Twentysomething years ago, as a new college graduate about to join the highly-ordered (and some might say 'dry') financial services industry, I never imagined that one day I would have an office in Calcutta, India. For most people, myself included, Calcutta did not conjure many positive or inviting images. Oh, how I love being wrong. I have now spent many years traveling throughout India, and though I have yet to visit every distant corner, I truly find Kolkata (the city's proper name) to be its most compelling destination.
In the early 1600s, the Portuguese and the Dutch created the first European trading posts along the Hoogly River near what is now Kolkata. Besides being an ideal locaton from which to trade in opium, salt and spices, they were attracted to the region by the ability of its residents to weave unusually delicate cotton muslin. The British challenge to the Dutch East India Company began in 1690, when Job Charnock, an English merchant, established his trading post in the small village of Sutanuti on the banks of the Hoogly River.
As Sutanuti grew, it merged with the nearby villages of Govindapur and Kolikata to create the city of Calcutta. After defeating the Nawabs of Bengal in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British East India Company established company rule in Bengal and the Dutch were reduced to a minor power in the region. Over the next few hundred years, Calcutta grew rapidly in political and commercial importance, serving as the de facto power center of the British in India until 1911.
During this period, Calcutta was the birthplace of many facets of modern India, such as western-style education, protection of the country’s cultural heritage (via the creation of the Archaeological Survey of India) and the recognition of certain property rights that encouraged the development of an enlightened and empowered social class. In the mid-19th century, these educated and affluent Bengalis fostered a major renaissance in art and literature, as well as strong Indian nationalist and reform movements that influenced the entire country. Among other reforms, Bengali intellectuals introduced schools for women, and encouraged the British to pass laws abolishing sati and permitting the re-marriage of Hindu widows.
The number of highly-recognized intellectuals and artists hailing from Bengal is substantial, and includes notables such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Keshub Chandra Sen, Dwarkanath and Digambari Devi Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Amartya Sen, Nandalal Bose and Sri Aurobindo Ghosh.
Despite this rich history, for most foreigners, Kolkata is far down on the list of must-see places in India. As a result, it is not an overexposed city flooded with souvenir shops and tour buses. You rarely run into large groups of foreigners at the major monuments, and the city's best eating spots are still the purview of in-the-know locals. If you are open to experiencing India as it is, Kolkata is the perfect destination.
What is there to see and do in Kolkata? Read "Flying through Kolkata," which appeared in the July 2015 issue of Rong Route, a popular Bengali travel magazine.
For those interested in taking a road even less travelled, may we suggest a trip through the villages of West Bengal. As illustrated in our Crafts and Textiles programs, the region boasts an extraordinarily rich tradition of material culture. In addition, at various times in history, Bengal was an active center of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, and many superb archaeological sites related to these religions can still be found. Those interested in modern art and Bengal's intelligentsia can visit Santiniketan, a center of higher education founded by Rabindrinath Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and still one of the most beloved personalities in Bengal.
In the south, you can explore village life among the mangroves of the Sunderbans as you search for the elusive Bengal tiger. In the north, you can taste world-class tea in Darjeeling and marvel at rare orchids in Kalimpong. If you travel even further north into Sikkim, you can visit tranquil Buddhist monasteries and marvel at the breathtaking peak of Kanchenjunga.
Accommodation in rural West Bengal is basic but comfortable; we use the best available hotels, guesthouses and government tourist lodges. Furthermore, the first luxury river boat in India - the Ganges Voyager II - now offers seven-night sailings on the Hoogly River, with stops at many fascinating towns and villages. By land or by river? We would suggest both, with a few days in Kolkata thrown into the mix.
Having a physical office in Kolkata affords us access to a top-notch team of guides and explorers with extensive knowledge of the city and the villages of West Bengal. In fact, The Indians are used by many leading international tour operators to design and manage client trips in the region. These experiences range from one-day, specialty walking tours of Kolkata to three-week, intensive explorations of rural life and the hidden archaeological gems of West Bengal.
Explore the religions that once made Bengal their home with Subhamay "Alo" Banerjee. As a practicing Vajrayana Buddhist, Alo is highly knowledgeable about Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and iconology and the region's archaeological record. He has designed many trip itineraries that highlight unique aspects of Bengal, including An Evening with a Poet and a Painter, Crafts and Textiles of Rural Bengal, and Horticulture and Gardens of West Bengal and Sikkim. Alo is also the preferred guide in West Bengal for Paramparik Karigar, a leading NGO dedicated to preserving traditional Indian arts and crafts.
If you want to run with the crowds at Durga Puja, dodge 100 kilo bags of onions in the Sealdah wholesale vegetable market, or take every form of public transportation the city has to offer, spend a day with Debabrata "Debu" Mukherjee. Debu is one of India's most accomplished mountaineers, and in 2014, he became the oldest Indian to summit Mount Everest...so if you want to climb a mountain in Darjeeling or Sikkim, that can also be arranged. On top of that, Debu is a scholar of Sanskrit and Vedic philosophy, an expert yoga practitioner, and a fluent speaker of English, Japanese and Nepalese.