Ah, Kolkata! The city that delicately balances the old-world charm with modern sensibilities, and where every corner seems to hum Rabindra Sangeet and smells faintly of freshly brewed chai and roshogolla. While most tourists are lured by the grandeur of Victoria Memorial, the sprawling Maidan, or the vibrant chaos of New Market, there’s another side to Kolkata – one less treaded, more intimate, and brimming with surprises.
Dive deeper into the heart of the ‘City of Joy’ with me, as we embark on a journey through its lesser-known alleys, uncovering offbeat activities that promise an experience as rich and layered as a perfectly made plate of patishapta. Join me, as we traverse the uncharted, and discover the Kolkata that only a true-blue Kolkatan knows!
1. History Tour at Swami Vivekananda’s Ancestral House
Nestled amid the bustling bylanes of North Kolkata, Swami Vivekananda’s ancestral house is akin to the serene heart of the city, pulsating with tales from yesteryears. They say, to truly understand Bengal’s pride and its spiritual icon, one must traverse through the very corridors he once did as a child. Here in this abode, you’ll feel the echoes of a young Narendra Nath Datta’s footsteps, long before he became the revered Swami Vivekananda.
As the fragrant waft of incense mixed with the distant notes of Rabindra Sangeet fills the air, allow yourself a quiet and reflective afternoon journeying back in time. To truly immerse yourself in the experience, I recommend seeking out a local guide. Unlike many places, Kolkata’s guides possess the grace of stepping back, allowing you to bask in the tranquillity and soak up the aura undisturbed. And though you might feel the urge to capture the essence through a camera, refrain, for this is a place to be felt with the heart and remembered with the soul.
Location: Vivekananda Road
Timings: 10:00 am to 12:30 pm; 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm (closed on Monday)
Entry Fee: ₹ 5
And remember, while a visit here is an enriching experience in itself, pairing it with a cup of steaming Kolkata chai and some freshly made mishti from a local vendor afterward might just make it divine!
2. Discovering the Sculptures of Kumortuli
Ah, Kumortuli! A tapestry of heritage, art, and culture, this iconic quarter of Kolkata is the beating heart of the city’s sculptural splendor. Stepping into Kumortuli is like diving into a sea of creative energy, a place where clay breathes life in the hands of masterful artisans. This isn’t just a mere artists‘ colony; it’s the soulful cradle of Bengali artistry.
For the uninitiated, the name ‘Kumortuli‘ might just be another locale in Kolkata, but for the Bengali heart, it’s synonymous with preparation, passion, and the palpable anticipation of Durga Pujo. Picture this: narrow lanes echoing with the soft thud of hammers, the rhythmic squelch of wet clay, and the hypnotic brush strokes painting the goddess’s eyes – ‘Chokkhudaan’, as we call it.
As you wander these labyrinthine lanes, you’re not just witnessing craftsmanship; you’re absorbing stories passed down generations, tales of Bengal’s grandest festival, and the legacy of the ‘Pratima-shilpis‘ or idol-makers. Nothing encapsulates the fervor of Bengali Durga Puja better than Kumortuli in the throes of Pujo preparation. If you can time your visit right before the festival, the sight of myriad goddesses in various stages of creation, each a testament to the artist’s dedication, is nothing short of magical.
Though many guided tours snake their way through this vibrant neighborhood, I’d urge you to lose the map and find your own path. Let the raw beauty of the unfinished idols, the earthy smell of clay, and the distant hum of Rabindra Sangeet guide you. As the golden hues of the setting sun light up the goddess’s face, take a moment, breathe in, and realize – this is not just art; this is Bengal’s heart and soul manifested.
3. Satisfying the Bookworm in you at College Street
Ah, College Street or “Boi Para” as we fondly call it! Nestled in the heart of Kolkata, this place is not just a street; it’s a bibliophile’s wonderland and a historian’s delight. If you ever dreamed of meandering through the largest second-hand book market in Asia, College Street is where dreams come true. Flanked by age-old bookstalls brimming with tomes, both old and new, this locale speaks volumes of the city’s intellectual heritage.
