I spent another day north of the Maidan looking at Tipu Sultan’s Mosque, which had market stalls totally surrounding it, with only one little alley through which you could access the mosque. But what a beautiful building!
Moving on, I walked quite a ways to St. John’s Church, built in 1787. The land was given by the Maharaja Nabo Kishen Bahadur (I’m sure he was thrilled to do it!) At least he got his name on the plaque on the church.
A bit earlier in 1756, the nawab of Murshidabad recaptured the city from the British and dozens of British colonial aristocracy were imprisoned in a cramped space beneath Fort William. By morning about 40 of them had suffocated. The British press exaggerated the numbers, and the “Black Hole of Calcutta” was born. A monument was erected to honor these people, but the one in this cemetery replaced the original monument and was moved here in 1940. Actually the plaque on this monument said 138 died, some later, so who knows what the actual count was. Clearly Indian efforts at independence went on for a couple of centuries before it finally happened in 1947.
The next day I had decided to hire a taxi to do some touring to places that were a little beyond walking distance. While I was having a chai, a young man tourist sat down next to me. He spoke to me and I thought he was American. It turned out that he was German but had spent his last year in high school in Memphis, Tennessee and so spoke English with just the smallest of accents. I invited him to go on my tour with me, which he did. I had laid out six places for us to go in three hours, but the taxi driver said it would take six hours. I poo-pooed this as a ruse for the taxi driver to collect more money, but you know what? He was right. The traffic was excruciating! We only got to three of the six places and the last one was closed because it was past noon. So not a very satisfying tour, except it was fun to converse with Martin, from Germany.
The first place was Belur Math, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission. The main temple was built in 1938. There were other smaller temples on the premises, which was on the bank of the Hooghly River.
We moved on through horrendous traffic to the Kumartuli area. This is where artisans make giant puja effigies that will eventually be immersed in the Hooghly River. The effigies start with straw frames, which are covered over with clay that they get out of the river banks. They are painted and are used in religious ceremonies. It is fun to see these and the workshops all busy with making them.
From there we went to see Jain temples but unfortunately we were too late as they closed at noon. I had no idea traffic could be this bad. So we went back to Sudder Street and walked to my favorite restaurant for lunch. This was lovely, as always. After linner, Martin and I parted company—a very nice day.
Sunday I got an early start and noticing that the traffic was not so bad, I walked north to see some of the religious buildings. I found the BethEl Synagogue, the Moghan David Synagogue, which looked more like a Christian Church with a big spire, the Holy Rosary Cathedral, and the Armenian Church, which is the oldest church in Kolkata, from 1724. The buildings were not all that special, but it gave a reason to walk in the lanes and byways of Kolkata, taking in all the atmosphere. Here was a knife sharpener, there a herd of goats, then a parade, then two men carrying impossibly big loads.
A lot of Kolkata looks pretty poor. Still it does have its beauty spots, too. Since the traffic didn’t look too bad on Sunday, I hired a taxi to try again to see the Jain Temples. There were three in one group, the spiffiest of which was the Sheetalnathji Jain Mandir. It was a sparkler made up of pastel mosaics, mirrors, and stained glass. There were two pastel buildings on either side of the square, where the garden was full of fantasy. The interior was lovely, too, and clearly is used as a working temple. This temple was built in 1867. Two other temples in this group were not so interesting.
On the way home I figured something out. I had been seeing signs at intersections saying,”SWITCH OFF AT SIGNALS.” I thought AT signals were some kind of electronic thing that people were supposed to turn off. I finally caught on—it meant for cars to switch off their motors as they waited for the (long) red lights.
Enough tempeling and time for eating. I decided to try the street food near my hotel. I found a shop that sold cold beer so I bought one and took it back to my hotel to sip on while I did my pictures. Then walked to the street place where they had some benches and chairs, too. I was given a spoon for my chicken biriyani—everybody else ate with their right hand. The biriyani was very good.
Monday morning I checked out at 7:00 AM, stopped for a chai, then got a taxi to take me to Howrah Station. I was anticipating difficulty in finding my train platform as I was going to Malda, a small out-of-the-way place. After only asking three times, I found it and got aboard. I had a ‘sleeper’ car—why, I’m not sure. Anyway, I sat in sort of a compartment, across from another woman. The car was very empty—what extremes—first cars full of standing people and now empty!
When I arrived I got a bicycle rickshaw to take me to a hotel. The room was pretty nice except the beds (there were two) were hard as a rock. So I put the mattress of one bed onto the other, likewise the sheet as there was no top sheet. This is the first time that my LP-recommended hotel didn’t have an English sign.
The next day I hired a taxi to take me to see the ruins of the Muslim nawabs from the 1200s to the 1600s. Actually they weren’t ruined, but were huge and beautiful. They were also in pretty gardens; apparently the state of West Bengal recognizes the value of these historic things. I saw about a dozen wonderful mosques, mausoleums, and towers. They were built from about 1300 to the 1500s. The last site we visited was the largest mosque in India for a long time—I can see why. It seemed to be about a city block in area. The whole trip took about four hours.
When I got back I sipped my Kingfisher beer in my room while I did my pictures, then went to have linner at a nearby restaurant. My, they do like to cheat the tourists (although I haven’t seen any other Western tourists here). They charged me for water that I didn’t drink and for ‘fruit salad with ice cream’ when I only ordered ‘fruit salad.’ It wasn’t much money but that is so irritating. Still they’re always friendly when they correct the bill.
Wednesday I visited the local museum, which was surprisingly good. They had beautiful statues from the 12th C. When I went to take a non-flash picture, they wouldn’t let me. And they dispatched a man to walk three feet behind me while I looked at the beautiful statues. They didn’t permit pictures—how aggravating. I’ve found that before in rural, out-of-the-way places, museums are totally unfriendly. How many tourists does this museum get? Maybe one/month. And these statues are made of stone so to photograph them without flash couldn’t possibly hurt them. It could also be a revenue source. Lots of museums charge extra for photography—fine.
From here I went to a local bank to get change. (It pays to have small bills) There were scads of people in the bank, but I (the tourist) was put to the front of the line and they’re not even making any money on my transaction—just getting change. It kind of made up for the museum!
So far I’ve been able to resist the Bengal Sweets. Apparently they are known all over India. I think they are the kind that are so sweet that they give you a pain in your forehead.
The chai in Malda is made differently. It’s not as good, as they don’t cook the milk with the sugar and cardamom. They put sugar in a glass, then hot milk, then they put black tea in a strainer and pour in hot water, letting some drain into the glass. Weird!
Back in Kolkata the next morning I took the metro to Kalighat stop to visit the Kali Temple. The metro was surprisingly nice—very neat and well organized. However, on the way back during the rush hour, it was stuffed to the gills. Still, the people were orderly.
The temple was not especially beautiful, but the people, as always, were interesting. A young man took me round to see all the statues of the different gods; no photos were permitted, but nicely, I didn’t have to remove my shoes! Nearby there was some street art showing Kali, the destroyer, a fierce female deity, the god(dess?) being honored by this temple.
The hawkers were out, too. One was selling fresh hibiscus garlands; another was mixing some dough for a special bread.
Nearby was Nirmal Hriday, Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying. The work continues by the sisters; there were some patients on cots and other people were eating there. One can volunteer their services here. It looked like some people were getting ready to do just that.
Back on the metro, back to my hotel. Lunch again at the sidewalk stands just outside of the Indian Museum. Very good food.
Today my friend, Jim Rice, is giving a speech in Kolkata, and tomorrow I will be his tour guide. I’m looking forward to that. Stay tuned—-