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Kolkata – A City of Palaces 

Husna was 18 when she fell in love. An English girl on a high school break, she had her DDLJ moment when she set her eyes on her now husband. He was from Kolkata.

Twenty years later, Husna’s Glenburn Penthouse has a living-dining room that invites you to curl up with books that weave the romance of Kolkata. The Forgotten Palaces of Calcutta is a tome that spills the secrets of the bygone days of Rajas and Thakurs. 

The sparkle in Husna’s eyes, when she speaks of Kolkata, says it all. It was Kolkata that had its eye on Husna. 

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The British put down roots

As the visitor wanders through the city, past Raja Rajendra Mullick Bahadur’s Marble Palace built in the 1830s, Jorosanko and Sovabazar Rajbaris (Raja’s houses), the desire to stay in one of them and travel back in time to experience the lavish Durga Pooja takes over. 

Sovabazar’s Naba Krisha Deb organized a grandiose Durga puja in 1757 and invited Lord Clive and other East India Company officers to the gala event just after their victory in the Battle of Plassey that established the English as the new rulers of Kolkata. 

As the Company’s fortunes grew and a nascent empire put down its roots, Indian merchants saw their fortunes rise. They were given titles of Rajas and Thakurs by the new Maharajas of India, the British merchants. 

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Durga Pooja in Kumar Toli

A private family worship, the Durga pooja celebration threw open its doors to malech/ no caste British foreigners who embraced it with gusto. The Company auditor-general John Chips even organized Durga Puja at his Birbhum office. 

Naba Krisha Deb, Raja of Sovabazar, made provision for larger-than-life annual celebrations for years to come. He settled potters or kumars in a village nearby where they have lived for over a century, making goddess figurines for the city’s Durga Pooja every October. They adorn the goddesses made of layers of straw, cloth, clay, and paint, with beautiful jewels.

The Residents of Kumar Toli labor with devotion throughout the year for the grand ten-day extravaganza when the city comes alive. Pandals (stages) are set up with the image of the goddess at every corner. Women in red and white sarees smear red color on the goddess and each other. Sounds of loud warbling echo in each neighborhood. Songs belted out with clanging cymbals, beating drums, sounds of conch shells, flute, and pipes, accompany women as they dance in the streets. The Visrajan of the goddess at the ghats of the Ganga or the Hooghly River marks the grand finale. 

Kolkata at its festive best can give Mardi Gras a run for its money. 

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The Calcutta Photo Tour

“Everyone celebrates Durga Pooja irrespective of their religion. The Chinese settlers have their own Kali and Lakshmi versions of goddesses,” says Manjit Singh who leads a Calcutta Photo Tour. He weaves his way through the Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, and Buddhist neighborhoods creating unparalleled photo opportunities.  

In Chinese Kali Bari, the Chinese settlers of Kolkata, make an offering of noodles, chop suey, and rice-and-vegetable dishes to their version of the goddess. Phiringi Kalibari was established by a Portuguese trader Hensman Anthony aka Anthony Firingee.  

So powerful was the pull of the festival that to rein in their officers, the government passed a law in 1840 banning participation by British officers in the Pooja. 

The British had their part of town, and they had to stick to it. Whites Only. 

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India Will Not Be Ruled From A Counting House

Near the gleaming white Victoria Memorial is Fort William where the English established themselves. Manjit walks his tour around the Scottish St Andrew’s church with its tall steeple to the squat St. Johns Church nearby. Across the street, he stops to point out the bags of coins being unloaded by purveyors of bus fare change. 

From the Glenburn Penthouse dining room, the gleaming white Victoria Memorial looms large. It’s the English answer to the Taj Mahal, an imposing building with manicured gardens constructed in memory of Queen Victoria. 

Lord Wellesley, the fifth-Governor-General of India (1798-1805) felt it was essential to establish the majesty of the empire to awe the Rajas, Thakurs, and all subjects of the Empire.

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( Bags of coins being unloaded to be sold to bus conductors. (image courtesy: Ritu Marwah)

The first elevator in Calcutta

In 1799, the wily Lord Wellesley built the Government House in an area of 27 acres. With a magnificent central area of large halls and curved corridors on all four sides, it was the first three-storied building in India boasting the first elevator in the city. 

 “India cannot be ruled from counting houses. Marquis Wellesley had written to England when questioned about the huge expense of constructing a house,” says Manjit Singh leading his walking Calcutta Photo Tours. He circles his tour towards Lal Diggi. 

The Government House overlooked a 25-acre wide lake called Lal Diggi or Red Lake that lay at the center of what is now called B.B.D. Bagh.

“Lal or red was the color the lake turned on Holi, the festival of colors, with Radhas (girls) on one side of the lake and Krishnas (men) on the other throwing color at each other. Shouts of Holi Hai rent the air,” Manjit explains. The British bought the lake and the park for their Whites-only enclave. 

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The red Secretariat

The Government House drew the eye all the way across Lal Diggi Lake down to the magnificent red Writers building. The writers were the clerks of the East India Company. The red brick building that housed the secretariat set the distinctive color of the city. 

The Government House is now the Raj Bhavan where the Governor of Bengal lives and the Writer’s building lies abandoned. The secretariat has moved. The building is a little too red for the comfort of the present government. 