Why the name ‘College Street’, you ask? The answer lies embedded in the rich tapestry of Kolkata’s pre-independence history. The street is so named because of the many colleges that took root here, institutions that have been instrumental in shaping the city’s academic and cultural landscape. With iconic establishments like Calcutta University and Presidency College gracing its sidewalks, College Street bears testament to an era of academic renaissance and revolutionary fervor.
And if the weight of all that literature and history makes your feet weary, there’s the timeless College Street Coffee House waiting to embrace you. Not to be mistaken with its namesake in Newtown Rajarhat, this is the original – steeped in memories, nostalgia, and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Those ancient walls have seen it all – from passionate debates on literature and politics to the budding of revolutionary ideas during the struggle for independence. It’s said, the ‘adda’ (casual chats) here isn’t just conversation; it’s a tradition. As you climb its rustic stairs, you’re retracing the steps of literary giants, freedom fighters, and countless scholars.
Settle into a corner and let the essence of ‘Bangla Sahitya‘ (Bengali literature) envelop you. Order yourself a cup of piping hot coffee and delve into the culinary delights, from the quintessential ‘machher chop‘ (fish cutlet) to ‘aloo chop‘ and ‘samosa‘. Feel the legacy of the greats, from Rabindranath Tagore to Satyajit Ray, who once graced these very halls. The College Street Coffee House isn’t just an eatery; it’s an emotion, an ode to Bengal’s illustrious past.
In conclusion, Kolkata, with its myriad experiences, is an enigma waiting to be explored. Its streets are chapters of a book, and places like College Street are the bookmarks we cherish. While it’s a city that entices with its modern allure, it never lets you forget the tales and legends that made it. Every corner has a story; every lane, a ballad. And in the symphony of Kolkata’s bustling streets, College Street plays the most poetic tune.
4. Wandering the Historic Lanes of Serampore
Every time I traverse the winding lanes of Bengal, I find myself encapsulated in a cocoon of art, history, and whispered tales of the yesteryears. Serampore, or ‘Shrirampur‘ as locals fondly call it, is one such gem, nestled quietly beside the serene banks of the Hooghly River.
Visiting the ghat in Serampore is like attending a silent poetry session. The tranquil river mirrors the town’s beauty, and if fortune shines, the soothing tunes of a lone musician playing a sitar or an ‘ektara‘ can be the melody to your musings. A hush of nostalgia washes over me whenever I recall the legacy of the great spiritual leader, Shri Yukteswar Ji. The guru, a paragon of simplicity and spirituality, made this quaint town his abode for many cherished years.
On my last visit, I had the privilege to step into Shri Yukteswar Ji’s humble residence. With prior permission from the ashram, I was ushered into a world where time seemed to stand still, reflecting the timeless teachings of the great seer. The walls, though silent, echoed profound wisdom, and one could almost feel his presence amidst the calm surroundings.
And how can I talk about Serampore without mentioning the olfactory and gustatory delights awaiting at ‘Vheto‘? Not one of those air-conditioned, stylised cafés you find in big cities, but an authentic bistro paying homage to our rich Bengali culinary traditions. From mouth-watering ‘macher jhol‘ to the tantalising ‘sandesh‘, Vheto envelops you in a food lover’s paradise.
Yet, the journey doesn’t end here. ‘RR Serampore Music Cafe‘ beckoned me next with its promise of soul-stirring melodies. Unique in its very essence, this café serenades you with therapeutic Indian music while you sip on a cup of freshly brewed ‘cha‘. Amidst the hustle of Serampore, it stands as an oasis of rhythm and relaxation.
But beyond these well-known spots, Serampore whispers tales of an era gone by. Did you know it was one of the Dutch colonies in Bengal during the 18th century? As you saunter through the town, remnants of Dutch architecture, like the magnificent St. Olav’s Church, are silent witnesses to Serampore’s colonial past.
In the heart of Bengal, about 40 km from the bustling city of Kolkata, Serampore unravels itself, layer by layer. From spiritual sojourns to gastronomic adventures and melodious retreats, this town beckons with open arms. As a Bengali, it’s a nostalgic pilgrimage, a step back into our roots, and an experience to cherish. So, for those of you who, like me, find stories in every corner, Serampore awaits with a plethora of tales just waiting to be discovered.
