Twenty years ago, I taught sixth grade world geography using a textbook that had the most beautiful pictures at the beginning of each chapter. I still remember the full page photo of India, and how much I wanted to go there. It sure took a long time, but I finally made it to India!
From Chittagong, it was a short flight to Kolkata. Chris and I were pleasantly surprised by how green the city is, and a slower pace than I was expecting. Our first full day, we took a Heritage Walk to see the old colonial buildings, built by the British when Calcutta was the “second city of the Empire” in the 18th and 19th centuries. I highly suggest Calcutta Walks, for their in-depth historical look at these old buildings. 15,000 colonial buildings are still present in the city, if you know where to look for them and can squint a little and imagine them in their full grandeur in the era of the Raj. Seriously, I could write whole pages on the history of these marble and sandstone buildings, but I won’t, because I know not everyone finds all that as cool as I do.
We also spent a day walking along the Hooghly River: wandering through the flower market (a riot of color and smells), drinking tea out of clay cups for five rupees, walking across the Howrah Bridge, and taking the ferry back over. No visit to Kolkata would be complete without a stroll through the Victoria Memorial at sunset, made from the same marble as the Taj Mahal.
On our last day we discovered the quieter side of the city, at the Mother Teresa Charity Mission house and her tomb, then spending some time in the Park Street Cemetery- one of the largest and oldest Christian cemeteries- but without a single cross, angel, or psalm in it. We rounded the day out with the National Library, a beautiful building which will look stunning after its current renovation.
Sunderban National Park
From Kolkata, we booked a two-day trip down to Sunderban to see the world’s largest mangrove river delta, and hopefully a Bengal tiger. The eco-camp we went to had amazing fish curry thalis for dinner, lovely hosts, and a most relaxing day on the boat. We did not get to see the elusive tigers, although we were pleased to see an otter on land, a rare sighting- as well as various birds, a few crocodile, and some spotted deer.
Having difficulty with the India Rail system, we gave up and booked a flight to our next destination, Varanasi (of course ten minutes later we found a rail booking agency). After a flight of only 90 minutes, we were there. Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, with continuous human settlement for over three thousand years. Thousands of Hindus bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges every day, washing away their sins. They consider it auspicious to die there and have their bodies cremated- it is said to send their soul to nirvana, thus breaking the cycle of reincarnation. Every day between 300-400 bodies are burned on the ghats along the river.
In Varanasi, we attended the nightly Ganga Aarti, a river-worshipping ceremony. It was quite a spectacle, both for the show and for the goings-on in the crowd. Hawkers, beggars, tea sellers, naked ascetics offering blessings; all kinds of activities going on as we sat, waiting for it to begin just after sunset.
The next morning we went on a sunrise boat tour, watching the Hindu pilgrims emerge from the alleyways of the city and descend the steps of the 88 ghats, bathe in the river and give their devotional pujas. Although I would imagine that it’s not the most sanitary thing in the world, it was interesting to watch a practice that has continued unbroken for not just centuries, but millennia.
And so now we are on an overnight train, heading for Delhi and the Golden Triangle area to see some palaces, tombs, and forts. Got suggestions for what we “must see” in the next few days? Leave a comment below.
E-visas: $103 each
Flight to Kolkata from Chittagong: $80 each
Daily costs: $120 for two people