wide and a couple of kilometers long. There’s a constant breeze keeping the temperature bearable. It’s not our idea of a beach vacation though as there was a large garbage dump at one end and a sewer drainage running through the middle. The town also doesn’t get the concept of making the beach comfortable to spend the day. There were only a very few awkward tarps for rent as shelter from the sun, otherwise there was no shade. Still, there were a lot of Indian tourists on the beach. Most were fully clothed in saris and jeans. Many were getting their pictures taken on one of the camels on the beach, dressed up for photos with tourists. Another funny site was the meals being delivered to the beach goers in tin tiffin carriers.
Our main reason for going to Puri was to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site, The Sun Temple in Konark, 35km away. It was built in the mid-13th century, by a Hindu Odisha King in celebration of his victory over the Mughals. A lot of the structure has been destroyed over the centuries, but there are still two impressive buildings. At the entrance, the ‘Dancing Hall’ is protected by 2 stone lions crushing elephants. The stone hall is covered in small carvings of people dancing.
Behind it is the much larger, impressive pyramid shaped Sun Temple. The temple is a representation of the Sun God Surya riding on a chariot pulled by seven horses. There are 7 horse sculptures at the front and 24 large wheels sculptures along the sides of the temple to create the chariot. Both represent the 7 days of week and 24 hours in a day. As with the Dancing Hall, the temple is also covered in small statues of people, horses and elephants, but on the Sun Temple, many of them are in erotic positions. It still makes us giggle to see these carvings on display at a temple. Unfortunately the Sun Temple was mostly covered in scaffolding as its being renovated.
Further east, in the large city of Bhubaneswar, are more historical buildings. Lingaraj Mandir is an 11th century important Hindu temple. Because it is still actively used for worship today, non-Hindus are not allowed in. We were able to see a little of its tall stone steeple from a nearby platform, but we also found other stupas and shrines from the same era in a park nearby.
Just outside of Bhubaneswar was a site with ancient Jain sculptures carved into the side of a cliff. Unfortunately most of the site has been ruined and we only saw one area that was still in decent shape. The best part of the visit was being entertained by the beautiful Grey Langur monkeys. We love the sitting posture of the one pictured below.
Back in Puri, we visited Jagannath Mandir which worships the deity, Lord Jagannath, Lord of the Universe. Jagannath has a black-face with large round, white eyes and is always dressed in layers of fancy clothes. The temple was built in the 12th century and is still an important temple today. We saw hundreds of people waiting for their turn to enter the temple under a covered tent including many men in traditional Dhoti (skirts). The temple is closed to non-Hindus so we had to get our view from the library rooftop across the street.
On the street leading to temple is the main market. It was very busy with shoppers and vendors and was very loud from all of the people, car horns and music. Outside Jagannath Mandir, as at every temple there were many Sadhus and beggars.
Coming up next: The French Connection: Puducherry
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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