I thought that after 6 months in India that I could handle everything India could throw at me – bring it on Calcutta!
But I was wrong, perhaps I had spent too much time living a cozy beach life in Goa and I forgot just how different and diverse India was I forgot what a culture shock and assault on the sense these big, busy, North India cities are.
Calcutta is the second largest city in India and you can really feel the crush of humanity here! Calcutta was the first capital of British India, the most important city apart from London in the British Empire. Now it’s known as Kolkata, and perhaps India’s contrasts and extremes are nowhere more evident than here.
This is a city with the first metro in India (in the 1980’s more than 20 years before the rest of India caught on) and Asia’s first luxury hotel yet it is also the last bastion of the hand pulled rickshaw.
Kolkata is known as the cultural capital of India yet in the West, Calcutta is probably most famous for Mother Teresa‘s amazing work (visiting her house is a really touching experience by the way) and the old name especially still conjures up images of suffering and poverty in most western people’s minds although in India they call it ‘the city of joy’! yet hardly a street is untouched by grime, dirt, decay and chaos.
I came here wanting to change this negative perception. I tried to like Calcutta I really did, I tried to see the cultural and intellectual, city of joy and whilst I found many things interesting sadly I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed my visit here.
Kolkata is not really a easy city to visit, and its not a city where you can nip around taking in the sights and feel like you have ‘done’ it in a day. There a few iconic sights like the colonial grandeur of the Victoria Memorial and the Howrah Bridge one of the world’s busiest and largest cantilever bridges.
But I was told its more a city that you feel. So I set out to wander the streets, to try to the street food, see how the real people live, to try and get a feel of the city.
And the street life was interesting; overwhelming sometimes, but definitely interesting, the contrast of rich and poor, modern and old, is really in your face here.
The traffic jams are incredulous, the noise is totally up another level from Mumbai or Bangalore, the dirt and the sheer amount of people were all exhausting.
What was worse was the look on the faces of old men hand pulling a rickshaw and you can’t decide whether it’s crueler to get in the rickshaw and have an old man with no shoes on pull you down the street or to deny him the chance to earn some money? Kolkata is not an easy city to understand or fall in love with.
Kolkata is home to some fascinating temples. It feels apt that the deity of Kolkata is the ferocious Kali! – a fearsome goddess with the gruesome heads of her victims strung around her neck. The frenzied worship of Kali here was a sight to behold as the lines snaked for hours around the most popular temples at Dakshineswar and Kali Ghat butI’m just glad that I missed the goat sacrifice in the mornings at Kali Ghat – that would have been too much for me!
I also enjoyed visiting Kumortuli where idols of Hindu gods and goddesses (especially the goddess Durga ) are made out of straw and clay from the Hoogly river ready for the crazy spectacle of Durga Puja, what an amazing experience that would be but I don’t know if I could handle the crowds!
Netherless, Calcutta is a fascinating city to photograph, all of life is on the streets and there to capture. Now, when I look back on my photos I think more positively of my experience in Kolkata without the heat, dirt, noise and crush of people.
Perhaps I just didn’t give it enough time, maybe my experience would have been different with a local guide to show me around. Maybe it’s just me? But then I’m not exactly an Indian virgin – I’ve spent an incredible 6 months here already and my friend also felt the same and she has been living in India for 5 years!
I’d be interested to know what other people’s experiences of Kolkata were – did you stay for longer and fall in love or did you visit at the time of the Durga Puja? And did you feel the same dilemma about the hand pulled rickshaw?
Don’t think I’m ready for Calcutta
ha ha no neither was I!
I didn’t liked it too
That’s interesting to hear. Why didn’t you like it?
crowded and dirty and it stinks. Though my city isn’t much different too.
Yeah I felt a bit of that too. More than other Indian cities I think. Where are you from?
Thanks! I’ll upload more pics soon.
I’m from Raipur, Capital of Chattisgarh State.
Thanks. Enjoy your trip. I’ve never been to Chattisgarh
My trip is completed. I’m back in my place on 6th May after a 1 month trip.
Chattisgarh hasn’t got many spots. Things to see – some tribal life, some caves, waterfalls and safari.
Pretty awesome… I lived in that city for 2 years… delicious food, good people and a place of pretty interesting culture and history!
I grew up in Calcutta so it’ll always be home and very special to me. However I haven’t lived there for over 8 years now. I saw it in a new light the first time my boyfriend visited with me. I can completely understand why it’s such a difficult city to like…especially as a visitor. I personally despise Delhi but every time I go there – it looks like it’s making progress. Calcutta unfortunately seems to be moving backwards and that saddens me. Despite its history and culture, I feel like Calcutta is rapidly declining. Trust me – it’s hard for me to say this.
The heart of Calcutta is in its people, especially the Bengalis and the food. I don’t much enjoy the city any more but I do miss the food, every single day.
P.S. Durga Puja is an amazing time of year to be in Cal but the maddening chaos is multiplied a few hundred times over 😉
Hi Radhika. Thanks for your lovely, thoughtful comment! Your opinion is a really great contribution to my article. I tried to like Calcutta I really did but I think it requires more time to get under the skin of the place and to get to know people to understand and fall in love with Calcutta, I did think about visiting for Durga Puja but it would be insanely busy! Thanks for stopping by and introducing me to your blog – I really like it, perhaps we could swap guest posts sometime. Keep enjoying your nomadic lifestyle!
Calcutta’s all glory lie in the past. Historically, three villages, Gobindpur, Sutanuti and Kolkata were all integrated to what is Calcutta or Kolkata as it is known today. Britishers, when they started ruling India, made Calcutta as the capital and there was developments in various walks of life like, Science, Commerce and Industry, Education etc.It was also the Renaissance period of Bengal, births of various famous intellectuals.Calcutta gradually, started losing importance, after the capital was shifted to Delhi.
