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Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is a city of contrasts and contradictions, and one that has a lasting impact on its visitors. It is India's fourth-largest city, and home to some of the country's holiest temples and finest colonial structures.
As the 'Cultural Capital of India', Kolkata is said to have the biggest concentration of artists, writers and publishers in the country. Although it is the centre of Bengali culture, Kolkata is also a diverse city, with a diverse mixture of languages spoken among its 14 million inhabitants. Kolkata was home to two Nobel Laureates: Mother Teresa, whose humble home can still be visited; and writer Rabindranath Tagore. The city also accommodates sports fans, with Eden Gardens, the city's temple to cricket and the second-largest cricket stadium in the world; and Saltlake Stadium, one of the world's largest football venues, with an impressive crowd capacity of 120,000.
From 1772 to 1912 Kolkata was the capital of the British Raj, a legacy evident in its superb colonial architecture, highlighted by the enormous Victoria Memorial, and well-planned infrastructure. The latter half of the 20th century, however, saw Kolkata enter a period of decline, with rampant poverty and economic stagnation. It was only in the 1980s, under India's first democratically elected Marxist administration, that the city turned the corner.
Today, visitors making the journey to this eastern corner of the country will find a city that has rediscovered its pride and cultural identity, offering a Bengali welcome warm enough to seduce even the most jaded traveller.
Kolkata is India's third-largest city, and home to some of the country's holiest temples and finest colonial structures. The 'Cultural Capital of India' is a diverse city with a diverse mixture of languages spoken among its 14 million inhabitants. It was also home to Mother Teresa, whose humble home can still be visited, and the famous writer Rabindranath Tagore. Kolkata is a city of many cultural attractions and some impressive colonial architecture. A deeply religious city representing several faiths, some striking temples often top the list of things to see in Kolkata.
The Indian Botanical Garden in Kolkata has many floral treasures, but none as impressive as the 250-year-old Great Banyan Tree, which covers nearly 5,300 square feet (500sq/m). What at first seems like a forest of narrow trunks is, in fact, 1,573 drop-roots from a single banyan tree. The gardens, located on the west bank of the Hooghly River, contain about 12,000 living plant species from every corner of the globe and offer some good bird watching opportunities and a quiet green space in which to walk, relax and picnic. There are many paths and trails to explore.
This astounding marble building is probably the most impressive colonial structure in India. In a city known for several great monuments and buildings, this palace is often considered the primary architectural gem and most iconic landmark. It was built to commemorate Queen Victoria (although she never actually visited the city) and only completed in 1921, after 20 years of solid work. Inside is a fascinating museum of Indian history, including some wonderful sculptures and paintings. The monument is situated on 64 acres of land, which includes lakes, gardens and walking paths.
With 60 galleries of art, archaeology and anthropology, this is India's largest museum, India's oldest museum, and quite possibly India's most attractive museum, housed as it is in a stunning, colonnaded palace. The Indian Museum was established in 1814 and the collection is vast and varied, including fossils, skeletons, coins, manuscripts, all kinds of Indian art and sculpture, traditional games, icons, puppets, toys, musical instruments and much more. The natural history collection is thought to be one of the world's finest and the museum library is famous for its impressive collection.
This humble and touching temple to Mother Teresa's life and work in downtown Kolkata is well worth a visit. Upstairs is a small museum, full of affecting and interesting displays. Visitors even have a chance to see Blessed Teresa's bedroom, preserved exactly as it was when she lived in the building. Tourists can also visit Mother Teresa's tomb and spend a quiet moment praying or reflecting in this inspirational place. Not so much an 'attraction' as a deeply emotional and inspiring insight into a life of self-sacrifice and devotion, a visit to Mother House makes a fine counterpoint to more traditional tourist pursuits.
This 350-year-old temple dedicated to Kali is Kolkata's holiest site, attracting a throng of excited pilgrims every day. Inside the temple there are several shrines: a Krishna shrine where goats and buffalo are sacrificed to the goddess (the meat is distributed to the poor); a shrine to the goddess Manasa that consists of a tree, to which devotees (typically women) tie rocks with red thread in order to receive blessings, usually regarding fertility; a Shiva shrine with a Vedic fire pit in which a fire ceremony is performed daily; and, of course, a shrine to Kali, which is a statue of the god with a three-eyed black skull and a long, golden tongue.
One of Kolkata's most unusual sites, this palace was built by a local member of the 19th century gentry in a marvellous patchwork of classical architectural styles. Lavish use is made of Italian marble, and the lawns contain an eclectic pantheon of statues including Christopher Columbus and the Buddha. The Marble Palace is a place of drama and dilapidation that, unsurprisingly, has frequently been used as a movie set. It remains a private residence, however, so visitors will have to arrange a permit to view the interior (a worthwhile activity, if only to gawk at the impressive art lining the walls). Permits can be obtained from the West Bengal Tourism Information Bureau.
Kolkata experiences a tropical climate, with wet and dry seasons. Kolkata arguably has three seasons: summer, winter and monsoon. Summers are hot and humid, with temperatures soaring as high as 104ºF (40ºC) during the months of May and June. The summer months are often punctuated with dusty squalls, followed by hail or thunderstorms, bringing slight relief from the humidity and heat. Winters are short, lasting only about two to three months, with temperatures dropping to 54°F (9°C) during the day between December and January. There are occasional showers in winter but the wet season is brought by the monsoon between June and September, when the city receives a lot of rain. Visiting during the monsoon season is not recommended.
The best time to visit Kolkata is in the cooler months between October and April. February is probably the best month of all from a weather perspective. Kolkata has a problem with pollution and there is regularly haze and smog in the city reducing visibility. In winter the mornings are often hazy and misty, but there is usually sunshine in the afternoons.
Kolkata has one of the best transport networks in the country. The metro runs the length of the city, and trams and buses provide wide coverage as well. Car hire is available, with drivers included; Uber is another option. Tourists are advised to not even attempt to drive around Kolkata, which is simply too congested and chaotic and will be overly stressful for the uninitiated.
As in all Indian cities, traffic congestion is a problem that results in frequent, noisy gridlock. Walking from one attraction to the other is, therefore, often the quickest way of getting around. Some of the attractions are conveniently close together, especially in some of the old, colonial neighbourhoods, but it is a huge city so some transport other than feet will be required.
Kolkata is associated powerfully in the global imagination with the inspiring figure of Mother Teresa. Mother House, which her order still uses as a headquarters and where visitors can see her tomb and a small museum, is one of the top attractions in Kolkata. It is also a city of scholars, with many cultural attractions and some impressive colonial architecture. The India Museum, India's oldest, largest and arguably best museum, is a must for those interested in the history of the country. The lovely Victoria Memorial is celebrated as one of the architectural gems of the colonial period. The Marble Palace, an eccentric, privately owned mansion with some intriguing features is also very popular.
A deeply religious city representing several faiths, some striking temples often top the list of things to see in Kolkata. The Kalighat Temple is the city's holiest site, and those willing to brave the hordes of worshippers and pilgrims will find this attraction to be a profound experience. The Sri Mayapur Chandrodaya Temple, frequented by devotees of Lord Krishna, is popular with tourists; and the Dakshineshwar Kali Temple, stunning architecturally, is another favourite.
For a break from traditional cultural sightseeing, wander through the spooky 18th-century South Park Street Cemetery, or visit the Great Banyan Tree in the Indian Botanical Garden.
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