Kolkata is third-most populous metropolitan area in India, with a population of over 14 million. Calcutta (as it was formerly known) became the headquarters of the East India Company in 1773, and it was the capital of British India from 1858 to 1911. The remains of this period have left one of the grandest cities in Asia.
[Victoria Memorial Gardens.]
Kolkata should be a city on the same par as Shanghai, with more historic buildings here than the Bund in old Shanghai. If its transport and infrastructure keeps improving then maybe it will once again be an important global city.
These are my noted and observations from my visit in February, 2020.
Kolkata – The Gateway To The East
Geographically Kolkata could position itself as the gateway to the east. Flights from East Asia and Southeast Asia could hub through here to everywhere else in India.
I was thinking about this when I booked a flight from Kolkata to Ho Chi Minh City with IndiGo. This new route is the first non-stop service between an Indian city and Ho Chi Minh City.
At first I thought it was an odd route choice as I assumed that Chennai would be a closer city. After looking on the map I see that Kolkata is closer to Thailand and Vietnam than other cities in India.
I made a map on Great Circle Mapper showing Kolkata in relation to Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and Shanghai.
I had been to Kolkata before so I was aware of its grandeur. I had forgotten just how grand it is though.
[North British and Mercantile Insurance Company.]
I was thinking of doing a blog post on the heritage architecture of old Calcutta, but you would need months here to do such a post any justice.
There are already some great sites that chronicle the old buildings. I found one amateur enthusiast site that has the backstory on the Oriental Assurance Building on the old Clive Row.
[Oriental Assurance Building – Dr. Rajendra Prasad Sarani.]
Many of the buildings are in bad condition, so I hope they can be restored before they are beyond salvation.
There is something to be said for leaving ruined buildings as they are.
Curry And Tea
Kolkata is also a famous food city in India. I’m not a food blogger, and that would also be another topic that needs more time to do justice. I did though remember to take a photo of my breakfast before woofing it down. Kachoris served with a potato curry is the breakfast of choice here.
Another thing you will see in Kolkata are the little handmade cups made of clay used for serving tea. These cups (bhar) can be found everywhere, with the disposed cups eventually being ground back into the earth. These shot-glass servings of sweet, milky tea are so small that I didn’t feel bad for having multiple tea breaks during the day.
On this trip I was looking at how a city like Kolkata manages its public transport. I have written about first metro lines in Asia, so it was interesting to see the Kolkata Metro, which was the first metro in India.
[Mahatma Gandhi Road Station.]
At the moment there is only one metro line, in addition to the commuter railway. There are now more metro lines under construction, with two more lines forming a junction at the central Esplanade area.
The metro will also be extended to the airport.
[Metro work near airport.]
I couldn’t help but compare transport here with Ho Chi Minh City. What was most noticeable was how few motorbikes there are, and how many people use the bus.
Some bus routes here have a continual row of buses, and at peak hour there is no room to move.
It was good to see that electric buses are being introduced here.
Kolkata also has a small tram network that is leftover from the colonial era.
As a tram-loving Melburnian I approve of any city that has trams.
Up until recently, hand-pulled rickshaws were still a thing here. They have all but been phased out now in an effort to stamp out this symbol of poverty and colonialism.
Taking their place are the auto rickshaws (tuk-tuks).
Ride-hailing apps are here, though as I didn’t get a sim card I didn’t set up an account to try it.
I didn’t see any motorbike taxis here like you do in Indonesia and Vietnam.
For better or worse Kolkata is still associated with Mother Theresa.
Images of Saint Teresa of Calcutta can be seen around the city, such as these traffic signs with Mother Theresa advising you to avoid unnecessary use of horn. Interpret that as you will.
Ho Chi Minh
Someone who only made a fleeting visit but is still remembered is Ho Chi Minh. He had a stopover here in June 1946 on the way to Paris.
