ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREAT CITIES, Kolkata or Calcutta as it used to be known, has been through many incarnations. From an obscure village on the banks of the Hooghly river, it evolved into the capital of Great Britain's Indian empire. Today, this vibrant city with its distinct imperial flavour, is the capital of West Bengal, the only Indian state with a Communist led government.
St John's Church
THE FIRST Parish church in Kolkata, St John's Church was established in 1787. It boasts an impressive stained glass panel of The Last Supper, in which the artist Johann Zoffany gave the 12 disciples the faces of British personalities famous in the city at the time.
St John's has many associations with the history of the English East India Company. Warren Hastings, Governor of Bengal, was married here. In the churchyard is a memorial to Lady Canning, the vicereine who died in 1861. Her name lives on in popular memory because she was much addicted to a fried, syrupy sweetmeat, which was named after her (it is pronounced "leddy-kenny" in Bengali) The mausoleum of Job Charnock also stands here.
A tea Auction Center, Nilhat House stands on the site of an indigo trading house ('nil' means indigo, while 'hat' is market). It dates to 1886 and only the tea auction houses in London are older. Tea has always played an important role in the state's economy, especially in the colonial period. But even today, the bidding for teas from Darjeeling and the Dooars in North Bengal and Assam is brisk. The auction prices are determined by the opinions of tea tasters, whose highly trained palates can inunediately distinguish the type, plantation and year of each brew. Visitors can view and participate in these animated proceedings with prior permission.
As the location of Kolkata's elite educational institutions, College Street is the heart of Bengali intellectual life. The pavements are crowded with stalls selling textbooks, exam guides, classics and second-hand books of all kinds. Some people even claim to have discovered valuable first editions. Many of Kolkata's best bookshops are also found here.
The city's largest mosque, Nakhoda Mosque is based on the design of Akbar's tomb at Sikandra. Built in 1926, it is surmounted by a dome and faced with red sandstone, with minarets that rise to a height of 46 m (151 ft). It can accommodate over 10,000 people for prayer, but on major religious occasions, people spill out on to the street. Nearby is The Hotel Royal, famous for its rich biryani and chaanp (goat's ribs cooked in spiced gravy). This is a fascinating neighbourhood with 19th century mansions, old bazaars and temples.
Armenian Church of St Nazareth
BUILT BY Armenian traders in 1724, the Armenian Church of St Nazareth stands on the site of the original wooden church constructed in 1707, which had burnt down. Immigrants from Isfahan in Persia, the Armenians were among the earliest foreign traders to settle in Kolkata. Once a thriving conmunity, today their numbers have dwindled. The church has a unique rounded spire, and its grounds house several graves with ornate tombstones.
IN THE HEART OF THE CITY, this 400ha (988 acre) park stretches from the Hooghly river in the west to Chowringhee in the east, and contains several interesting areas and buildings. In the early 18th century, a dense jungle was cut down to build Fort William, after the earlier mud fort was destroyed in 1756. The present fort, a squat,irregular octagon, was completed in 1773. Today, it is the headquaters of the Indian Army's Eastern Command and not usually open to the public.
THE CITY'S MOST celebrated landmark, this monument to imperial self confidence was the brainchild of Lord Curzon (1859-1925), one of British India's most flamboyant viceroys. The domed Classical structure, completed in 1921, was constructed with marble from Makrana, which also supplied marble for the Taj Mahal, and financed by "donations" from princes and ordinary citizens. Now a museum, its 25 galleries are spread over the ground and first floors. The collection, which covers a fascinating selection of Raj memorabilia, includes the Calcutta Gallery, with oil paintings, and watercolours of the city's history.
Now called Jawaharlal Nehru Road, Chowringhee was a fashionable promenade during the Raj. This busy thoroughfare derives its name from a fakir (holy man), Jungle Giri Chowringhee,who once lived here. At its northern end is the Oberoi Grand, one of India's most elegant hotels. Established in the 1870s, and known as the Grand Hotel, it was considered the most Popular, Fashionable and Attractive Hotel in India.
