Remnants of the Raj

Kolkata, India. Today was my first day out again in the tourist world after about four days of minimal activity, now with a relatively normal knee. What a feeling. Now I got to see what Don has been telling me about our neighborhood and its differences from the rest of our travels.

First of all, our hotel. It has quite a history.

The Great Eastern Hotel was established in 1840 as the Auckland Hotel, named for the then Governor General of India. Prior to opening the hotel, there was a bakery at the same site. The owner, Mr. Wilson, expanded his enterprise. The hotel opened with 100 rooms and a department store on the ground floor. The Auckland was expanded in the 1860’s and In 1883 the premises of the hotel were electrified, thus probably becoming the first hotel in India to be illuminated by electricity. The bakery still exists next door, but it is now a tea room with great pastries – which we desperately needed to sample today.

During its heyday, the hotel was known variously as the “Jewel of the East” and the “Savoy of the East”and was described by Kipling in a short story. It was said of the hotel in 1883 that “a man could walk in at one end, buy a complete outfit, a wedding present, or seeds for the garden, have an excellent meal, a burra peg (double) and if the barmaid was agreeable, walk out at the other end engaged to be married.” The hotel has housed many famous personalities including including Krushchev, Queen Elizabeth, and Mark Twain, who enjoyed it immensely in the days when it was considered the finest hotel in Asia. He wouldn’t recognize the place or the accommodations today.

Needless to say, times have changed, and so has the hotel, which has still maintained its status in Kolkata, though its neighborhood is more historic than sympatico. Evidently the politics around what were once gracious residences across the street lean more toward demolition than restoration. Pity.

Today we visited two top sites, starting at the most English of them all, the Victoria Memorial. Lord Curzon commissioned this memorial to the then dead queen, but it took twenty years to complete. Sort of a Taj Mahal meets St. Paul’s meets the US Capitol. Quite impressive.

It was packed today with Indian tourists, and we do so wonder what feelings they have about this palace-like white marble edifice built for a woman who called herself the Empress of India, yet never found the occasion to visit this jewel of her empire.

The old queen’s statue sits in front of the building and the younger version graces the central rotunda. Immediately inside the entrance are statues of Queen Mary and George V, who was reigning when the building was completed. And then there was good old Cornwallis, who got India as a consolation prize when he lost America.

The young queen is at the center of the rotunda, surrounded by images of her life and reign. Quite spectacular. As far as personal effects go, they did see fit to send over her early piano. And that was it.

There is selection of art and artifacts that are somewhat modest. There are the English notables – including Clive – textiles, cannons won from the French, old photos and an ivory chair and table set. Most amusing is a recreation of one of the early villages the Brits were trading in during the early 17th century. We could see the same scene today around the corner!

The gardens are lovely and immaculately groomed. They do provide some lovely green space in this crowded city.

I love this photo of some Hindi women accidentally sharing a seat with some Muslim men. And – from a certain angle, doesn’t it look like Vicky is also on her cell phone?

Our next stop was the Indian Museum, much beloved by Mark Twain. It doesn’t appear to have changed a bit since his visit. It is a quixotic collection of natural history items, art, ancient sculptures and you name it – even the skeleton of a favorite elephant of an emperor. The stuffed animals in the huge gallery displaying these specimens were all from the 18th and 19th centuries, still in place as their British captors placed them. Another amazing time-warp room displayed dusty case after case of fossils surrounding a bust of the 19th century British paleontologist who collected and arranged all these specimens. It didn’t look like the labeling had been updated since it was completed.

We were very intrigued by the “Wish-Fulfilling Tree” of the second century BCE. How primal is this image? We have seen several versions, not the least of which was the Dreaming Tree that Walt Disney called the tree he used to sit under at his childhood home in Missouri for hours that formed the dreams that he later realized. Guess everyone needs such a tree.

We also saw the second century BCE Bharhut Gateway, which is one of four remaining Buddhist gateways, once surrounding the tree under which the Buddha has his enlightenment. Beautiful.

Don’s Food Corner

We finally ventured away from the hotel restaurant, although we are not disappointed with the quality there.

We happened upon a restaurant that we had seen recommended in several guidebooks, so we rushed in. The decor was a little over-the-top, with a fountain and a little bridge that we had to walk over to get to a table. This was a Indian-only menu — no “multinational” nod here — and faced with a dizzying list of choices and a waiter hovering over our heads with his pad in hand waiting patiently but with a certain degree of hurried anticipation, we ended up ordering dishes we were familiar with — a classic lamb rogan josh and a “dry” potato dish along with the obligatory naan bread and some cucumber raita. We indulged in a pitcher of draught Kingfisher beer. Nice and cold.

Although we’ve had better rogan josh, it was served with elegant style. The surprise was the potato dish. It was a whole potato that was filled with coriander, onions and other vegetables and spices. The potatoes seemed to have been boiled, then stuffed and roasted along with some loose onions, bell peppers and tomatoes. I thought it was terrific; Jo wasn’t so thrilled. The naan, fresh from the tandoor oven was spectacular, perhaps the best naan we’ve had in India. It was entirely too much food for two people and we didn’t finish all of it.

This feast, at one of Kolkata’s finest restaurants, cost a total of $41.

3 thoughts on “Remnants of the Raj

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