After the independence, for a certain period of time, still it retained its position as one of the most important Indian cities. But later on, all activities were shifted out of Bengal and Ca
lcutta. Business, education etc.Influx of people, from surrounding places, increased the population enormously and the poverty increased in leaps and bounds and there was a general deterioration of life as such.
Whatever developments are being made get evaporated in the demands of vast populations.
Hopefully, situations improve.
Thanks for sharing this interesting information about the history of Calcutta. Maybe I should have called the post ‘Why I found it hard to love Calcutta’ because I’m sure many people enjoy the city but I just found it a little difficult – travel is very subjective and everyone has a different experience. Maybe I need to give it another try in the future, there are definitely some good things about the city and hopefully it will only improve in the future. Thanks for stopping and letting me know more about the history of Calcutta – it was very interesting 🙂
I was born and brought up in Calcutta – now the city is barely the shadow of its past glory. Partition of India, 71 Bangladesh war, 34 years of Communist rule, Business, Industry, and Commerce has left state – declining economy – unemployment – this state and this city have faced the largest brain drain of India — unfortunately, political brass of the state does not care much about thinking out of the box — The city is a living example of when everything goes wrong with a city and its people. Still people are trying to survive through the hard times. Still, they get together for Durga Puja – put all their efforts, time and money for four days – they love each other, they drink, they eat, they dance then they “bisojon” everything that they had — then again they starts preparing for next year’s Durga Puja – a cycle ends and another cycle begins – that is what is the circle of life to us. If you really want to understand this city then visit Durga Puja !
Hi Sourish. Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving such a detailed comment. It was really interesting to learn more about Calcutta from you and I have to admit that travel is subjective – just because I didn’t have a great experience it doesn’t mean that others wont. I would really love to visit Calcutta during Durga Puja and see this side to the city! Thanks so much for sharing 🙂
It’s like you have give words to my thoughts. I have lived in kolkata for a good 2.5 years and I have given this city many chances to impress me…but leaving few good friends I met there…i would never want to visit kolkata again. You are 100% correct..it’s not an easy city to fall in love with.
Hey Atul, thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughts. It’s interesting to hear your thoughts on the city after living there for a few years. I think if I had friends there I would have had a better experience of Kolkata but as a tourist it’s not on my list of must return to destinations unfortunately.
Born in Kolkata and lived there for the first 25 years of my life. Don’t really enjoy visiting it now. A lot of Indian cities are crowded, but in Kolkata it feels like I have to stand in the queue forever, even when I am shopping in a mall. And also, India has many extremely hot cities. But Kolkata gives a nasty sinus/migraine issue to many.
I felt the same way about Dhaka, but after 7 visits it grew on me. The shocking traffic, rich/poor divide really was overwhelming, even compared to Mumbai. I think I’d like to visit Calcutta for comparison!
I have traveled to several cities both in India and abroad and currently live in Boston after spending several years moving from one city to another. If I leave aside the economic aspect of the city (which is partially attributable to poor governance and partially to educated people who gradually lost the selfless romance and idealism that should drive a human being post the Naxalite revolution), then every city feels like a compromise in every possible way after living in Calcutta. Calcutta grows on a mind that surrenders to it completely. Even in its decadence, it is glorious and gracious (or perhaps it is the hopeless dreamer in me that romanticizes these things..but then I would not have perhaps had the ability, the courage to remain romantic, idealistic and to dream of society beyond my own self that encourages a well-rounded life for everyone, if I was not born and raised in Calcutta. And that would have been sad) The city showed me glimpses, mostly from the past, of a way of life that’s not self-centered, that laughs even while staring at defeat, and that considers work as just a part of life, and not everything that defines life.
I don’t know whether I would ever be able to return to the city again with a respectable job, and the dream to transform the city again. Calcutta (or the impression of it that I love to have in my mind) visits me now only in my dreams, as the most beautiful city I have ever lived in.
Wow, thanks for sharing. I’m glad that you had a better experience of Calcutta than I did. It must be a city that gorws on you with time – I hope to visit again someday and I hope you get to too.
I am in Kolkata right now . The dirt filthy , the stench repels me ! Nothing is maintained well . It seems to me that people are happy in this filth … so ironic that the great Ramakrishna paramahansa preached “cleanliness is next to godliness “. People have a compulsion to spit and spit .i travelled around the city using local transport seeing all landmark buildings and couldn’t find a decent cup of tea ! Can’t wait to leave . Fall in love … that’s a joke right …
Sorry to hear you didn’t Enjoy Kolkata much either 🙁
So, I saved money during my college days and decided I am going to visit Kolkata one day, as I always fascinated by it due to its culture and way people are engrossed towards literature and art. So in 2018, I made it to Kolkata without informing anyone. The minute I arrived in the city, it made me relive history, the ones that I read in textbooks or was taught, but Kolkata was more than that. I felt a strange connection to the city, the rich culture, the traditions and the beautiful chaos. I was there only for 3 days and I can never forget those days. As a traveller, I have been to 25- 26 countries, and many cities but Kolkata always remains my favorite and gets a smile to my face. Everyone is so content in their lives, satisfied with little they earn, I know some people didn’t have a good experience but maybe I see Kolkata in a different way, which is not expressible.
Thanks for sharing your experiences in Kolkata. I’m happy to hear that you had a wonderful experience there – travel is so subjective – maybe I’ll get the chance to revisit one day, its certainly an interesting city. I wonder if it will be easier to enjoy then?