Kolkata and the British Raj

70 comments
Asia, India, South
Kolkata 1

A Guardian Lion at the Gate of the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata

Chapter 4, Part 25

“As soon as I stepped out of the hotel, beggars swarmed around me,” my aunt recalled.

“You think the buses in Indonesia are full, you should see the ones in Kolkata!” my cousin added.

They were in India’s third largest city back in 2007 for my cousin’s three-country wedding receptions, thanks to her husband’s paternal family in India and the one in Germany from his mother’s side, as well as my cousin’s own in Indonesia. After returning to Jakarta, my aunt kept telling me that we should be grateful for living in Indonesia in spite of its imperfections. What they told me affirmed the image of India I had pictured in my mind.

The first time I read an article about Kolkata was more than ten years ago in a second-hand English magazine – it could have been Time, Newsweek, or Asiaweek, I can’t remember – that I bought at a flea market in Tasikmalaya – a relatively small city in West Java, Indonesia, where I spent my high school years. Kolkata was described as a Marxist-ruled city with rundown infrastructure and dilapidated buildings. Yet at that time it housed India’s third largest stock exchange – an institution associated with a liberal economy.

As my interest in travel grew, so too did my understanding of India’s long and complex history. Its modern borders are a remnant of British colonialism in the subcontinent, a hegemony achieved by first controlling trade in the region, then the politics of the plethora of sultanates, kingdoms and principalities. In the late 17th century, the East India Company (EIC) began their trade activities in what would then be called Calcutta. More than eight decades later in 1772, the British officially made the newly-declared presidency the headquarters of the EIC. However, more than 80 years later the EIC was dissolved and its power was transferred to London in 1858. Nevertheless, Calcutta’s importance remained unchanged as it became the seat of British colonial administration in the subcontinent in the years that followed.

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A Reminder of British Colonial Rule in India

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A Stately Memorial Built after the Death of Queen Victoria

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European Flair in the Hazy Air

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In Four Years’ Time the Monument Will Celebrate Its Centennial

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Made with the Same Type of Marble Used to Build the Taj Mahal

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Grandeur at Every Corner

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Allegorical Sculptures Representing Motherhood, Prudence and Learning

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Italian-Made Statues which were then Transported to India

At the turn of the 20th century, upon the death of Queen Victoria, George Curzon – at that time the Viceroy of India – proposed the creation of a memorial on a grand scale in the capital of what was Britain’s most precious colonial possession in the world. King George V laid the foundation stone in January 1906, less than a year after the controversial partition of Bengal into Hindu-majority West Bengal and Muslim-majority East Bengal – the latter then became East Pakistan in 1955 and eventually Bangladesh in 1971. The timing to build the colossal memorial couldn’t have been worse as resentment toward the British was on the rise following the partition.

In a bid to subdue nationalist movements, a bill was passed by Britain’s parliament in 1909 which allowed Indians to stand for legislative council positions for the first time. However, feeling threatened by the growing number of Westernized and well-educated people in Calcutta who continuously opposed British colonial rule, in 1911 King George V declared Delhi as the new capital of British India. Apart from being a less hostile city, Delhi’s more central location – as opposed to Calcutta’s geographical position in the far east of India – also contributed to the decision to move the British colonial administration there. The Victoria Memorial, however, was only half-completed when Calcutta suddenly lost its status as capital of the British Raj.

94 years after the completion of the memorial in 1921, James and I are standing in front of the magnificent structure in Kolkata (many people still call the city Calcutta despite the name change in 2001). Even on a hazy day when the city’s pollution tints the air with a grayish tinge, the grand monument stands tall in the middle of a manicured garden surrounded by the city’s busy streets where yellow Ambassador cabs roam. Made with the same kind of marble used for the construction of the Taj Mahal, the beautiful building evokes mixed reactions from locals and tourists alike. From fascination to disdain – to some the memorial is a reminder of the British exploitation of India – the Victoria Memorial is as impressive today as it was almost a century ago.

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The Memorial’s Northeast Corner

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Marble Columns at the Eastern Facade

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Indo-Saracenic Style Meets European Aesthetics

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Nike (the Angel of Victory) atop the Main Dome

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The Queen and Her Reflection

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White Residents of the White Monument

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Indo-Saracenic Architecture at Its Finest

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Magnificence at the Heart of A Bustling Metropolis

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Kolkata’s Iconic Yellow ‘Ambassador’ Cab

Kolkata's Iconic Ambassador Taxi

A Cab Driver Looking for Passengers

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A Street Scene Near Our Hotel

Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

70 thoughts on “Kolkata and the British Raj”

    • Bangunan Inggris yang ada di India khususnya memang megah dan cantik, dan banyak yang dirancang dengan perpaduan gaya arsitektur Kesultanan Mughal dan Eropa. Victoria Memorial yang ada di Kolkata ini meskipun pas saya ke sana polusi udara sedang lumayan tinggi, tapi tetap terasa kemegahannya. Apalagi kalau pas langit lagi cerah. Film India yang shooting di Kolkata apa ya judulnya? Saya jarang nonton film India sih, tapi begitu nemu yang bagus biasanya suka.

