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COLOURFUL, CHAOTIC CALCUTTA

by Robert Scheer

"Those are the horse polo grounds," the guide on my sightseeing tour of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) pointed out. The phrase seemed redundant. "Horse polo," I asked. "Is there any other kind?"

"Elephant polo," she replied, matter-of-factly.

That, I realized, typifies India, where a visitor from North America finds a surprise around nearly every corner.

Kolkata is India's second largest city, with a population of about thirteen million. That's more people than live in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the four Atlantic provinces combined. Nevertheless, amidst the chaos, places of calm and serenity are not hard to find.

The Paresnath Jain Temple is like a jewel-box, lavishly encrusted with mirrors and mosaics. After respectfully removing my shoes and socks outside, I stepped into a space where devotion blends with opulence. The interior (where photography is forbidden) is rich with Venetian, Belgian and Czech crystal chandeliers, stained glass windows and mirrors everywhere. In one alcove is a lamp, fueled with ghee (clarified butter) that has been burning without interruption since the temple's construction in 1867. Unlike much of Kolkata, the grounds of the temple were immaculate. I watched four young men painting a silver fence without brushes. They were dipping rags into the bucket, and their hands looked like silver gloves.

Even more colourful is the Malik Ghat flower market, where the city's floral retailers buy their fresh merchandise. Located only a few steps from the Hooghly River, the flower market is the perfect destination for photographers hoping to capture Kolkata's colour and chaos with one snap of the shutter. The activity of buying and selling bright blossoms, framed by ancient stone walls, is so photogenic that shutterbugs are well advised to bring along extra film or digital memory cards. I was especially fascinated to watch craftsmen stringing long, multicoloured flower garlands.

For a quick lesson in Kolkata's history, there's no better place to go than the Victoria Memorial. The city barely existed until it became the headquarters of the British East India Company in 1757. Queen Victoria's grip on the colony was formalized in 1877 when she added "Empress of India" to her already impressive title, "Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland." Her memorial, built from marble quarried from the same site as the Taj Mahal, was not opened to the public until 1921, although George, Prince of Wales (later to become King George V) laid the cornerstone in 1906. The memorial houses India's largest collection of artifacts-paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, armour and more-depicting the history of Calcutta.

The other major feminine presence in the city is not only more fearsome than Queen Victoria, she is probably more influential. The goddess Kali is often portrayed holding a bloody sword in one hand, a severed head in another, and wearing a necklace of skulls. It is speculated that Calcutta derived its name from the Bengali word, Kalikshetra, meaning "Ground of the Goddess Kali. The Kalighat Temple, devoted to the goddess, is much plainer than temples in the south of India. My guide explained that many Bengali temples are modeled after traditional thatched-roof houses. "It puts God closer to us," she said, "more accessible." Although the temple was very crowded, I was able to get a brief glance of the main shrine, where the goddess is represented with a black face and three eyes.

My visit happened to fall on a Thursday, which is a "dry day" in Kolkata. No alcohol may be purchased, and no animals may be sacrificed. Behind the temple was the empty frame where sacrificial goats are held until their heads are severed by the single blow of a sword. The meat is not wasted, however. Also behind the temple is a butcher shop where fresh goat meat is sold-except on Thursdays. "Kali is not the goddess of destruction," my guide said. "She only eliminates evil things in order to protect good things."

Kolkata's biggest festival, Durga Puja, honours another incarnation of Kali. Held in September or October on dates determined by the lunar calendar, the five-day celebration features large sculptures of the goddess that are paraded through the streets and, ultimately, immersed in the river.

SIDEBAR:

There is no admission fee to visit the Paresnath Jain Temple, on Badridas Temple St.

The Victoria Memorial is open from 10 am to 5 pm Tuesday through Friday, with an admission charge of 150 Rupees (about $3.50 CDN) for foreigners.

For more information about West Bengal Tourism visit www.wbtourism.com

PHOTO CAPTIONS:

1. flower_market.jpg
Kolkata's flower merchants buy fresh supplies at the Malik Ghat flower market.

2. flower_artisans.jpg
Artisans weave colourful garlands at Kolkata's Malik Ghat flower market.

3. Jain_temple.jpg
The Paresnath Jain Temple is like a jewel-box, encrusted with mosaics and mirrors.

4. Kali_sculpture.jpg
A statue of the goddess Kali created for Durga Puja, Kolkata's biggest celebration.

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.travelwriterstales.com

 


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