Heritage is at the heart of this city. This Durga Puja, take a detour to marvel at some of its historic landmarks, says Promita Mukherjee
Every autumn, Kolkata gears up to welcome Goddess Durga. It’s the time for Bengalis from far and wide to come home — to a city that is resplendent in colours, soaked in art and steeped in devotion. And I, like a true-blue Bengali, returned to this city I call home and walked down memory lane, visiting some of its heritage sites and historic places. The pandals (tents), which house the goddess and her children are nothing short of exquisite art installations and the sound of dhaks (traditional drums) and the chanting of mantras (prayers) follow you wherever you go. But if you are in the city for the first time, you could opt to veer off the pandal-hopping track and discover the colonial heritage of the erstwhile capital of British India.
Begin from the north, the older, grander part of Kolkata that gave the metropolis its moniker — city of palaces. Start on a devotional note with a visit to the Dakshineswar Kali temple. This beautiful riverside temple complex was made famous by saint Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, whose most well-known disciple was Swami Vivekananda. Built along River Hooghly by Rani Rashmoni of the Janbazaar Estate in 1847, it is a peaceful place to reconnect with your inner self. The red-and-cream multi-turreted temple dedicated to Goddess Kali is said to have been designed on the lines of Sacré-Coeur, one of the most iconic churches in Paris, and has a string of Lord Shiva temples along its periphery.
As you travel southwards, you should stop to admire a 260-year-old Durga Puja, organised at the Sovabazar Rajbari by one of the erstwhile elite families of Kolkata. Built by Raja Naba Krishna Deb, this grand mansion is where the concept of Durga Puja as a colourful community festival was born. It was also the seat of Kolkata’s elite babu culture. During the British era, the city, then known as Calcutta, was regarded as “the second city of the British Empire” after London. And the city’s babus or the rich and educated gentlemen, most of whom had been to colleges in London, started promoting art, music, architecture, literature and liberal thinking.
Another house of liberal thinking is the Jorasanko Thakur Bari – the ancestral home of the Tagore family. Now maintained by Rabindra Bharati University, the stately manor was built in 1784 and houses a museum, which is a must-visit if you are curious about Rabindranath Tagore, India’s first Nobel Laureate. On display at the museum are Tagore’s personal belongings, quotes reflecting his philosophy and even a gallery of paintings made by his talented family members. Walk around its hallowed precincts and soak in some music and poetry.
Next up is another spectacular building, the Marble Palace. Built in 1835 by a French architect for Rajendra Mullick, an affluent Bengali merchant and art connoisseur, it is one of the most ornate 19th-century mansions in north Kolkata. Built with white Italian marble, the building, now turned into a museum, has a grand portico with stucco work, six iconic Tuscan columns, antique Victorian furniture, sculptures, an array of Belgian glassware, rare paintings, lavish chandeliers and even a mini private zoo! The ballroom is graced by a candle chandelier with globes made of silvered glass. This well-conserved palace is a proof of the city’s colonial grandeur.
If you don’t want your time-travel to end, hop on a tram to BBD Bag, or Dalhousie Square. Let the slow-moving tram take you through the heart of the city’s heritage zone. Walk along the approximately 2-km-long road lined with several stunning colonial-era buildings: from Writers’ Building, housing some of the state administrative departments, to the General Post Office and finally Lalbazaar, the iconic police headquarters. Stop for a moment at the restored Lal Dighi (also called Tank Square), a nearby waterbody. From here, walk up to St John’s Church, believed to be one of the first parish churches in the state, whose early 19th-century steeple resembles that of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (an Anglican church) in Trafalgar Square, London.
Walk along the refreshing green of the Maidan (ground) and soon you’ll find yourself staring at the grand Victoria Memorial. Built between 1906 and 1921, the iconic building is dedicated to the memory of England’s Queen Victoria. Today, it has a museum that traces the city’s history through priceless paintings, artefacts, old coins and ammunition. Sit on the grassy lawns and click photographs to your heart’s content.
The house of Oscar-wining filmmaker Satyajit Ray on Bishop Lefroy Road isn’t too far off. And for movie buffs like me, it’s a must-visit. While Ray moved from one house to another within the city, it is here that he spent the last two decades of his life. This colonial-era building is where his family currently resides, and it also houses Ray’s much-photographed study.
As I step off the road, I can hear the dhakis (the artistes who play the dhak) pick up the rhythm for the evening aarti (ritual) at a nearby pandal. I feel so alive!
The author is an avid traveller and a senior journalist, and the views expressed in the article are her own