Fish, the Victoria Memorial and memories of the glorious British Raj, that is how everyone should remember Calcutta.
Calcutta (or Kolkata, as it is now known) use to once upon be a jewel in the British crown, metaphorically-speaking. This is because Queen Victoria was crowned as the Empress of India at the time, and although this title no longer exists, the statement has been reapplied numerous times already to various others in a different atmosphere, such as Kate Middleton, at the heels of her wedding to Prince William, Duke of Cambridge.
Calcutta is the capital of West Bengal and is a city filled to the brim with vibrant bustles of companionships, charm and grace. Calcutta, as the British still call it, is replete with architectural symbols and colonial landmarks, perhaps more than any city in India can claim to do so. No matter where you go in Calcutta: the Maidan, Fort William, the Victoria Memorial, Dalhousie Square, the 18th Century Writer’s Building, Chowringhee, the Palladian villas – they are all marvels of colonial influence.
When you are in Kolkata, it is hard to find a good place to stay on a budget but there is no shortage of fabulous hotels. Taj Bengal (34b Belvedere Road, Alipore) is one place, which is young, small and vibrant – perfect for fast weekend trips. It boasts hanging gardens (similar to the ones that Babylon mythology caricatured), and is close to both the zoo in the area and to town. The restaurant in the hotel is known for specialising in Bengali fishes, sourced locally, but when you are tired of devouring local delicacies, you can always take in the panoramic views of the city – the Victoria Memorial is particularly spectacular at midnight.
For lovers of the grand and the successful, you can choose The Oberoi Grand (15 Jawaharlal Nehru Road, Calcutta) for it’s ideal location on the main road, and for being opposite the Maidan. The hotel is a chip of the old block of the British Empire, boasting interiors that are luxurious and richly draped and accessorised with Colonial furniture. The food here is modern and Indian, naturally, and there is also a coffee shop for lovers of light snacks.
Speaking of food, the city is littered with restaurants that are very proud to serve a range of cuisines to travellers, and locals alike. But if you were looking for something to eat distinctively European, then you can go to 1658 – the place serves you meat skewers, pizzas, and herb-roasted cottage cheese on lemon potatoes, so it would be ideal during those moments when you need a quick bite to eat.
The city is gearing up for a makeover shift in terms of cuisine, so it is not hard to find Bengali-fusion cuisine, sporting tangy prawns (head to Oh! Calcutta), and neither is it unusual to spot pizza spots open way past regular dining hours, to serve foodies both Italian and Calcutta’s own rendition of pizzas (you have to go to Fire and Ice).
Foodies in this town, like their former rulers, love fish. It is perhaps a trait that has crept up into the culture of all of our former colonies, be it the United States of America or Australasia, so lovers of fish should be at Bhojohori Manna – a cheap food market chain that is decorated out with tribal decos and boasts a complete menu of fish, cooked with a flavoursome sauce.
When all is said and done, my favourite thing about Calcutta is the Victoria Memorial. It is the biggest example of the British Raj in India and the most magnificent. A titanic white marble museum, it is home to a lot of white memories from back-in-the-day, when Great Britain would still rule over this colony, that would count so much French, Dutch and Spanish power-wielding raging through it’s corridors, for numerous decades.
The Memorial counts many memorabilia from the time when it was still our colony, and although the locals seem to have become forever embittered about how outside the country’s borders the palace does not quite carry the gravity it deserves in India, there is no denying the soaring power and deadly magnetism of the palace. There is this general idea, around the world, that if the palace wasn’t built for a dead colonial queen, but an Indian maiden, with her own rendition of power-wielding, it would rightfully gain it’s position as one of the greatest buildings in India.
The palace was completed twenty years after Queen Victoria’s death, even if it was made with the idea that her diamond jubilee should be celebrated all across, particularly in India, because she was after all the Empress of the country. The chambers are huge and seem like they could touch the sky, reflecting the grand ambitions of the British and their deadly ways of turning a land upside down, and fill it with prosperity and growth.