City of joy

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City of joy Oh Calcutta!

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INTRODUCTION Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is the capital of West Bengal and one of the largest cities in India. Kolkata is an 'in your face' city that shocks and charms the unsuspecting visitor. Long known as the Cultural capital of India and home to the Bengal Renaissance, Kolkata continues to spawn generations of poets, writers and film directors. If your trip only allows for a visit of one or two of India's metropolitan cities, than definitely consider placing Kolkata on your itinerary. Love it or hate it, you definitely won't forget the city on the Hooghly river bank. The term Kolkata or Kolikata is thought to be a variation of Kalikkhetro, meaning "Field of the goddess Kali".

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Simultaneously noble and squalid, cultured and desperate, Kolkata is a daily festival of human existence. And it’s all played out before your very eyes on teeming streets where not an inch of space is wasted. By its old spelling, Calcutta, India’s second-biggest city conjures up images of human suffering to most Westerners. But Bengalis have long been infuriated by one-sided depictions of their vibrant capital. Kolkata is locally regarded as the intellectual and cultural capital of the nation. Several of India’s great 19th- and 20th-century heroes were Kolkatans, including guru-philosopher Ramakrishna, Nobel Prize–winning poet Rabindranath Tagore and celebrated film director Satyajit Ray. Dozens of venues showcase Bengali dance, poetry, art, music, film and theatre. And while poverty certainly remains in-your-face, the dapper Bengali gentry continue to frequent grand old gentlemen’s clubs, back horses at the Calcutta Racetrack and play soothing rounds of golf at some of India’s finest courses. As the former capital of British India, Kolkata retains a feast of dramatic colonial architecture, with more than a few fine buildings in photogenic states of semi-collapse. The city still has many slums but is also developing dynamic new-town suburbs, a rash of air-conditioned shopping malls and some of the best restaurants in India. This is a fabulous place to sample the mild, fruity tang of Bengali cuisine and share the city’s passion for sweets.

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More than four-fifths of the population is Hindu. Muslims and Christians constitute the largest minorities, but there are some Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists. The dominant language is Bengali and Hindi, but Urdu, Oriya, Tamil, Punjabi, and other languages also are spoken. Kolkata is a cosmopolitan city: other than Indians, groups present include a variety of peoples from elsewhere in Asia (notably Bangladeshis and Chinese), Europeans, North Americans, and Australians. Kolkata was segregated under British rule, the Europeans living in the city centre and Indians living to the north and south. The pattern of segregation has continued in the modern city, although the distribution is now based on religious, linguistic, educational, and economic criteria. Shantytowns and low-income residential areas, however, exist side-by-side with more affluent areas. The density of population is extremely high, and overcrowding has reached virtually intolerable proportions in many sections of the city. Kolkata experienced a high rate of population growth for more than a century, and events such as the partitioning of Bengal in 1947 and warfare in Bangladesh in the early 1970s precipitated massive population influxes. Large refugee colonies also have sprung up in the northern and southern suburbs. In addition, a great number of migrants from other states have come to Kolkata in search of employment. PEOPLE

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Kolkata is perhaps the most important cultural centre of India. The city is the birthplace of modern Indian literary and artistic thought and of Indian nationalism, and its citizens have made great efforts to preserve Indian culture and civilization. The blending of Eastern and Western cultural influences over the centuries has stimulated the creation of numerous and diverse organizations that contribute to Kolkata’s cultural life. In addition to the universities, these include the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the Bengal Literary Society (Bangiya Sahitya Parishad), the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, and the Maha Bodhi Society. It is known for its literary, artistic, and revolutionary heritage; as the former capital of India, it was the birthplace of modern Indian literary and artistic thought. Kolkata has been called the "City of Furious, Creative Energy" as well as the "cultural [or literary] capital of India".] The presence of paras, which are neighbourhoods that possess a strong sense of community, is characteristic of Kolkata. Typically, each para has its own community club and, on occasion, a playing field. Residents engage in addas, or leisurely chats, that often take the form of freestyle intellectual conversation. The city has a tradition of political graffiti depicting everything from outrageous slander to witty banter and limericks, caricatures, and propaganda. CULTURE

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FESTIVALS Think of festivals, think of Kolkata! Festivals in Kolkata are all about celebrations, mirth and ceremony. The city absorbing a population of over 13 million Bengalis, come alive during the festive season. For the young as well as the old, its time for party as well as celebration. The festivals that are rejoiced in Kolkata are typified by food, fanfare, noise, religious hymns and processions. The streets are choked by the huge mob of Kolkatans who walk out of their respective residences, kitchens and are all set to be a part of the festive mood. And the greatest festival in Kolkata being the Durga Puja. Other important festivals are Kali Puja, Saraswati Puja, Christmas, New Year, Holi, Diwali and the famous Kolkata Book Fair!

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In Kolkata alone more than two thousand pandals are set up, all clamouring for the admiration and praise of the populace.NThe city is adorned with lights. People from all over the country visit the city at this time, and every night is one mad carnival where thousands of people go 'pandal-hopping' with their friends and family. Traffic comes to a standstill, and indeed, most people abandon their vehicles to travel by foot after a point. A special task force is deployed to control law and order. This is the best time to visit Kolkata, unless you are claustrophobic! Here I would love to quote from an article by Vir Sanghvi on Kolkata and Durga Puja- “The essence of Puja is that all the passions of Bengal converge: emotion, culture, the love of life, the warmth of being together, the joy of celebration, the pride in artistic expression and yes, the cult of the goddess. It may be about religion. But is about much more than just worship. In which other part of India would small, not particularly well-off localities, vie with each other to produce the best pandals? Where else could puja pandals go beyond religion to draw inspiration from everything else?