5. Finding Solace at Myohoji Monastery in Kolkata’s Heart
As I meandered through Kolkata’s bustling lanes, a sudden, serene sanctuary emerged, offering a hush amidst the city’s cacophony: the Myohoji Monastery. A testament to the city’s rich cultural tapestry, it’s a gem many Kolkatans are yet to discover. It’s baffling that a place as enchanting as this remains so clandestine.
Built with the vision to promulgate the profound teachings of Buddhism in India, this Japanese Buddhist temple, often referred to as the Japanese Buddhist Temple, is a beacon of tranquility. Erected through the combined efforts of GD Birla and Japanese officials, the monastery stands not just as an architectural marvel but as a sacred space enveloping visitors in an aura of calm.
The aura inside is enhanced by the myriad of stunning artefacts, each meticulously curated to connect you deeper to the Buddhist faith. To truly immerse in this haven, one must join the prayers held between 5:00 am to 6:30 am and then again from 5:00 pm to 6:30 pm. And as you find a spot to sit and close your eyes, the rhythmic chants of “Na – Mu – Myo – Ho – Ren – Ge – Kyo” permeate the air, instilling a sense of calm. These very words, embodying the core of their beliefs, can be found inscribed in parts of the temple, resonating with the reverberations of chanting devotees.
An imposing white edifice houses the revered statues of Buddha, and as one’s eyes traverse the compound, they land upon a stately pillar guarded by two majestic lions. This compound, apart from being the temple’s spiritual nucleus, also shelters a few devoted souls and the revered head monk.
Tucked away near the Dhakuria Flyover, at the eastern end of the Rabindra Sarobar Lake, its location on Hemanta Mukherjee Sarani only adds to its enigmatic charm.
While Kolkata sings tales of its vibrant festivities and colonial heritage, places like Myohoji Monastery add a meditative melody to its symphony. In a city where every nook whispers stories, this temple beckons with a message of peace and introspection.
To future wanderers and seekers, remember: it’s not just about seeing Kolkata; it’s about feeling it. And a visit here is an emotion in itself.
Location: Hemanta Mukherjee Sarani, Lake Market
Timings: 5:00 am to 8:00 pm.
As the sun dips below the horizon, casting its golden farewell over the Hooghly River, I can’t help but feel a sense of completion. “Pôro hoye gelo,” as we Bengalis would say—it’s done, but in the most fulfilling way. From immersing in the soul-soothing chants at Myohoji Monastery to unearthing literary treasures in the winding alleys of College Street, our quest to unravel Kolkata’s lesser-known tales has been nothing short of magical. And let’s not forget the rich tapestry of art in Kumortuli or the historic serenity that Swami Vivekananda’s ancestral house bestows upon its visitors. A trip to Serampore adds to the poetry of life, and every nook and cranny between these locations feels like a stanza in a beautiful Bengali ballad.
“Mone pore jabe,” they say—you will remember. The true essence of Kolkata doesn’t just reside in its landmarks, but in the emotions and histories wrapped up in these offbeat experiences. When you traverse the hidden gems of this grand city, you’re not merely a tourist. You become a part of Kolkata’s ever-winding narrative, a story that’s as vibrant and varied as the shades of ‘Rông’—color—used during the spectacular Durga Pujo.
In Kolkata, every corner has a story, every face has an emotion, and every activity, whether mainstream or offbeat, offers an experience that touches the soul. This journey we’ve taken isn’t just about uncovering lesser-known spots; it’s about understanding the city’s heart, its “Mon” and “Praan”—mind and soul. And trust me, this is a city that keeps on giving; for in Kolkata, the more you explore, the more you find, and the more you find, the more you fall in love.
So, when you are far from the maddening crowd and you hear a distant Rabindra Sangeet melody fill the air, you’ll remember this ‘Shohor’—this city—that never ceases to enchant. “Abar ashibo phire” (I will come back again), you’ll promise yourself, and that’s a promise Kolkata holds you to.
Shubho Biday, dear explorers. Until we meet again in the City of Joy, let these memories be your ‘Bhalobasha’—your love—that calls you back, again and again.