Back in the day when long-distance air travel involved multiple stops, Calcutta was a prominent air hub. Flights from the communist-allied capitals of Moscow to Hanoi would include a stop in communist-friendly Calcutta, where Ho Chi Minh visited again in the 1950’s
On the map I saw a street named Ho Chi Minh Sarani. Being based in Ho Chi Minh City I had to see this street for myself.
There is a monument at the street entrance for Ho Chi Minh. From there I walked down the street and discovered that the Australian consulate is on the street. There are some nice mansions on this street, so I was busy taking photos.
As I got near the end of the street I was approached by some security guards as I was now outside the United States consulate. I hadn’t taken any photos for about two blocks, but they said they were told I was taking photos. They wanted to see my camera, and luckily I didn’t take any photos. I wish I could have taken a photo of the consulate as the entrance sign read:
Ho Chi Minh Sarani
I wondered if the government were trolling America by naming this street after a former adversary. It turns out they were, with the street being renamed during the Vietnam War. I’m surprised that the US hasn’t moved the consulate address.
I have thought about this in Vietnam, where there were many streets that were renamed after the war. At least the Vietnamese government were nice enough to not name the street of the French consulate in Saigon to Dien Bien Phu.
At the park at the start of the street there is also a bust of Uncle Ho, which I could identify from a distance just by the silhouette.
Wandering Around Old Calcutta
Being in a city the size of Kolkata with only a few days to explore, I had given up thinking I could visit everything. Without the pressure of trying to see it all I just wandered where ever I liked. Here are some things that grabbed my attention.
The Maidan is an enormous park of about 5 km². By comparison, Central Park in New York is 3.41 km². In the background is the tallest building in Kolkata (The 42 – 268 metres high).
Queens Mansion on Park Street.
I was staying near the Newmarket, which is not as new as when they first named it.
I was up early enough one morning to discover that they keep goats in the market overnight. They are then herded to the Maidan to be fed, doubling as the lawn mowers for this enormous park. This market is right in the middle of the city, so it was quite a site to see goats on the streets.
India has a population of around 1.4 billion people, and on some streets it feels like half of India is in one place.
I visited the alluringly-named Old China Bazar Street.
The busy market on Chowringhee Road.
Gas delivery by bicycle.
And milk delivery by bicycle.
Kolkata Cafe Scene
When I have a big day of walking around planned I usually mark a list of cafes in Google Maps with a star. Unfortunately there isn’t a big cafe scene here yet. I ended up at the one Starbucks and the branches of the national cafe chain Cafe Coffee Day most of the time for my coffee fix.
The cafe highlight was the Indian Coffee House. If you are used to espresso coffee then it’s not the best coffee in the world, but you can’t go past it for ambiance. This old-school cafe with ceiling fans and uniformed waiters is a great place to meet people or read a book for a while. I didn’t have my laptop, and i would have felt weird by working in such an establishment.
Maybe there were some cool cafes in the well-to-do suburban areas, but they weren’t showing on my searches.
Bus To Bhutan
At the Esplanade Bus Station there is a stand for the Bhutan-Kolkata bus service. The fact that you can get a bus to Bhutan had me preplanning my next trip. Upon further investigation the bus takes 22 hours according to Google.
My beaten-up chicken bus days are done, but something to think about for those looking for an overland adventure. It would be better to break the trip up somewhere on the way.
Where To Stay In Kolkata
If you are new to Kolkata then I would stay in the area around Esplanade Station on the metro. In this area is Sudder Street, which is the backpacker street of Kolkata. It’s not as lively as it used to be, but it has all the amenities you need to plan your travels. Around here you will find accommodation ranging from dingy backpacker dives to 5-star hotels.
Find Hotels in Kolkata, India.
[Sudder Street Kolkata.]
Future Travels To Kolkata
I could see myself coming back to Kolkata on the way to Bhutan (by air), and there are other parts of India I want to visit in the future that require a transit in Kolkata. I mentioned previously that I hope I can visit all the states and territories of India in my lifetime. If so, I look forward to passing through Kolkata again and seeing how the city is progressing.
[Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport.]