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Starting this regular feature from South Asia and South East Asia, Rodney Appleyard and photographer Dan Thory have now begun their journey with a visit to the frantic, chaotic Indian city of Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal.

This article looks at this frenetic city from the tourist perspective; a later article will comment on the other side of Calcutta, the reality of life beyond the tourist industry.

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Calcutta – city of chaos, kindness and class

victoria memorial calcutta

The Victoria Memorial

Journalist Rodney 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.

buying underpants, calcuttaSome 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, calcuttaThe Birla Planetarium
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
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 in Calcutta.

the indian museum, calcuttaThe Indian Museum
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.

our taxi driven whilst in calcuttaOne 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 him again.

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