Kolkata was a city of which I had been a little bit afraid 25 years ago and therefore didn’t venture that way at that time. I guess with its connotations of human suffering (Mother Theresa etc), it can all seem a little daunting.
But what a welcome surprise. True it is a big, polluted, overcrowded, noisy and pretty dirty city and within hours of arrival I was trying to shift a dull headache caused by the pollution and constant horn beeping but there was an interesting vibe and grittiness to Kolkata which we really liked.
Like Mumbai there’s some great colonial architecture. Although unlike Mumbai, it hasn’t all been renamed albeit sadly much of it could do with some significant restoration. A key exception to this is the Victoria Memorial complete with a big statue of the grumpy widow herself, now a popular selfie taking spot despite the colonial overtones.
There’s a certain grittiness to Kolkata. Up near the flower market under Howrah Bridge, you could see how life can be pretty tough living in tiny cramped rooms fronting the rail line and working in the 24/7 flower market and bathing in the ghats of the dirty river while traffic and trains roar over the Howrah Bridge above ceaselessly.
Then there’s the narrow alley ways which are absolutely teeming with people and rickshaw couriers and baggage wallahs carrying incredibly large packages balanced on their heads. Everyone was busy and moving with purpose albeit often criss-crossing each other’s paths but rarely stopping (the trick seems to be to keep moving and somehow others avoid you). You could really feel the energy of the city here.
We also visited the Mother House where Mother Theresa lived and worked and where her tomb now is. This was a little haven of peace in an otherwise chaotic city. During her life, there was a sign at the door showing whether she was “in” or “out”. As she is there permanently now, the sign always shows “in”.
Another thing that captured my imagination was all the different forms of transport, some unique to Kolkata. This included bright yellow Ambassador car style taxis seen everywhere (although interestingly for every taxi you saw driving along, you would see another parked up with its bonnet up (perhaps this was a way to cool them down??). There were also various types of rickshaw including the standard auto rickshaw you see everywhere in India (although here they were very smart yellow/green ones) plus brightly coloured cycle rickshaws. More difficult to get your head around is the fact that Kolkata is also home to man-pulled “tana” rickshaws which do seem to be used quite regularly by locals (although obviously the distances they cover are limited). There are also buses plus trams and a pretty efficient metro system which we tried out (and which wasn’t ridiculously over crowded). Being underground was preferable to being above ground at times as the traffic is crazy: just to add to the confusion, apparently there is a one way system in place in much of the city which changes direction at 2pm. Go figure!
So all in all Kolkata was a great stop despite being the most humid place we have visited to date (and a city which does sap all your energy).
In contrast to Mumbai and Kolkata which we really enjoyed visiting, we didn’t really take to Varanasi. It wasn’t just the touts (which are some of the worst we’ve experienced so far: these boys play in the premier league) or the fact that this was one of the dirtiest cities we’ve visited, it was just we didn’t get the hype. While we were there, a big clean-up operation was in play as a precursor to the imminent visit of the French President, Emmanuel Macron, but given the amount of rubbish plus cow pats (for some reason, the cows in Varanasi are massive and their mess of an equally large size) and dog mess, I wasn’t convinced that a bit of weeding and splashing paint on some of the walls of the ghats was going to make that much difference or in time.
It’s obviously an incredibly important place for Hindus especially to conduct cremations but these seem to be conducted in a very matter of fact way seemingly devoid of real emotion with people standing around drinking chai and using their mobile phones while cremations are taking place in front of them. I guess the atmosphere isn’t helped by the crowds gathered around either on the edge of the “burning ghats” or on one of the many boats plying the river. Contrast this to Pashupatinath near Kathmandu in Nepal where emotions were allowed to flow and everything felt a bit more “real”. The guidebooks rave about how taking a boat trip on the Ganges at either sunrise or sunset might be one of the defining moments of any trip to India. Well we did both and although the colours afforded by the rising sun were very picturesque, that was as far as it went. Our verdict on Varanasi: Good to see but perhaps over hyped.