4 mins

10 things to do for free in Kolkata

Living in India for two years has left Liz Cleere with plenty of time to explore – here she reveals her favourite things to do on the cheap in the city of Kolkata (Calcutta)

Kolkata’s South Park Street Cemetery (Jamie Furlong)

1. Cross the bridge

The imposing Howrah bridge dominates the Hooghly River, linking the cities of Howrah (on the west) and Kolkata (on the east). Work began in 1939 and it was opened just four years later. Made from 26,500 tons of steel it is one of the largest cantilevered bridges in the world. Famous for not containing a single nut, bolt or screw, the entire construction is held together with rivets.

Although, you'd better get there quick because it is being eaten away by Indian spit. The corrosive chewing treats of gutka (a kind of chewing tobacco containing a mixture of crushed betel nut, tobacco, paraffin, lime and other optional flavours) and paan (betel leaf filled with any assortment of spices, pastes and nuts and sometimes tobacco) are deposited on the the bridge every day by some of the 100,000+ people who cross it. One engineering solution is to coat the bridge in a fibreglass shield, and ingeniously it is hoped that by adding pictures of gods and goddesses into the coating, spitters will be frightened into leaving their deposits elsewhere.

2. Idolise the goddess Durga

Kumartuli is the potters' district of Kolkata. It was named by the British in the 18th century from the Hindi terms kumar (potter) and tuli (neighbourhood). The local inhabitants have been producing idols of every size and shape from clay and straw for generations. All made by hand, some of the larger figures can take up to a week to complete. Production reaches fever-pitch before Durga Puja, the most important festival in the overloaded Bengali Hindu calendar.

Head towards Banamali Sarkar Street at any time of the year to pick your way past ateliers loaded to the ceiling with idols of Durga and other gods and goddesses. They are not for sale; each one has been pre-ordered for the festival, and many will be travelling overseas to meet their worshippers.

3. Mind the ghat

Ghats (literally "stairs leading to water") are dotted all the way along the banks of the Houghly River. On the east side, follow the river south from the Howrah bridge for a few kilometres and you will pass Armenian Ghat, Fairlie Ghat, Babu Ghat, Outram Ghat and Prinsep Ghat.

Underneath the roof of the columned entrance hall of Babu Ghat the air swirls with incense, and people sit quietly meditating on the floor or benches. Wide steps lead down to the river where some of Kolkata's poorer residents wash their clothes (and themselves), prepare evening meals, lie down to sleep, and offer puja. Join the locals and walk the train track along the side of the Hooghly from ghat to ghat.

4. Spot the East India Co influence

Kolkata commercial offices dominate the BBD Bagh, and the fabulous crumbling mansions of the East India Company's mandarins dot the city. In various stages of disrepair, these gorgeous reminders of an earlier time (often with Georgian windows and balustrades) are squeezed between new concrete buildings.

Overlooking the BBD Bagh, the ornate Secretariat of West Bengal Government building is one of the city's most impressive sights. Originally known as the Writers' Building, it was erected in 1790 to house the clerks of the ubiquitous East India Company. Now its heroic red and cream façade dominates the area, and is home to 21st century bureaucrats.

5. Pick your place of worship

Walking north from the Writers' Building, the chock-a-block Barabazar market area is sprinkled with Hindu temples, cathedrals and mosques. There is even a synagogue (look out for the red bricks of the 19th century Magen David Synagogue).

To savour a silent haven in Kolkata, look no further than the charming 17th century Armenian church. It is a serene detour from the choked alleys. Understated white walls hidden behind leafy trees, and wooden interiors, lend it a Mediterranean atmosphere. The entrance is manned by sleepy, but friendly guards and officials. Although free to enter, it is customary to offer a small donation.

6. Enjoy a bit of parklife

The Maidan (pronounced Moidan) is a cross between London's Richmond and Regent's Parks. It is known as the lungs of Kolkata, but this vast semi-wild "field" (the literal translation) is also its heart. It's a magnet for old and young Kolkatans who walk, run and play here. There are clubs for every kind of team sport. Families picnic together and lovers coyly circle each other. It is home to exhibitions and fairs throughout the year. In the late afternoon a hundred boys and men wrestle with long pieces of string attached to kites made from bin liners, wrapped round bamboo struts. When the light starts to fail be careful to avoid being garotted by the tight twine as it stretches across the paths.