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      • Kahaani dan detektif bomsky (thriller) film india tanpa nyanyi dan nari, menangkap kehidupan warga calcutta yg hiruk pikuk tp bangunannya tua tua gitu

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  1. Bama I have to say I am really enjoying the story telling aspect you are weaving into your posts. The quotes from your family members hooked me straight away. Clearly you found so much good in your visit in spite of their warnings.

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    • Much appreciated, Sue! People’s impression of a foreign place usually depends on how positive/negative their experiences were. India was not the first country where some people I know warned me of the things I might encounter there. I usually end up going nonetheless, and most of the time there’s more than meets the eye.

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    • Thanks John & Susan! Likewise, to me your blog is like a window to your part of the world. Any travel plans in the near future?

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  2. Ndlongob deh…. liat begitu bagusnya foto2 mas Bama ini. Kayak bukan di Kolkata yaa… coba kalo ada orang2 yang uyek itu pasti langsung membumi lagi bahwa itu di Kolkata. Bener2 mataku dimanjakan deh, luar biasa bangeeeeetttt….
    Tapi foto yang pertama itu aku pikir singanya pake bando lho hahahaha… ternyata burung! Lucu!

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    • Mbak Riyanti ini lho kalo komen suka bikin saya geli, hehe.. Waktu itu mungkin karena masih pagi banget, jadi belum terlalu rame. Sayang saya cuma punya waktu sebentar aja di Kolkata, padahal pengennya eksplor lebih banyak lagi.

      Mbak, kasian singanya. Udah gagah-gagah gitu eh disangka pake bando. 😀

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  3. Didn’t know why Delhi was chosen as the capital — interesting. I’ve always avoided Kolkata on my India visits — may be one day.

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    • Some say it’s because Delhi is more centrally located compared to Calcutta. But I have yet to find out other reasons behind this decision. As a matter of fact, I had this mixed feeling the night I arrived in Kolkata. A part of me felt rather intimidated by the city’s rough surface, but at the same time I also felt intrigued.

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  4. This place looks gorgeous! The mist (or haze) made it even more mysterious. But I am wondering why there is no tourist around 🙂 Such an amazing building must be a tourist magnet.

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    • Mysteriously beautiful this magnificent memorial really felt. Actually there were people within the monument’s grounds by the time of my visit. But I guess as the day progressed, more people would come — That morning I had to leave Kolkata for Kathmandu, so I didn’t linger.

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      • I see. But I think you were at the right place at the right time 🙂 By the way, how did you travel in India? By trains or did you rent a car?

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      • I guess I was. 🙂 I was in southern India for almost a month, and most of the time I rented a car to go from one city to another for practicality reasons. Apart from that, I also traveled by train once, and took a few flights.

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    • India is not the easiest place to travel, but I will definitely return in the future to explore more of its centuries-old temples, colonial buildings, and other cultural heritage — I guess I need two or three more visits to the country!

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      • I’d love to go too but I think I’d need a few months to cover it all. So much to see. I wish Asia wasn’t so far for me.

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      • And I wish the Americas weren’t so far from where I live. Hopefully sooner than later you’ll get the chance to go back to Asia, Nicole!

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    • Thanks Peter. I guess everyone agrees that despite the air pollution, the Victoria Memorial looks beautiful — such is the nature of a grand building which will always looks impressive regardless of weather condition.

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      • I think the air pollution in Delhi last winter was particularly terrible. Glad it was not as bad when we were in Kolkata.

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  5. I really like this post! And actually, I like the hazy look in your photographs as it gives the ggrand mouments a sort of gloomy deserted look of a time long gone! I’ve been to India, but I only had time for Rajasthan! I’d love to go back there again to visit Kolkata & Mumbai!

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    • Thanks Victoria! I guess it’s such a contrast to see a grand white marble building thinly shrouded in a yellowish haze, which just now made me think of a sandstorm, but milder. Mumbai and Rajasthan are among the places I want to see in India when I get the chance to return one day. But the truth is there are just too many interesting places to see in the country!

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  6. Salam kenal Mas Bama, kayaknya saya jatuh hati dengan blog anda, sangat menginpirasi sekali tulisan nya dan terlebih foto-fotonya yang memang luar biasa sekali Terima kasih

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    • Halo Mas Ferdi. Terima kasih banyak sudah mampir di blog saya. Senang tulisan saya bisa menginspirasi sesama blogger, karena saya pun banyak mendapat inspirasi dari blogger lain. Blogging memang tempatnya berbagi inspirasi.

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    • Thanks Ausmita. Unfortunately I had less than 24 hours to spend in Kolkata. Next time I come, I would love to see more of the city and explore other interesting places in West Bengal.

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    • Thanks Kenny. There are just so many impressive buildings in India, both from the ancient time and the colonial period.

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      • Kenny says:

        That is awesome can not wait to see more of the buildings and the area.

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    • Such an intriguing city Kolkata really is. It’s both beautiful and rough. Thanks for dropping by, Anamika!

