The crumbling beauty: Kolkata’s palaces and temples

The most interesting part of Kolkata spreads north of the Esplanade. There aren’t many particular ‘sights’ to visit, you just have to take it all in, strolling through the narrow alleys among dilapidated houses and residences. Once you get tired of the city, find some calm at the vast Indian Botanic Garden.

A dilapidated brick building in north Kolkata with once beautiful facade featuring columns and balcony now has trees growing on its roof
Trees growing from the roof of once- grand building in north Kolkata

North Kolkata

The old core of the city – arguably its most atmospheric and interesting part- lies north of the Esplanade. This labyrinth of narrow streets and passageways is full of the buildings remembering the times when Kolkata was the capital of the British Raj. They also look like nobody has done any renovation works since the day they were built. Indeed, many of the buildings carry the boards warning of the risk of collapse. Even palaces and grand residences are in quite a poor shape. Only those mansions that belonged to Bengali national heroes are well maintained.

The open doorway to one of many dilapidated, 19th century buildings in the north of Kolkata
Entrance to one of many dilapidated buildings in north Kolkata

Marble Palace and other Babu residences

Babus were great Bengali land owners who economically benefited from the British rule. Their residences, just as their lifestyle, was a mixture of native and colonial influences. The grandest of all Babu residences in Kolkata is the Marble Palace. This dusty, deteriorating building was once jaw-dropping: the crystal chandelliers, painting of renowned European artists and other fancy decorations remain silent witnesses of the gradual decline. Marble Palace is open from 10am till 3pm (closed on Monday and Thursday). The guided tour is free but it requires a permit given by the West Bengal Tourism Information Bureau (No. 2, Brabourne Road, open 10am-5pm).

A white classicist fountain and the classicist facade of the Marble Palace in Kolkata
Marble Palace- the richest of Kolkata’s mansions

The other Babu residences, such as Sovabazar Rajbari and Chatu Babu Latu Babu Thakur Bari are still inhabited by the aristocratic families. Therefore, they open their gates only during the Durga Puja festival in autumn when the statues of the gods are displayed to public in the inner courtyards.

Shiny, colourful figures of goddess Durga and her entourage displayed during Durga Puja festival at the Sovabazar Rajbari in north Kolkata
Durga Puja at the Sovabazar Rajbari

College Street

One place you cannot miss when you visit north Kolkata is College Street. It is located, as the name suggests, in the vicinity of the university. The entire street and some neighbouring ones are filled with outdoor stalls selling books, mostly academic but also novels. You can easily find there books in English.

Books stalls on College Street

Don’t miss visiting the Indian Coffee House – a legendary place tracing back to the British times frequented by artists, intellectuals and generations of students. The waiters wear characteristic outfits with fancy headwear and the menu features some Indianised (not necessarily successful) versions of the British cuisine. The place is unique and worth a visit, even though coffee itself is quite disappointing. The same building houses a bookstore with a large collection of titles in English.

Time stand still at the Indian Coffee House

It’s just a short walk from there to College Square, bordering with an open swimming pool. Right in front of the pool, you can find the tiny and unassuming Paramount. This iconic place has served super -sweet ‘shorbots’ (cool drinks with various fruit flavours) since it opened in 1928.

Three glasses of cool drink called shorbot, each in a different colour
Shorbot at the Paramount – same for almost a century

I recommend taking a ride with an antique, snail-paced tram from College Street back to Esplanade (the last stop) or further up north.

Kumartuli

Kumartuli is the craftsmen neighbourhood. Almost every building in the area is a workshop where the figures of the deities are produced. The skeleton is made from straw, later covered with clay, paper mache and finally brightly painted.

A row of identical clay figures of goddess Saraswati waiting for painting along the walls of a building in Kumartuli district in Kolkata
Straw and clay figures of goddess Saraswati waiting for painting at Kumartuli

The best time to visit Kumartuli is just before any of the important pujas (religious festivals). That’s when the figures spill onto the streets. Kumartuli gets most busy before Durga Puja (Sept/Oct), but it’s worth a visit also before Kali Puja (Oct/Nov) or Saraswati Puja (Jan/Feb). Check for exact dates- they change every year according to the lunar calendar.

Porters loading a 2 meters tall figure of goddess Durga ona small truck in Kumartuli district just before Durga Puja celebrations
Porters loading a statue of Durga on a small truck before Durga Puja celebrations

The nearest metro stop to the Kumartuli district is Sovabazar Sutanuti. You can also take a circular train to Bagbazar.

Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath’s Tagore’s houses

If you’re in north Kolkata, it’s worth to see two old houses where the great Bengalis lived, now turned into museums. Girish Park metro station is the nearest to the ancestral house of the Tagore family (including Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel prize for literature laureate and absolute hero for all Bengalis). Jorasanko Thakurbari is a museum which is worth to visit if you’d like to get the idea of how the rich and influential Bengalis lived under the British rule.

A red-brick coloured walls and green wooden shutters of the 18th century residence of the Tagore family in Kolkata
Th 18th century house of the Tagore family

300 years old ancestral house of Swami Vivekananda, stands on the other side of the street from the metro station, on Vivekananda Rd. The building is now managed by the Ramakrishna Mission and turned into Vivekananda’s museum.

Calcutta Jain Temple

Parshwanath Temple is, in fact, a temple compound with four highly decorative, 19th- century temples situated around artificial ponds. The photos inside the main temple, decorated with mirrors, stain glass and chandeliers are not allowed. In my humble opinion, it is the most beautiful of all Kolkata temples.

