Wow, a chance to go on a holiday to India – the thought was hugely exciting, but terribly daunting too. People say India is a country that changes the way you see the world; I was intrigued to see what effect it would have on me.
Arriving into Calcutta (having never been to India before) was certainly a baptism of fire! Sarah (who was travelling with me) and I were the only westerners on the flight from Dubai and two of few women, so we drew rather long, fascinated stares that lacked the British embarrassment at being caught!
On landing, the heat and humidity hit me like a brick wall and even the air smelled different, there were people everywhere, the constant ‘peep’ of horns and far too much for my eyes to take in at once – what an assault on the senses.
After a quick chat with a cockroach in the toilet, we were met by our guide Avi whose smile put me instantly at ease and we set off in the cool of our air-conditioned car. Air-conditioned it may have been, but this didn’t prevent my heart from leaping into my mouth every other second as we fought our way through the crowded, over-crowded…no, full to bursting roads. This style of driving is not for the faint hearted – even Avi expressed that he would not drive there! We darted through the traffic with millimetres to spare, weaving, beeping the horn, avoiding cars, people, bicycles, animals and all manner of other things.
I have never been somewhere that is so full; every inch of space that my eyes fell upon was busy with people and activity. People walking home from work, people stuffed into buses, people washing, people sleeping, people selling, people buying – and this was ‘quiet’ late evening.
We then spotted our hotel, a beautiful colonial building – with no clear entrance. As we turned off the street and pushed our way through the millions (or so it seemed) of people, we entered the sanctuary of the Oberoi Grand. What a contrast; the noise of the street instantly disappeared, the cool of the lobby descended upon us, delicious fruit juice was at the ready and the wonderful rooms provided the chance to wash off the journey and sleep.
To make the most of our short time in Calcutta we had arranged to have 2 half day tours, this was really worth it and I considered it the best way to find out the most about Calcutta. Our guide was Malini. A Master of linguistics; she was intelligent, engaging and had an infectious enthusiasm for this bustling city. It was great to have an insight into life in Calcutta and to be given the inside track on what to see.
We started our tour with a trip to the flower market; it is one of the largest wholesale markets in India and so is little visited by tourists. Wear proper shoes! We made the mistake of wearing flipflops and enjoyed squelching through the mud and flower waste. It was all worth it though; what a beautiful site, down by the river. Between the ‘go-downs’ (warehouses), stalls were full of brightly coloured flowers. We weaved our way through the market, packed full of people, ducking for baskets and huge bundles atop of people’s shoulders all the while admiring the vibrant colours and delicately made garlands and wedding head dresses. Climbing up to the Howrah Bridge (used by around a million people a day!) we had a wonderful view of the area (as the photos above show).
We then drove through Calcutta stopping off to view the amazing colonial buildings like the imposing red-bricked Administration building, the old post office, the stark white Victoria Memorial and the grand Governor’s residence with its huge gardens. We also found time to include the Marble Palace, a family residence that is full of marble statues and contains a bizarre little ‘zoo’; the huge second-hand book market near College Street (so named due the 17 colleges along it) and the “Jewel Box of Calcutta” – opulent temples adorned with coloured glass and precious gems belonging to the strict Jian faith. Also well worth a visit is the home of Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity; Mother Teresa is buried here and spent much of her life working with the people of Calcutta. A truly inspiring and humbling experience and highlights the important work her ongoing charity provides.
St John’s church was next. One of the oldest in Calcutta, it still houses the original furniture of the first office of the East India Company and a memorial to the tragic and much-discussed Black hole of Calcutta. One of my favourite stories here was about the Johann Zoffany painting of the Last Supper hanging inside. It is thought that Zoffany painted himself as Jesus, his girlfriend as Mary Magdalene and a man he disliked intently as Judas! Not surprisingly ‘Judas’ took great offence to this and you can still see the now repaired slash mark where he tried to destroy the painting with a knife.
Finally, we visited the long road called Rabindra Sarani; each section is dedicated to a different trade, jewellers, book stores and, where we wandered, the Pottery Village. The Pottery village is full of clay statues of many of the Hindu Gods all in various stages of construction. The clay used comes straight from the river Hooghly and the beautifully painted statues are used in festivals and weddings.
As we wandered, Malini told us the wonderfully captivating and beautiful stories behind many of the Gods. My favourite was Sheba – the Goddess of destruction. She killed many demons that were on Earth; if a single drop of their blood hit the ground more would be born from this spot – to prevent this she drank their blood until she was sent mad by their evil. No one could stop the powerful Sheba, and so her husband lay down in front of her and she accidentally stepped on his chest. This is seen as very disrespectful in Indian culture and so Sheba was shocked back to her senses. This is why Sheba is often depicted with her tongue out and her foot on her husband’s chest.
What an introduction to the country… now to board our boat!