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  7. I have a friend who has been to India several times and has been all over the country. Kolkata is his favorite city. He is also slightly crazy and loves it because it is wild. Sounds like you didn’t get a lot of time there, but is it as crazy as your aunt and cousin and my friend say it is?

    That haze is pretty intense. Is that all pollution or some fog too? It gave me emphysema just reading your post.

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    • We arrived in Kolkata at night. On the way from the airport to the city, I could clearly see the city’s very dense neighborhoods which looked intimidating yet intriguing. The next morning when we were walking outside the Victoria Memorial, a young girl was squatting and doing her business on the sidewalk. We didn’t really notice this until we were quite close to her. Her right hand begged for money as we walked past her. I know this is only one of many faces of the city, but it really left a deep impression on us. However, I myself wish to return one day to explore more of the city and some historic places around West Bengal.

      It was pretty much pollution with fog since we went in the winter. The strange thing is I didn’t find it hard to breathe despite the ominous-looking air.

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      • I remember arriving around sunset time in Delhi and going out looking for a light snack and beer. We walked past so many beggars, trash and filth, but also past so much vibrancy. Kristi remarked that it was filthier than she could have ever imagined. And yet, after nearly 10 weeks in the country, I totally fell in love with the place.

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      • I was so keen on leaving India toward the end of our one-month travel there, but now I really want to go back and see more — it’s amazing that you two spent almost 10 weeks in the country! I guess to me India is one of those places with which I develop a love-hate relationship.

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  8. It was so strange how the Victoria Memorial and its surrounding gardens were so peaceful and well-tended amid the chaos, the traffic, and the filth – your aunt was right when she said that Indonesia paled in comparison! Now that I think of it, the enormous building is a perfect example of British eccentricity. It doesn’t seem to serve any practical use, except to pay homage to their queen. And do you remember seeing the Big Ben replica on the way from the airport? That was really odd.

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    • The locals seem to copy British eccentricity — by building an incongruous smaller replica of Big Ben no less. The Victoria Memorial was just as how I had imagined it for years, an impressive colonial building amid a chaotic city. The fog/smog was unexpected, though. Despite the filth, I would love to go back to Kolkata, and head to this group of ancient temples to the northwest of the city.

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  9. Oh my god! a simple search on Kolkata in WordPress and I stumble across your blog.
    Every word you said is true to the best of my knowledge.

    I ran after those buses several times for my entire school life and a bit of college life. grew up reading news paper posts stating how one loses one hand or other while these buses jostle for more passengers. the conductor says “pechoner dike egiye jaan” meaning forward to the backward of the bus, to accommodate more passengers. My first experience of groping, losing mobile and getting lost : all these happened in kolkata bus just like the same for many of my friends. Still, after living in 3 other metro cities of India, Kolkata bus can be polled to be the cheapest effective public service offered in the country till date.

    Victoria is the place where we went to date. It is beautiful indeed. But to experience Kolkata, just walk on the city. Walk walk walk till your leg hurts, ideally on a day it drizzles ( sometime post July) or a puja evening (in October every year), you will probably know why the city is engraved in the once dwellers like like. If you scratch me a little, you will see Kolkata. Lovely blog.

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    • So the reputation is true! When I first moved to Jakarta, many public buses were old and rickety. Buses that plied certain routes were known to be not very safe as many people lost their wallets, phones, and other valuables. However things have got better since then, and I do hope the same thing happens in Kolkata because cheap the buses may be, but I believe people deserve a decent public transport.

      Nevertheless, I would love to go back to Kolkata and explore more of the city. And thanks for the tips — I will surely walk, walk and walk until my leg hurts. 🙂 Thanks again for reading!

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  10. the pictures themselves speak to the readers,louder than any voice..of the measure with which we should adore our own surroundings..! it is like traversing..while standing still,really nice!

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  11. As a resident of Kolkata, I cannot be more proud of this city. Kolkata is beautiful…. In it’s food, it’s people, it’s transportation, it’s language and even in it’s politics.

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    • I can see why you’re really proud of Kolkata, Tiasa. I wish I had more than just one night in the city. Oh well, at least next time I go to India I know I should spend a few days exploring this city. I’m really intrigued by all the things you mentioned.

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  12. Nice photos taken…and nice view also in such a Giant Irresponsive overpopulated but oldest city of my country.I had visited it .You have really covered it well in your photographs

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  13. Despite the chaos, the crowd, the madness, the filth, there is something about Kolkata that grows on you. The people, the “adda”, the roadside discussion from sports to politics, from economics to religion, the food..it all grows on you. It is a city where the past and the present seems to be living together, happily side by side. There are times when you feel that time has somewhere got lost in the maze and then at others you feel time is leading you from the front.
    There is an inexplicable system to the madness. Your words bring back memories of the few years that I have spent there.

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    • Your descriptions of Kolkata fit other places around the world people call ‘authentic’. Usually they’re not the prettiest or the most orderly of cities, but they share some things in common, including this inexplicable energy that make those places thriving and alive. Really glad you enjoyed this post, and thanks for dropping by!

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