A greek-style column support the entrance to white-stone temple at the Parshwanath Temple complex in Kolkata
Part of the Parshwanath Jain Temple complex

Do not miss a splendid, yellow- coloured villa nearby, with a staircase decorated with marble lions.

A freshly renovated, yellow painted mansion house with oriental archway and windows in north Kolkata
A beautiful historical residence near the Calcutta Jain Temple

Getting from Girish Park to Parshwanath Temple, aka Calcutta Jain Temple, is a bit complicated but very much worth the effort. If you don’t feel like covering 1.5km distance on foot, take an autorickshaw running along Vivekananda Rd and get off at Maniktala Crossing. From there you can take any bus going north and get off at Sahitya Parishad bus stop. The temple is 6 minutes walk away.

Main Hindu temples of Kolkata

The three most important Hindu temples which you shouldn’t miss are Kalighat, Dakshineshwar and Belur Math. Due to their relative novelty and the inconvenient location, I wouldn’t put those temples on the priority list.

Belur Math and Dakshineshwar

Dakshineswar Kali Temple was built in the mid- 19th century and it has the shape typical of Bengali temples. It contains not just the main Kali temple but also some shrines of its consort, Shiva. A ghat (steps leading to the water) at the Hooghly river is nearby. The temple was home to Ramakrishna, a famous 19th-century mystic who in turn influenced Swami Vivekananda, (a Hindu reformer and yoga philosophy promoter). Both of these men are highly revered in Bengal and elsewhere in India.

Square-base, multidome temple at the Dakshineshwar complex in Kolkata
A line of devotees waiting to enter Daskhineshwar Temple

Early 20th century Belur Math temple was built by Swami Vivekananda. It serves now as the headquarters of Ramakrishna Mission. This unusual building combines elements of Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and of course Hindu architecture. It also blends architectural influences from different parts of India: from Moghul and Rajput to Tamil. Belur Math has extensive grounds, including Ramakrishna Museum, monks quarters and a huge dining hall giving out free meals to the visitors.

Dakshineshwar can be reached by suburban train from Sealdah train station. Bear in mind to avoid peak hours as those trains can get extremely crowded! Probably the most pleasant way to travel between the two temples is by ferry connecting Dakshineshwar and Belur Math. The journey costs just 10 rupees.

Kalighat

200 years old Kalighat temple is located in southern Kolkata. You can get there by metro, getting off at Kalighat stop. It is one of Shakti Peethas -the very sacred Hindu temples scattered all over the former territory of India. Indian mythology says that when goddess Sati (whose other forms are Parvati, Durga and Kali) was cut into 51 tiny pieces, they fell on the entire Deccan peninsula and beyond. Kalighat stands where the toes of the Sati’s right foot fell. Kali is the most ferocious goddess of the Hindu pantheon. She still demands animal sacrifice, usually in the form of goats. Thankfully, those sacrifices aren’t performed in public anymore. Kali’s idol with black-face, schematic eyes and a disproportionally large golden tongue is visually very simple, making it stand out among countless other reprentations of the goddess.

Indian Botanic Garden

If you’re tired of the noise and pollution, head for the enormous Calcutta Botanic Garden (aka Indian Botanic Garden) which was founded by the British in the 18th century. The garden is large and gives an impression of being quite wild if not neglected. I had barely seen any people there during my two visits.

Pond with water lilies at Calcutta Botanic Garden
A lily pond at the Indian Botanic Garden

The main attraction of the garden is the 250-years old Great Banyan, dubbed the largest tree in the world. The tree has countless trunks and measures a whopping 330 metres in circumference. Part of the tree was destroyed by a powerful cyclone in May 2020. The same cyclone uprooted thousand other trees within the Botanic Garden.

A 'forest' of multiple trunks of the Great Banyan tree at Calcutta Botanic Garden
The Great Banyan tree

Only in Kolkata

North Kolkata is the last place in India where you can find man-pulled rickshaws. The poorest of the poor, often from the neighbouring state of Bihar, pull the rickety carts harnessing themselves to its shaft. I can’t bring myself to use even the cycle rickshaw but, arguably, this is the only way those people can make a living.

A lean, muscular rickshaw puller sitting on his rickhaw waiting for a customer in north Kolkata
A rickshaw puller waiting for a customer

What might surprise you quite a bit is the presence of communist symbols such as hammer and sickle in the public spaces. The communist party was in power for 34 years here and although this is no longer the case, many people still proudly call themselves communists.

A small display with pictures of Lenin, Hitler and an Indian communist leader in a quiet neighbourhood of Kolkata
A small display commemorating the October Revolution

PRACTICALITES

Prices [in Indian rupees as of 2020]:
300 pre-paid taxi from the airport to the Esplanade area
200 foreigner entrance fee to Victoria Memorial
150 foreigner entrance fee to Indian Museum
150 a meal in a cheap but decent restaurant
120-150 coffee at a cafe
100 foreigner entrance fee to Indian Botanic Garden
80 AC bus from the airport to the Esplanade
70 veg thali (vegetarian dish plate) at a ‘hotel’
50 a meal in a cheap sit-down eatery
50 foreigner entrance fee to Tagore’s house
30-50 fresh juice from a street stall
30-40 egg roll from a street stall
20 bottle of mineral water
20 single AC tram journey
10 ferry from Dakshineshwar to Belur Math
10-15 single journey on a circular train
5-10 single metro ride in zone 1-2
7-10 single regular bus journey
25 minimum fare for a single AC bus journey
6-7 single non-AC tram journey
5-10 short journey on a circular train
5 chai from a street stall (at the Esplanade it could be double)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s