You could easily spend all day in the Maidan.

7. Admire Victoria's legacy

Conceived by Lord Curzon and built long after the British had moved their capital to Delhi, the Victoria Memorial was opened in 1921. It is not free, but four rupees (about 5p) is all you pay to enter the formal gardens. These symmetrical lawns and ponds, shaded by elegant trees, give uninterrupted views of this Edwardian homage to Mughal architecture (it is sometimes known as Kolkata's Taj Mahal). Tended by barrow-loads of gardeners to within an inch of its life, there is not a plastic bottle or sweet wrapper to be seen.

A short hop across Cathedral Road will get you to the Neo-Gothic St Paul's Cathedral (entrance free, although donations are prayed for). The grounds of this mid-19th century holy marvel are also worth a turn around.

8. Remember the early pioneers

Kolkata’s South Park Street Cemetery, with its 18th and 19th century monolithic tombs, is full of the tales and tribulations of Britain’s earliest pioneers. India was filled with danger for its settlers, and tropical disease was a common cause of death for many of them.

Built in 1767 for the early East India Company pioneers and their attendants, this latter day necropolis is packed with giant mausoleums, all vying for top billing: pyramids, colonnaded temples, oversized urns, rotunda, obelisks and sarcophagi. The cemetery is a roll-call of the soldiers, sailors, civil servants, merchants, women and children who succumbed to the rigours of an unfamiliar and disease-ridden life in the tropics.

Much of the cemetery is overgrown, and many of the tombs are decaying: inscriptions no longer legible, corners falling off and columns crumbling. Someone is keeping the jungle at bay, though, because the pathways are reasonably clear and at over 250 years old the tombs would have been swallowed up without some attention.

There's no entrance fee, but the caretaker might ask for a donation for the upkeep of this spectacular cemetery.

9. Try some southern comfort

Kalighat, one of the three original villages that existed before the British came (now swallowed up by the city), lies to the south of central Kolkata. Take the metro to Jatin Das Park station and stroll down Kalighat Road. It's a wide and peaceful thoroughfare flanked by stalls selling all sorts of household and general goods. The shopkeepers won't pester you and are happy to pass the time of day.

In the middle of this welcome ordinariness is Kolkata's most holy place, the Kalighat Kali Temple. Entrance is free, but numerous touts and pandits will try to "give you a tour" and ask for money. The temple is regarded as one of the 52 Shakti Peetha of India, where the various body parts of Sati,Vishnu's wife, fell (in this case one of her right toes).

Opposite the temple is Mother Theresa's Home for the Dying, known locally as the Nirmal Hriday. Entrance is free, but donations are encouraged.

10. Pay your respects at the burning ghats

This is where modern-day Kolkatans come to cremate their dead. Take the metro to Kalighat station, then wander westwards towards the Keoratala burning ghat through a maze of roads lined with trees and middle class houses. The area is full of singing birds and there are few people about during the day.

When you hit Tollygunge Road the noise level ratchets upwards and find your way to the Keoratala burning ghat. Like pretty much everywhere in India, you will be encouraged to look around and to ask questions. The cheerful atmosphere here is an echo of the fatalistic attitude to life and death in India. Enormous shrines and monuments to the dead line the banks of the canal.

And one that will cost a few pennies...

Getting under the skin of any big city is best done on foot. But Kolkatans are justifiably proud of their fabulous metro: it is efficient and clean (there's not a plastic bottle, sweet wrapper or unrecognisable sticky puddle in sight). And with fares ranging from 4 rupees to 8 rupees – that's 5p to 10p – it would be churlish to miss this treat.

The metro’s single line runs from north to south (or south to north depending on your perspective), so you can't get lost and need only make sure you’re going the right way when the train leaves the platform. If you're heading the wrong way, simply jump off and cross to the other side of the platform at the next stop.

Liz quit the fashion world in 2006, trading designer frocks for T shirts, to live on her yacht with partner, Jamie. 10,500 miles and four years later they arrived in Cochin. They plan to move on, but sailing plans are set in jelly, so it might be a while yet... Find out more
about her journeys here: www.lizcleere.com 

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