Seen the top places to visit in Kolkata and want to get to know the city more intimately? A walking tour that explores Kolkata's melting pot of cultures and communities is an excellent way to do so.
There was a refreshing winter chill in the early morning air as we set out on the Culture Kaleidoscope walking tour, led by Manjit Singh Hoonjan of Calcutta Photo Tours. Manjit, a professional photographer, has created an special niche for himself in the walking tours market.
While some of Manjit's tours have a strong focus on photography and ways to get the best out of your camera, many of them are also suitable for people who are simply interested in experiencing Kolkata on a deeper level. As he explained to us, the Culture Kaleidoscope tour falls into the latter category. The tour turned out to provide a fascinating revelation of the city's history and culture. And, it was very helpful to have Manjit on hand to give photography tips and suggestions from time to time.
Kolkata's Culture Kaleidoscope
In between 19th century "White Town" (occupied by the British around Chowringhee Road) and "Black Town" (settled by Bengalis in north Kolkata), there lies what was referred to during the Raj days as "Grey Town". This grey area became home to an eclectic mix of immigrants -- Buddhists, Parsis, Muslims, Chinese, Portuguese, Jews, and people from other parts of India.
Manjit's grandfather was one such immigrant. And, going on the Culture Kaleidoscope tour with Manjit means you'll be exploring the neighborhood that he's lived in his whole life, where many people know and respect him. It creates a very friendly and welcoming atmosphere, which is matched by Manjit's outgoing personality (he will tell you how much he loves meeting new people every day on his tours) and quirky sense of humor.
Bow Barracks and a Bhisti
Our walking tour got off to a most interesting start with the encounter of a bhisti (water carrier) filling his masak (goat skin bag) full of water. In modern-day Kolkata, it was an unexpected sight. These water carriers were indispensable in supplying water to the British but demand for their services has dwindled since the introduction of plumbing. However, Bow Barracks in Bow Bazar is one place where they still operate. We soon discovered why.
As we turned a corner into Bow Barracks, we found ourselves amidst compact three story apartment blocks with colorful shutters. They originally housed military officers during World War I. Later, after India's Independence, the barracks were taken over by Anglo Indians (people of British descent who had married Indians).
The issue, we learned, is that the apartment buildings haven't been properly maintained. The apartments don't have their own toilets or bathrooms. What's more, some of the buildings don't even have a water supply. Hence, the need for bhistis.
What Bow Barracks is particularly renowned for is keeping the tradition of Christmas alive. Every year, community Christmas celebrations take place there, from December 23 right up until the New Year.
The Best Fruit Cake in Kolkata
Not far away from Bow Barracks, on Weston Street, the nondescript Ajmiri Bakery makes some of the yummiest fruit cake you'll ever eat. Stepping inside the back of the shop, we were confronted with an old-style flame oven, no doubt responsible for the special taste.
Sampling the Street Food
As we continued to walk, street life continued to play out in front of us. Some vendors roasted peanuts in sand to give them added flavor, others brewed chai and served it in traditional earthenware bhand cups, and others fried snacks in scalding hot oil.
Yet, unlike other parts of India, cows on the road were conspicuously absent. It was quite a surprise when Manjit explained that it's legal to kill cows in Kolkata and the city has a municipal slaughterhouse. One dish popularly made with beef -- slow cooked with spices (and often served with brains and bone marrow) --- is a stew called nihari. It's eaten during mornings in the winter, and street vendors in Bow Bazaar were doing brisk business.
We frequently stopped to sample the street food and sweets (the mishti doi was delicious) as we wandered, but thankfully skipped the nihari!
A Chinese Church in Chinatown
Passing from neighborhood to neighborhood produced subtle differences in both food and architecture. It wasn't long before we reached Old Chinatown, where there were shops with pork sausages hanging from their windows (and an assortment of pig pieces piled-up below).
One of the distinctive things about Kolkata is its Chinese population, which dates back to the 18th century when Chinese traders settled in the city. Old Chinatown is perhaps most famous for its early morning Sunday breakfast. However, on this walking tour, we ventured into one of its hidden treasures, Sea IP Church. This Chinese church was built in 1905 and contains a fascinating array of old war weapons, as well as gods and goddesses.
A Kaleidoscope of Communal Harmony
Illuminating and insightful, during the course of the tour we visited places of worship of all the different communities in the area -- the Bengal Buddhist Association, which also has a guesthouse for travelers; a delightfully kitsch Portuguese Catholic church; a Parsi fire temple, with a sacred flame that's been burning since 1912; and, opposite it the Aga Khan Jamatkhana, for Shia Ismaili Muslims.
However, the piece de resistance came right at the end. Magen David Synagogue. Hidden away near Bara Bazaar, this magnificent Jewish synagogue was built in 1884. It has a deceptively plain red brick exterior with clock tower, which contrasts against the Italian renaissance style architecture of its incredibly ornate interior. Sadly, services are no longer held there as about only 30 Jews remain in Kolkata. Now, the synagogue is kept locked and is a protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India. Being able to enter it was a highlight.
Why Go on the Tour
It was heartening to see people from all communities and walks of life existing peacefully together in one area. Most of them love to have their picture taken, while their friends look on and make fun of them being models. Manjit is an outstanding source of knowledge and entertaining guide. An added bonus is that he takes fabulous photos of tour participants and provides them free of cost!
Calcutta Photo Tours conducts walking tours every day. At least two people are required per tour. The tours last for approximately three hours, and cost 1,750 rupees for adults and 1,000 rupees for children under 12 years. Exclusive tours cost 3,500 rupees for adults and 2,000 rupees for children. Pick-up from your hotel is possible at an additional charge. Recommended starting time is 6 a.m. in summer and 6.30 a.m. in winter for the best lighting and ambiance. However, times can be altered to suit you. More information is available from the Calcutta Photo Tours website.
See images from the walking tour on Facebook.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, Tripsavvy believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.