Calcutta city of chaos, kindness and class
Appleyard together with photographer Dan
Thory have now touched down in Calcutta and what a first stop!
Indian cities have a reputation for frantic chaos, crowds, noise
and amazing sights of both the beautiful and disturbing kind, but
Calcutta tops the lot in all respects. Their first article is about
the tourist view of Calcutta city; the sights, sounds and smells;
the places to visit and the not to be missed experiences.
Nearly everybody I spoke to before this trip said:
"Calcutta first! Talk about jumping in at the deep end! You'll
get lost, mugged and have an utterly miserable time!"
True, it is a culture shock, but a shock worth remembering.
Calcutta is home to 20 million people, so you can imagine the chaos.
It's a city of extremes, you can walk down a road where families
live and cook their food on the street, whilst just round the corner,
wealthier families sit in the parks of the beautifully constructed
Victorian memorial (built in honour of Queen Victoria, during English
rule) having picnics with their smartly dressed children.
of the situations we experienced during our four day visit were
amusing. Just after asking a local market trader about buying underpants
I was suddenly chased down the street by him, whilst he grabbed
my arm and screamed "OK, 50 rupees", because I had chosen
to shop elsewhere. Minutes later, I met somebody who was genuinely
interested in why we had come to Calcutta and who wanted to tell
us about all the great things we should see.
During the taxi ride to our accommodation on the first
day the driver swapped lanes constantly, almost running over pedestrians
and skinny men riding battered old rickshaws, whilst a cow wondered
down the middle of the road without a care in the world. It was
oblivious to the traffic and everybody was keen to avoid it, despite
beeping incessantly at all other vehicles. We also saw cows sleeping
on a motorway junction and stared in disbelief at a bus gently ramming
into a tram at 5 mph, forcing it to stop on the track. Surely these
mad events only happen in Calcutta?
Calcutta recommenced sights
Our first stop on the first day was the Victoria Memorial and we
couldn't believe how such an English looking building, with a dome
the same shape as the one at St. Paul's Cathedral, could be the
focal point of the whole of this Indian city. Some of the other
impressive sights we saw in this crazy, but addictive city, included
The Birla Planetarium, Calcutta Botanical Gardens, The Indian Museum,
The Maidan, The Kali Temple and the Vidya Sagar Setu bridge.
The Birla Planetarium is the largest Planetarium in South East Asia
and one of the biggest in the world, it was built by the West Bengal
government in 1929. You can go in for the equivalent of 30p, sit
back in your chair and look up at the ceiling, which turns pitch
black and lights up to show all the stars in the universe. An Indian
guide explains, in English, all of the solar systems and planets
known to man.
Calcutta Botanical Gardens
The Botanical Garden, founded in 1787, are the biggest in Asia and
the second largest in the world. They contain 50,000 different species
of plant and would take an entire day to walk around. The biggest
attraction is the 200 year old Banyan tree, which is considered
to be one of the largest in the world, with a circumference of over
304 metres and a canopy that covers 1.2 hectares.
The Maidan is a massive expanse of clear land, 3 km long and over
1 km wide, which extends from the Victoria Memorial and the musical
fountains. It is known as the 'Lungs of Calcutta' and the citizens
use it for playing cricket, hosting festivals and flying kites.
If you are an English visitor, you are likely to be followed by
crowds of young children who will bombard you with questions about
England, making you feel as if you are the only English tourist
The Indian Museum is the largest in India and the oldest in Asia.
This Italian styled building is beautiful inside and, as well as
displaying historical artefacts, paintings and collections from
all over India and the world, it reveals the fascinating history
of the Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu religions in India. It is amazing
that so many religions live together side by side in India.
of the greatest surprises during our trip was the generosity of
the taxi driver we hired for the 4 days. He slept in his taxi for
hours whilst waiting for us and after a while we couldn't bear it,
so we invited him to have lunch each day and visit the sights with
us. I would definitely return to Calcutta to meet kind people like
Want to see more images of Calcutta?
For the view beyond the tourist sites just follow this
link to a small gallery page ...
Text © Rodney Appleyard, photographs
© Dan Thory, 2002