Not surprisingly, I jumped at the offer to join a tour group organised by the Asia touring experts Exotic Holidays NZ with an itinerary visiting the contrasting regions of Kolkata (old Calcutta) in Western Bengal, Sikkim in Northern India and the Kingdom of Bhutan. Each of these destinations is worthy of a blog, but i’ll begin with Kolkata…!
Flying from Auckland with Singapore Airlines takes just under 11 hours and transfer time at Changi Airport can be as full-on or relaxing as you wish to make it. This airport has quite justifiably made the list of one of the world’s best airports and with immaculately clean surroundings, flower and Butterfly Gardens, movie theatres, swimming pools and spas as well as great shopping experiences, your time really does “fly”. If you have more than 5 hours to spare, there is a free Singapore City Tour by bus provided from the airport, and it’s very worthwhile if you haven’t been before.
We connected to Kolkata on Silk Air with the journey a respectable 4.5 hours and an efficient aircrew on board. An animated conversation with a Singapore resident (on his way to a meditation retreat in India) about the best places to eat in Singapore took my attention away from the smallish seats, limited legroom and seriously outdated (and somewhat grubby-looking) coral pink decor.
Arriving in Kolkata was an interesting experience that involved being finger-printed and photographed by quite stern looking gentlemen who showed their obvious frustration with their outdated equipment, before being assaulted by the full force of a 32℃ humidity laden evening. Nevertheless, our air-conditioned chariot awaited and we embarked on an interesting 35-minute journey to our accommodation for the night – the Lalit Grand Eastern Hotel on Old Court House St, Dalhousie Square.
This hotel was an oasis of tranquility nestled among the frenetic shopping and business areas of Kolkata and the staff were excellent and welcoming to a group of tired travellers just wanting to get to our beds. Our rooms were in the comfortable contemporary section of the hotel, but I understand that the fully renovated Victorian and Edwardian sections of this c.1841 hotel are absolutely stunning. Breakfast is served in the lobby-level Alfresco dining room that had an airy “conservatory” feel to it with views out to the surrounding lily-ponds. There is a multitude of food choice from traditional Indian fare through to European pastries, fruits or made to order hot dishes. A word of caution – unless you like your tea or coffee very sweet and milky, ask for black tea or coffee and request your milk separately!
Traditional Indian tea should be tried at least once however and is a spiced, sweetened black tea mixed with milk which often includes cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, pepper, fennel, and star anise. It is sold all over India by chai wallahs, or tea vendors, who pour the tea from big kettles into small cups. We experienced this unique experience and were told by our guide that it is quite safe, due to the kettles being constantly on the boil by way of a crude kerosene burner fitted under the kettle – however, we drank it without milk!
Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal and has a city population of in excess of 4.5 million. Under the late 17th century rule of the East India Company and later the British Raj, Calcutta served as the capital of the Indian British held territories. In 1911 the capital was shifted to New Delhi and later after Independence from Britain in 1947, the city suffered several decades of economic stagnation which is evident in the numerous once elegant colonial buildings that have sadly fallen into decay and ruin. Interestingly, our guide (a Professor of History) also assisted Australian author Joanne Taylor with her book “The Forgotten Palaces of Calcutta” and conducts a walking tour which visits some of these fascinating buildings. I would be up for that!
It was Festival time in Western Bengal which meant more craziness than usual on the streets of Kolkata as the population geared up to celebrate Navaratri – a nine-night festival that honours the Mother Goddess in all her manifestations. On every street corner, communities vie with each other to erect life-sized temporary temples, and individuals, businesses and communities commission the specialist local artisans to construct for them the most impressive statues of gods, goddesses and deities to outdo each other. We were taken for a walk through some of the streets that house these artisans and the level of craftsmanship that goes into these statues and temporary temples is simply stunning.
This finished product display was created by one of the top artisans and we were told was sold for a very high price.
You witness the designs beginning as clumps of straw folded to an approximate design and then being covered with a layer of clay. Successive layers of clay are added, moulded, sanded and manipulated into lifelike and larger-than-life scenes from mythology.
They are then expertly painted, decorated and sequinned, dressed and transported (often on the back of a rickshaw or by a group carrying poles) to their place of display and worship.
In an ironic twist, at the end of the festival and as part of the ritual, the effigies are returned to the earth by being thrown into the Ganges! Some displays are pure Bollywood theatre but what an experience to witness their creation!
Next stop was the Pareshnath Jain temple on Badridas Temple Street, one of Kolkata’s most important temples. Entering under the Temple gateway, your visual senses are overloaded with a display of heavily ornamented buildings, intricate colourful gardens, statuary (some with very comical features) and fountains, but the real surprise comes as you draw closer to the main temple.
Intricately paved marble floors compete for your attention with walls, windows, ceilings and pillars that are entirely decorated with mosaics of coloured glass, mirror, semi-precious stones and marble.
Chandeliers hang from every ceiling and you are left wondering how such awe-inspiring symmetry and precision could have been achieved, by hand in the mid-late 19th century. The heavy use of mirrored mosaic gives an impression that the structure is made of inlaid silver and the effect is quite dazzling in the bright light. Interior photos are not allowed and as with most religious sites, shoes must be removed.
Our departure/transit hotel was The Peerless Inn Kolkata, on Jawaharlal Nehru Road. They provided good facilities for showering and freshening up before braving the festival crowds for a last-minute spot of shopping and then heading back to the airport. Located 45 minutes from the airport, this is a predominantly business hotel with a good central location, good facilities and a pleasant buffet restaurant.
Kolkata like many cities in India can be an assault on the senses – the noise, smells, sights and the sheer number of people can be overwhelming and some of the things you see make you realise that our first world problems are ridiculously unimportant. Many people live in adverse conditions, with very little but their determination, smiles and their good humour which remarkably shines through. All in all, India is definitely a place I will return to but I don’t think I would plan or travel it alone. Being part of a guided or escorted tour and being in the care of operators who are locally based, is the only way to go. India is also an ideal location for onwards travel and my next blog will be about getting from Kolkata to Sikkim in Northern India and then onwards to Bhutan.
Tips & Recommendations
- Don’t be afraid to eat the local food – just take care and use common sense when eating items like salads that may have been prepared with non-bottled water.
- Do try all of the amazing varieties of Indian bread – from luchis, puri and pathiri to roti and chapati – for breakfast lunch and dinner, with dal or the many curry options.
- Don’t leave Kolkata without trying some of their speciality fish dishes or the famous and delicious momos.
- Beer in India is cheap and very good quality and after a hot day out – delicious!
- Always, always have spare tissues and hand sanitizer in your pocket or bag.
- Photos are not permitted in temples or holy places – please respect this.
- Take a pair of socks to put on when entering temples as shoes must be removed.
- Use a well-known and trusted touring company like Exotic Holidays NZ to take the hassle out of your holiday.