Discovering Kali in the City of Night (Part 1)

Our arrival in Kolkata* was surprisingly green. I don’t know why we didn’t expect it; after all, the city is in a tropical area, but somehow the idea of “Calcutta” called to mind images of impossibly crowded, urban streets and not much else. But there were palm trees, and lush greenery in many areas, notably on the drive into town, and then the motherload of green: the Maidan, sometimes referred to as the “lungs of Kolkata” and the largest urban park in the city.

The other notable thing you see on the ride from the airport into town is the massive amount of construction: high-rise apartments, tech and financial companies, shiny international hotels, along with new infrastructure–roads and subway extensions–being built to accommodate it all. IBM, Accenture,Cisco, Intel, HSBC…I lost track of all the big names I saw on both existing and new structures going up. Clearly this was one part of the story of India’s future.

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Dropping our bags at the hotel, we set off to do what we had not yet really been able to on this trip: walk. No car and driver, no auto rickshaw, just us and the city. And it was fantastic. We walked from our hotel tucked on a little side street, easily found the main road and the Maidan, and just walked: past a statue of Indira Gandhi; along the park, where we caught beautiful views of the Victoria Memorial as the sun set; and then into the Maidan itself to watch groups of young men playing cricket, families out walking, children talking their parents into buying them a ride on a guided pony.

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We eventually made our way to Park Street and Peter Cat, a supposedly “hip” restaurant that turned out to be a bit of a dud, but no matter…we were walking in a city that felt very comfortable. We then found what had been high on our list: a particular kathi roll stand recommended highly by Mark Wiens, an excellent travel blogger we had been following in the weeks leading up to the trip. And the kathi roll was as delicious as we’d been led to believe; we wrote about it in more detail here.

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Back at our hotel, we congratulated ourselves on a wonderful first day in the city we both had thought would be the most difficult to navigate. But there was always tomorrow…

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Our visit in Kolkata coincided with both Diwali and Kali Puja. We did not plan it so, though when we discovered that these holidays would fall within the bounds of our trip we didn’t consider changing our plans. In fact, we thought it would be interesting to be in Kolkata at this time in particular, for while other parts of India celebrate Lakshmi at Diwali, West Bengal celebrates the goddess Kali, and has a separate holiday called Kali Puja.

What we didn’t anticipate was how much would be unavailable or closed to us because of these holidays. It actually wasn’t too bad, but there were a few things that didn’t work out as we’d expected; more on that later.

On the other hand, we had the opportunity to experience Kalighat temple–a temple devoted to Kali–on the day before Kali Puja. We set out early, knowing the temple would be particularly busy. Overall we had quite an easy time getting there; we grabbed a cab to get us close (it was pretty far from the hotel, and maps were a little unclear), but then it was easy to see where the crowds were headed. Large barricades were set up (we assumed for the actual day tomorrow, to guide what would be much larger crowds), but we had no problem finding the entrance, where you leave your shoes with a man who hands you a slip of paper. I don’t recall anything being written on the paper, and I got the feeling he simply did that for tourists.

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Beyond the shoes, inside the temple grounds, it was a fascinating scene: vendors selling garlands of flowers, men slaughtering a goat around one corner (we tried to avoid the red-tinted water in our bare feet), dozens of people lining up to get inside the temple for a glimpse of the main statue of Kali, pray, and to leave offerings. We purchased some flowers, and queued up. The closer you got to Kali, the more crushing was the press of the crowd. Clearly, we stood out as tourists, and a young man offered to guide us through the maze of the temple. Of course we knew he would expect a tip, which we were happy to do: we both wanted to see all we could, but had no idea where to start and didn’t want to do anything to offend.

He helped us navigate the crowd to get a look at the main statue, which is tucked in a recess of a wall, and then showed us the various rooms and what they were used for, whether making an offering or praying or just sitting in quiet contemplation, as we saw in the final room. He brought us to a priest who blessed us with the traditional red bindi on our foreheads.

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Although we are not religious, this experience was one of our favorite of the whole trip. There was a real spirituality that could be felt at Kalighat, and once we were inside the temple grounds, despite the crowds, there was a peaceful feeling overall, one you don’t get too often in India.

After retrieving our carefully looked-after shoes, the walk back to the main street was through a long market area, where on the way in I had spied a storefront selling Indian-style woks. We made our way there and purchased one, and then continued back to our hotel; it was a very long but great walk, and we had no other plans for the day except a massage at our hotel after lunch.

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That evening, we went to the Oberoi Grand. Though the hotel itself is outside our budget, we had heard the bar there often had jazz musicians on weekends, and the food prices were not outrageous. It’s a lovely bar to sit in, and we shared a few nice appetizers. Much to our chagrin, though, when the music started it was not jazz, but good ol’ American country & western: Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard were part of the singer’s repertoire.

I don’t think we ever could have predicted we’d be sitting in India listening to “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee…”

***

Read part two of our time in Kolkata here, and our previous posts on our visits to Delhi and Jaipur.

*Or if you prefer, Calcutta. Interestingly, we quickly noticed that only airlines and people in the US pronounced the name of the city as Kolkata, which was changed in 2001 to match the original Bengali pronunciation. Calcutta was the overwhelming pronunciation we heard from everyone while there.

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