“Kolkata’s buildings are a signature red with green shuttered windows. The residents won’t stand for the buildings to be painted any other color,” says Dr. Mitali Chatterjee. She’s eating Calcutta-Chinese food in what was once a Whites-only club, the Bengal Club. “The English picked the red brick color for a reason. It hides the paan-laced red spit stains,” she gestures. 

The English enclave’s color scheme was embraced by the city.

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The Thakurs – Rabindranath Tagore.

Thakurbari is the generational home of the Tagore family with each generation adding a wing to the main home.

Thakurbari’s most eminent resident was the Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore who was born and lived here.  

“A map of his extensive travels around the world reveals the richness of his experience and influence,” says Husna. Rabindranath Tagore had traveled to more than 30 countries in his lifetime, visiting America five times. His son studied at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

Exhibits showcase his support for China against European talk of the Yellow Peril, his appreciation of Japan, his returned Knighthood, and a copy of his stolen Nobel prize medal along with pictures of a young handsome Tagore and his family. 

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Rabindranath Tagore and his wife Mrinalinee (image courtesy: Ritu Marwah)

Another display shows the room where he and the children of the family were birthed. Markings on the floor showing where Tagore lay in his cot as a baby. Down the hallway is the room where he took his last breath. A lifetime captured. 

Rabindranath Tagore’s wife, Mrinalinee, peeps out from behind him in pictures. She married him at age 10 but only lived to 29. “In that time she revolutionized Bengali cuisine,” says the guide at Thakurbari. “Jackfruit yogurt fish curry with no fish, mustard mutton curry cooked with parwal, cauliflower sandesh, and jalebi made from taro root.” 

A Rajbari Revived To Yesteryear Glory

A century later, the palaces of former rajas lie in ruins, some diminished by division between latter generations. The Rajbari Bawali which was owned by 28 inheritors of the Mondal family took 10 years to restore after it was purchased from the Mondal family. 

Evening dances grace the steps of the Rajbari as the guests luxuriate in its graceful hospitality. A priest conducts a pooja. 

As the sun sets, guests sail down the Ganga leaning against goltakiyas or bolsters on white mattresses in “Amar Prem” boats, sipping on drinks. They snack on Shinghara(samosa), jhalmoori and mustard-laced chicken sandwiches. The swift-flowing river snatches leafy cups with lamps, offered to the river goddess. This is no ordinary boat ride. 

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People drive to Rajbari Bawali just for the day to get a taste of the Bengali meal. Some stay a few nights to enjoy the experience of living in a Raja’s palace. Rajbari Bawali makes it possible. 

Guests depart with a mouthful of sweet coconut ladoo popped in their mouth as a goodbye gesture, for a sweet taste on their journey home. 

Bengalis love their mishti

Bengal is famous for cheese-based sweets like rosgulla, sandesh and chamcham and no visit to Kolkatta is complete without a taste of the mishtidoi.

Cheesemaking is not a Bengali idea, but possibly originated to meet the Portuguese need for cheese.

“Yes,” says Tuhina from Calcutta Walks. “Bandel cheese is an Asian cheese that originated in the erstwhile Portuguese colony Bandel in eastern India. It was made under their supervision.” And then Bengalis added sugar or jaggery to it.

On a walk with Tuhina, a warm Rosgulla is served by Nobin Chandra Das. “This is the shop that first served the cheesy spongy rosgulla. They came up with it in 1868,” she says. “A warm rosgulla is the best kind. It is given to patients to settle their stomachs and feel better.”

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At Balaram Mullick and Radharaman Mullick Sweets, walkers are served a malai roll. A white papery crepe which holds a cottage cheese cake. “The roll is made of malai or milk fat. It is not made of maida or flour,” Tuhina explains. The vendor nods in agreement. The shelf life of the sweet is one day. 

The food walk dodges through the New Market area for Mughali parantha, fish cutlet, Nizam’s kathi roll and lands smack in the middle of puchkas, jhalmoori, nimbu shikanji and pau bhaji. A smorgasbord of cultures. 

“In addition to our fantastic bakery and continental fare, our chef can whip up a mean Bengali Thali,” says Husna. The food served on the streets of Kolkata and in the dining rooms of clubs can’t match the deliciousness that is the Glenburn Penthouse. It is unmatched. Fit for a Raja. 

Where To Stay

Glenburn Penthouse
Contact Sapphira Biswas
Telephone: +91 33 4604 5267 
WhatsApp +91 98 302 58050

Taj Bengal
34 B Belvedere Road, Alipore
Kolkata 700 027, West Bengal, India

The Rajbari Bawali
Phone: 9073312000 | 9830383008
Whatsapp Ricarda Rosario +91 90739 10515

Curated Tours By Car and By Foot. 

Glenbury Penthouse
Contact Sapphira Biswas
Telephone: +91 33 4604 5267 
WhatsApp +91 98 302 58050

Walking Tours And Photo Opportunities

Calcutta Photo Tours 
Phone : +91 87777 61008, +91-33-40660265. Whatsapp: +91 87777 61008
WhatsApp:+91 877-7761008

Walking Tours 

Calcutta Walks
Contact: Tuhina Chatterjee
WhatsApp:+91 85840 33244

Ritu Marwah is an award-winning author ✍️ and a recognized Bay Area leader in the field of 🏛 art and literature. A California reporting and engagement fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health...