Chaotic and confronting, the city on the Hooghly can justly claim to be the country's cultural capital, writes Leisa Tyler.
It was a humid afternoon in August 1690 when Job Charnock, an intrepid administrator with the British East India Company, and a small contingent of soldiers set up camp at the hamlet of Sutanuti, on the eastern side of the Hooghly River in southern Bengal. The company, a wealthy trading corporation with military and administrative powers, was hoping to increase trade to India's rich north-east seaboard. On this verdant riverbank, 100 kilometres upstream from the Bay of Bengal, Charnock established a mercantile base and called it Calcutta.
As a port for the East India Company, and later the capital of British India, Kolkata (renamed in 2001) grew to be one of the most important - and iniquitous - cities in the world. It was at the heart of the Opium Wars with China and Britain's Great Game struggle with Russia for influence in central Asia.
Britons came here as soldiers, made their fortunes and left as lords. It was common to see them riding in coaches, a dozen servants running in front and behind bellowing out their titles. Armenians, Jews, Persians and Chinese also flocked here; the British gave them concessions in return for their allegiance.
"[Calcutta is] one of the most wicked places in the universe. Corruption, licentiousness and a want of principle seem to have possessed the minds of all the civil servants ... they have grown callous, rapacious and luxurious beyond conception," wrote the major-general and one-time Calcutta resident, Lord Robert Clive, who was credited with establishing Britain's military supremacy in south Asia.
But time wasn't a friend to Calcutta. In 1911 the British moved their capital to Delhi, hindering commerce and trade to the eastern city. In 1947, 4 million religious refugees made homeless by the partition of India flooded into the city. An anti-industry communist government followed. In disrepair and squalor, Calcutta became better known for its orphanages and barefoot rickshaw pullers than ostentatious wealth and cultural genius. In 1985, the then prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, dubbed Calcutta a "dying city".
A new government has promised improvements, including five new subway lines, the restoration of heritage buildings and bizarre plans to paint the entire city blue to match their new motto: "The sky is the limit." Kolkata is also vying to resume its traditional role as cultural capital of India. The $US90 million KMoMA - the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art - is scheduled to open in 2015. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the architects of London's Tate Modern, it will be the largest contemporary art museum in Asia.
There is no denying that Kolkata is confronting. But brimming with magnificent Victorian-era buildings, a sophisticated, lip-smacking cuisine and a genius theatre and literary scene, it is also one of India's most fascinating cities.
Join a tour with Iftekhar Ahsan, of Calcutta Walks. The amiable Rajasthani Muslim began guided walks five years ago to show tourists parts of the city they wouldn't otherwise visit. The three-hour Confluence of Cultures walk surveys the city's extraordinary multiculturalism. The walk passes Bow Barracks, where unclaimed Anglo-Indian children once formed one of the lowest castes of society. At morning tea, stop to chat to a man milking goats and sip fresh coconut juice, then peek inside a Zoroastrian fire temple, join Buddhists giving offerings at their family shrine and escape the heat inside an Armenian church (Ahsan says his love of Kolkata is matched only by his passion for trespassing). On Sun Yat-sen Street, Ahsan introduces walkers to Stella, who owns the vintage Chinese provisions shop Hap Hing and Co. An elderly and talkative ethnic Hakka woman, Stella's ancestors migrated to Calcutta from Guangzhou more than two centuries ago. She still speaks her native tongue, worships Taoism and follows Chinese customs, but has never been to Guangzhou, or China for that matter.
Follow in the footsteps of the Raj in BBD Bagh. Previously known as Dalhousie Square, the Victorian-era heart of the British India government is still the centre of the city's
pen-pushing bureaucracy. The Raj's most glorious buildings are arranged around the Lal Dighi water tank reservoir: the East India Company's Writers' Building, now the secretariat of Bengal's government; the Royal Exchange; the General Post Office; and St John's Church, the last resting place of Job Charnock.
Have lunch at one of the cafes serving Bengal's underrated but exceptional cuisine. The pick of the bunch is Oh Calcutta!, a stylish diner with great service off fashionable Elgin Road. Everything prepared here is superb but the mochar chop (banana flower croquets with a tamarind dipping sauce), bekti fish steamed in banana leaf with limes, and velvety rich jaggery ice-cream are exquisite. For a more local experience, join the throng waiting for a table at Bhojohori Manna, a chain of fantastic little diners serving more than 200 local dishes, most for less than $2 a plate.
