Children in Calcutta

So, you’re thinking of tackling that giant trip to India. You’ve read the books, you’ve talked to friends; you want to see the beautiful, the rugged, and the real. Most likely, your itinerary will include: a breathtaking visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra, a swing through New Delhi, the capital, maybe a trip down to the palaces of Jaipur to the south, perhaps a backpacking adventure through the seaside city of Goa, and lastly, a pit stop in Mumbai, the commercial centre of India’s booming economy. However between the majestic outing to the Taj, the bright lights of Mumbai, and the tranquillity of the lakes of Jaipur, something is missing in the discovery of the real India: the city of Kolkata.

Kolkata, India was formerly the capital of the British Empire in India in the nineteenth century, until it was moved to New Delhi in 1911. As it was the most important city in India throughout the Raj, it too became the cultural capital of India.  It was a flourishing centre for Indian art and literature, and subsequently the home to the independence movement of the twentieth century. With such a significant past, Kolkata houses some of India’s most noteworthy historical sites, and arguably the most beautiful and dramatic, colonial as well as Indian architecture in the region; including a plethora of grand palaces, striking temples, colossal churches, and modern government buildings.

Among Kolkata’s most prized attractions are the B.B.D. Gagh, a popular square housing Kolkata’s most important government and business establishments.  The Victoria Memorial, a large colonial building constructed in honour of Queen Victoria in 1921, today home to a museum housing a large collection of memorabilia pertaining to the British Empire in India; the Kali Temple, the site of Kolkata’s holiest spot and most dramatic Hindu temple; and the Tagore House, the birthplace of Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore – it now boasts to house Kolkata’s largest cultural centre for Indian dance, drama, music, and other arts.  A visit to these three sites will allow you to get a taste of many aspects of the real India, including its emerging modernity, its long, often troubled history, its devout religion and its unique culture.

But it is not the sight of these often tragic, decaying palaces, nor a visit to the crumbling colonial buildings, nor even a trip to the sacred temples that truly embodies the true experience of this surprising city. It is more the tastes, the smells, the sounds, and the overall endless energy that will leave you shocked; make you laugh, bring you to tears, and take your breath away. Any traveller who has braved Kolkata will be the first to admit it is an overwhelming place, easily fuelling emotions and frustrations, full of both unexpected charm and haunting poverty. Its streets are lined with strikingly beautiful women striding along dressed in bright, traditional saris, men furiously shoving their rickshaws through a massive crowd, and children laughing, playing, and often begging in a seemingly never-ending state of chaos.

Home to some fifteen million people, the majority of which live well below the poverty line, the city is renowned for its endless opportunities for some of the most enriching and inspiring volunteering in the world, many of which attract people from all corners of the globe. Perhaps most famous in Kolkata is the Missionaries of Charity.  Founded in the city by Mother Teresa in 1950, it now has nineteen homes sprinkled throughout the city, caring for so many of those in need, ranging from orphans to lepers. Daunting and sometimes disheartening to visit, the homes do allow day visitors and welcome their presence even for just a few hours. An outing to a home, such as one housing handicapped children in the heart of Kolkata, can be a powerful and moving experience never to be forgotten, singularly making the trip to Kolkata worthwhile. These homes of the Missionaries of Charity, along with many other organisations in the city, also welcome volunteers with open arms, fostering this spirit of giving and kindness that has evidently manifested itself in Kolkata.

Some of India’s finest treasures and hidden surprises are sprinkled throughout this vibrant city, home to some fifteen million people and a long list of attractions that have, these days, often been forgotten on the travel agendas of the typical tourist. After just a few days in Kolkata, it is likely that you will either absolutely love, or utterly hate India and all its beauty, insanity, and tranquillity. Regardless, a visit to Kolkata and an immersion in its endless sounds of honking cars, laughing children, fiery flavours, and incredible colours will ultimately reveal to you the real India.


Julianne Funk