THE OLDEST AND LARGEST museum in India, the Indian Museum was founded in 1814. The imposing building, designed by Walter Granville, also the architect of the General Post Office, dates to Gupta era 1875. The museum's impressive collection of gold coin is noted for artifacts from the 2,500 BC Indus Valley Civilization, sculpture from Gandhara, the superbly sculpted railings from the 2,000 year old Bharhut Stupa and a fine collection of 5th centmy Gupta coins.
THE CITY OF KOLKATA is inextricably linked to the name of Mother Teresa. At first a teaching nun at Loreto Convent, the death and devastation she witnessed in the city during the famine of 1943, and Partition of India in 1947, made her leave this cloistered world and dedicate her life to the poor. The Missionaries of Charity was a new order she formed in 1950, with the Mother House as its headquarters. This simple building is today also her final resting place. Her grave is on the ground floor in a hall. It has no ornamentation, only a Bible placed on it. On a board on the wall are two words, "I thirst".
Park Street Cemetery
A romantic, overgrown, haven of Raj nostalgia in the middle of the city, the Park Street Cemetery was opened in August 1767 to receive the body of John Wood, an official in the Custom House of the East India Company. From that date till the first half of the 19th century, it served as the resting place of many important Europeans who died in Kolkata. It was this graveyard which gave Park Street its original name, Burial Ground Road. Its name Park Street was derived from the park that Elijah Impey, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, established in the area. His grave is in this cemetery as well. William Jones, the great scholar and founder of The Asiatic Society, lies under a pyramid-shaped tomb.
BEST DESCRIBED AS the city's most fashionable address, the suburb of Alipore in south Kolkata is a sylvan world of tree-lined avenues, with palatial houses surrounded by well kept lawns. Kolkata's zoo, the Alipore Zoological Gardens, was established here in 1875. It has a large collection of birds and mammals, and one of its main attractions is a tigeon, a cross breed between a tiger and a lion. Nearby, the Belvedere Estate, in a broad expanse of lawn, today houses the National Library. This is the country's largest library with over two million manuscripts and books. Built in the Italian Renaissance style, the original building, Belvedere, was the residence of the lieutenant governors of Bengal.
KOLKATA'S OLDEST pilgrimage site, Kalighat finds mention in medieval poems and ballads. Legend has it that the God Shiva, in a fury of grief at the death of his wife, Sati (an incarnation of Parvati), slung her body on his shoulders and danced the terrible tandava nritya (dance of death), destroying everything in his path. To stop the carnage, Vishnu flung his magic chakra (discus) at Sati's body, and the dismembered pieces scattered across the land. The spot where the little toe fell became Kalighat, and some believe that the name Kolkata is derived from this .
MOTHER TERESA'S home for the destitute, Nirmal Hridaya ("Pure Heart"), is near the Kali Temple. The site was probably chosen as this holy place teems with poor and old people, who come here to die and attain moksha. A large, very clean hall is full of beds for the sick and dying who are cared for by nuns, in their characteristic white and blue saris. Visitors who want to work as volunteers must first register at Mother House.
THIS EASTERN SUBURB is the city's new Chinatown. Chinese immigration to Kolkata began in the 18th century, and today large numbers of this still significant community have settled here. Tangra preserves the rich and varied culture of its inunigrant population. A Chinese newspaper and journal are published from here, and there are many tiny restaurants, mostly extensions of family kitchens. "Tangra Chinese", with its discernibly Indian taste, is today as distinct a cuisine as Szechwan and Cantonese. All the city's leather tanneries are based at Tangra as, traditionally, the Chinese were involved with the very lucrative shoe trade.
THE BOTANICAL GARDENS, in the Shibpur suburb of Howrah, were established in 1786 by Colonel Kyd, an official of the East India Company. It has an astonishing array of flora including ferns, cacti and palms, and boasts of plants from every continent. The chief attraction is the magnificent banyan tree (Ficus bengalensis). Claimed to be the largest banyan tree in the world, it is more than 200 years old and its branches, giving rise to nearly 300 aerial roots, spread over 60 m (197 ft). The central trunk was, however, struck by lightning in 1919 and was subsequently removed. The sight of this tree alone is worth the long journey.