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In the years I lived in Calcutta, the pandals featured Amitabh Bachchan, Princes Diana and even Saddam Hussain! Where else would children cry with the sheer emotional power of Dashami, upset that the Goddess had left their homes? Where else would the whole city gooseflesh when the dhakis first begin to beat their drums? Which other Indian festival - in any part of the country - is so much about food, about going from one roadside stall to another, following your nose as it trails the smells of cooking? To understand Puja, you must understand Calcutta. And to understand Calcutta, you must understand the Bengali. It’s not easy. Certainly, you can’t do it till you come and live here, till you let Calcutta suffuse your being, invade your bloodstream and steal your soul. But once you have, you’ll love Calcutta forever. Wherever you go, a bit of Calcutta will go with you. I know, because it’s happened to me. And every Puja, I am overcome by the magic of Bengal. It’s a feeling that’ll never go away. A man in Delhi once asked me "What is so special about Durga Puja In Kolkata? It's just as big as Diwali is here in the North''. I simply smiled and replied 'You have no idea'. You can take the craze of Diwali in Delhi, Christmas in London, Summer Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Valentine's day in Paris and then add it to the month long madness of Olympic Games or the World Cup and cram all that into a span of 5 days and you still wouldn't know what you are missing if you haven't been in Kolkata during Durga Puja".

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THE BOOK FAIR! The Calcutta Book Fair (or Kolkata Boi Mela) is unique and is the world's largest non-trade annual book fair. Held on the Milan Mela grounds, this fair attracts over 600 stalls, selling over Rs 18 crores worth of books and attracting close to 500,000 visitors every year. Started in 1975 by the Publishers' and Booksellers' Guild, it has rapidly become one of the world's leading book fairs. It has a Monmarte with budding poets and artists, an annual theme country with authors visiting the fair as chief guests, a fairground experience complete with candyfloss and hawkers, but most importantly, it provides a place to view more than a million new and used book titles at one go—a larger book conglomerate than any Barnes & Noble or Borders superstore. It starts on the last Wednesday of January, and continues for twelve days, including two weekends.

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PLACES TO VISIT VICTORIA MEMORIAL The incredible Victoria Memorial is a vast, beautifully proportioned festival of white marble: think US Capitol meets Taj Mahal. Had it been built for a beautiful Indian princess rather than a dead colonial queen, this would surely be considered one of India’s greatest buildings. It was designed to commemorate Queen Victoria’s 1901 diamond jubilee

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KALIGHAT TEMPLE This ancient Kali temple is Kolkata’s holiest spot for Hindus and possibly the source of the city’s name. Today’s version, a 1809 rebuild, has floral- and peacock-motif tiles that look more Victorian than Indian. More interesting than the architecture are the jostling pilgrim queues that snake into the main hall to fling hibiscus flowers at a crowned, three-eyed Kali image. There’s no need to join them to feel the atmosphere. Behind the bell pavilion but still within the mandir complex, goats are ritually beheaded (generally mornings) to honour the ever-demanding goddess, or, as a local guide described it, to buy ‘God power’. To the direct east is a pea-green ‘holy pond’ and just by the north perimeter a ‘tree of fertility’.

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DAKSHINESHWAR The heart of this vibrant riverside complex is a cream-and-red 1847 Kali Temple shaped like an Indian Sacre-Coeur. The site is where Ramakrishna started his remarkable spiritual journey, and his small room in the outer northwest corner of the temple precinct is now a place of special meditative reverence.

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EDEN GARDENS The largest cricket stadium in India and third-largest in the world by seating capacity, it is widely acknowledged to be one of the most iconic cricket stadiums in the world. Eden Gardens has been called cricket's answer to the Colosseum.

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HOWRAH BRIDGE Howrah Bridge is a 705m-long abstraction of steel cantilevers and traffic fumes. Built during WWII, it’s one of the world’s busiest bridges and one of Kolkata’s greatest architectural icons. Photography of the bridge is technically prohibited but you might sneak a discreet shot from one of the various ferries that ply the Hooghly River to the vast 1906 Howrah train station. And many more……

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MAACHH, MISHTI AND MORE… Fish is the dominant kind of protein in Bengali cuisine and is cultivated in ponds and fished with nets in the freshwater rivers of the Ganges Delta. Almost every part of the fish (except scales, fins, and innards) is eaten; unlike other regions, the head is particularly preferred. Other spare bits of the fish are usually used to flavour curries and dals. There are numerous ways of cooking fish, depending on the texture, size, fat content and the bones. It could be fried, cooked in roasted, a simple spicy tomato or ginger based gravy (jhol), or mustard based with green chillies (shorshe batar jhaal), with posto, with seasonal vegetables, steamed, steamed inside of plantain or butternut squash leaves, cooked with doi (curd/yogurt), with sour sauce, with sweet sauce or even the fish made to taste sweet on one side, and savoury on the other. Ilish is said be cooked in 108 distinct ways.

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Sweets occupy an important place in the diet of Bengalis and at their social ceremonies. It is an ancient custom among both Hindu and Muslim Bengalis to distribute sweets during festivities. The confectionery industry has flourished because of its close association with social and religious ceremonies. Competition and changing tastes have helped to create many new sweets, and today this industry has grown within the country as well as all over the world. The sweets of Bengal are generally made of sweetened cottage cheese (chhena), unlike the use of khoa (reduced solidified milk) in Northern India. Additionally, flours of different cereals and pulses are used as well. Some important sweets of Bengal are: Roshogulla Shondesh Mishti Doi Cham cham Pithe Pantua Rasmalai Ahh.. This is a never ending list..

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I can go on writing about this city, the city I was born in, the city I love. There are a lot of other things which could have been included in this presentation, but sadly, due to lack of time I have to end it here. Truly called the City of Joy, one can easily fall in love with Calcutta. I love you Calcutta!