Oh Calcutta!, fourth floor, Forum Shopping Mall; www.speciality.co.in/index.php/brands/oh-calcutta; lunch for two costs about 2200 rupees ($38). Bhojohori Manna's most central outlets are at 9/18 Ekdalia Road and 11A Esplanade East; bhojohorimanna.com; lunch for two costs about 400 rupees.
Cross the Hooghly River to the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Gardens (at Shibpur, Howrah; entry 50 rupees). Established in 1787 by an officer in the British army, Robert Kyd, the park is a snapshot of India: rundown, messy and confusing, with patches of sublime beauty and brilliance. This is a lovely spot for a quiet walk or snooze in the shade, but the main reason to come here is to take in the majestic splendour of the Great Banyan Tree, a 250-year-old tree with a huge canopy that spans 1.6 hectares.
The striking Victoria Memorial was built in memory of Queen Victoria, who was also the Empress of India, after her death in 1901. These days the shady, well-tended gardens are favoured by snogging couples and picnickers. Inside the imposing white dome is a small museum that criticises the British for their excesses and pivotal role in India's economic demise post-independence in the 1950s, conveniently forgetting the royal families of India lived just as lavishly.
Victoria Memorial, 1 Queen's Way; closed on Mondays; entry 150 rupees.
Walk or take one of the decorative horse-drawn chariots in front of Victoria Monument along the Maidan and past Fort William, a stately garrison built in the late 18th century after the original fort was taken by the Nawab (Prince) of Bengal and his French allies hoping to wrestle control of Calcutta. These days the grassy, flower-lined Maidan shaded by towering oak trees is better known as the "lungs of Calcutta". End the walk at the far end of the Maidan, near the Oberoi Grand hotel, to save battling the traffic.
Stroll beneath the colonnades of Jawaharlal Nehru Road (formerly Chowringhee Road) near the Oberoi Grand, where at ear-piercing volumes vendors peddle shirts, cheap paperbacks, wind-up toys and plaster busts of the local literary hero, Rabindranath Tagore. If this isn't enough chaos for one day, around the corner on Lindsay Street is the rust-red New Market, originally built in the 1870s as a segregated bazaar for the city's British residents. The market sells everything from saris to freshly squeezed juice.
Go for dinner at Peshawri at the ITC Sonar hotel. This satellite outpost of Bukhara in Delhi, which serves the tribal cuisine of the north-west frontier (now located in Pakistan), is arguably Kolkata's best restaurant. Don't expect too many airs and graces: while the service is flawless, guests sit on camel-hair stools, don checkered bibs and eat with their hands. Order the raan (a whole leg of lamb finished in a tandoor) with dal Bukhara (black gram tempered in a clay pot for 16 hours) and kulcha paratha (crispy disks of flaky unleavened bread). It's messy but well worth it.
Peshawri, JBS Haldane Avenue; +91 33 2345 4545; dinner for two costs about 3500 rupees.
Early last century, Park Street was renowned for its prolific jazz clubs. The Roxy bar at the Park Hotel (17 Park Street; +91 33 2249 9000) still draws a worldly crowd, but it's also deafeningly loud and smoky. For a more sophisticated ambience, try the tartan-and-wood-clad Chowringhee Bar at the Oberoi Grand (15 Jawaharlal Nehru Road; +91 33 2249 2323).
Leisa Tyler stayed courtesy of Oberoi Grand.
Singapore Airlines has a fare to Kolkata from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1540 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Kolkata (4hr 10min); see singaporeair.com. This fare allows you to fly back from another Indian city. Australians need a visa for a stay of up to six months.
Kolkata's taxis are cheap, plentiful and unforgettable. Perched behind the wheels of ageing Ambassador cars, taxi drivers navigate with one hand firmly on their horn and another on the steering wheel, madly swerving around goats, pedestrians and cows while shouting obscenities at those that dare step in their way. If in doubt, hire a hotel car.
The Oberoi Grand is well located in the centre of the city, walking distance from the museums, markets and BBD Bagh. It's a hushed sanctuary from the madness outside. Built in 1894, the hotel is starting to fray at the edges but it remains the bastion around which high society pivots, with loads of marble, original wooden lifts and 209 guest rooms finished with four-poster beds and period furniture. Double rooms cost from 9294 rupees ($161), including breakfast. See oberoihotels.com.