The Travel Diaries: Kolkata’s Waterways

The city of Kolkata offers a tremendous amount of stimulation to a visitor; whether you’re armed to take pictures, eat your weight in the food available in and around the city or just sight see and take your fill of the sense of history that still lingers all over the city.

Even if you don’t have a massive colonial hangover, the gorgeous buildings, relics of the British Raj can’t help but capture your fancy with their massive pillars and high arching roofs. That people from a different century and generation are now flitting in and out of those buildings only add to their allure.

But there are a few things to keep in mind while planning a trip to Kolkata: a) avoid summers if you aren’t used to a humid climate and b) you cannot do justice to the city without factoring in its waterways.

The summers in Calcutta can be quite debilitating if you’re used to drier climates. The humidity saps your energy, making sight seeing a cumbersome thing. You are actually left with only the evening and pre-dusk time to visit places, many of which are in the process of shutting their doors for the day. Keep in mind that this city is pretty far east and the night sets in fairly early as compared to many other places. Ideal time to visit would be the winters which can be tackled with a light to middling heavy sweater.

But to move on to another extremely charming part of the city- the river Ganges which flows through it and also around it. Apart from the river cruises which are operated by the West Bengal government, there are quaint little fishing boats which can be hired out for half and hour or so right from 5 in the morning and till 8 at night.

Local fishing boat sailing under the Vidyasagar Setu- or the new bridge as the locals still call it.
Local fishing boat sailing under the Vidyasagar Setu- or the new bridge as the locals still call it.
Sunset near the Prinsep Ghat- small boats, ferries, barges can be seen throughout the day.
Sunset near the Prinsep Ghat- small boats, ferries, barges can be seen throughout the day.

One of the best places to visit via a boat or take a boat ride once you reach there is the Dakshineshwar Temple which is situated bang on the river. There are steps leading down from the temple courtyard into the river where the worshipers bathe and also offer flowers since the river is also considered holy.

Belur Math which is situated just across the river from Dakshineshwar boasts of a calm, serene setting as the international headquarters of the Ram Krishna Mission. Seeing the sunset from the steps just above the river while the soft chants and drones of the hymns float out from the prayer halls is something which has to be experienced. Atheist, agnostic or true believer, the ambiance of the place is just uplifting and while photography is restricted at both places, a sneaky click of the sunset over the river is something everyone attempts irrespective.

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Sunset over the river.
Sunset over the river.
The distinctive domes of the Dakshineshwar Temple.
The distinctive domes of the Dakshineshwar Temple.

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On another day, commute with the locals from one ghat (dock) preferably in the evening while many go back to their homes across the Ganges from the main city hub. The ferry boats or river taxis are chock full of office goers who rush to get standing rooms on the steamers for a 15 minute ride that terminates close to Howrah station. You will also see children cooling off after a long hot day by canon balling into the river while barges a couple of yards away.

One can get down, stroll around with a terracotta cup of hot tea made on the roadside and poured deftly by the vendor who seems to be able to dole out tea to 10 at a time, take the money and still keep an eye on the ever-boiling liquid for the next pot.

Of course, what is considered by most to be the ultimate river trip in this region is the trip down to the Sunder bans. Once the din of the city fades away and even the endless drone of the motor made peace with, the sounds of nature take over. The water is murky to be sure but it’s vast and areas around it lush. The ferry motors down past small villages where the river is a lifeline as well as a part of life.

Kolkata cannot be seen properly in just a few days. You barely end up getting a taste of the city and are baffled by what ought of be viewed next. A segment of the trip ought to feature the waterways to even starting to understand the tone, flavor and pulse of the city.

Next time you find yourself with a few days off and free to travel…take a trip downstream, or upstream and just go with the flow.

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