I arrived for my third time in Kolkata at the middle of Diwali and just before the Kali Puja night. In India different gods and goddesses have preference in different regions, for example, Mumbai has a big Ganesh festival while in Bengal and Kolkata Durga and Kali are the goddesses they revere. When the rest of the country is offering to Laksmi on the 3rd night of Diwali, the streets of Kolkata are full of Pandals (big tents that look like castles to house the goddess) with elaborate Kali statues.
The festival of lights sees a huge array of illuminated structures as well as firecrackers and fireworks. It was a bit of a damp squib this year in Kolkata due to a big storm on the main night for fireworks. I had a great time the previous night though and the tendency for firecrackers everywhere made me feel quite happy to have an excuse to sleep early on the “big night”. Even with the storm Kolkata had the feel of a war zone, some explosions right by my window lit up the dim hotel room and shook the walls.
Northern Temple Tour
I took a tour of the northern temples of Kolkata under my own steam. Starting by walking the half hour to Sealdah station and hoping to catch a local train to the temple of Dakineshwar. I arrived in what I thought was good time for the train, until I saw the queue at the ticket office for the 5 rupee ticket. I went directly to the train to see if I could buy a ticket from the conductor but no this was not possible. The next one was an hour later so at least I had time to get a ticket. The queues looked awful but I was lucky to find the 2 self-service ticket machines which did not require some kind of smart card. I managed to figure out the confusing interface and was happy with myself that it had not taken too long when I realised it needed exact change. A fellow in the queue was able to change my 10 rupee note, meaning my victory remained intact.
The train took me to Dakineshwar station in the north of Kolkata and I found my way through muddy paths to the temple dedicated to Kali. It is where the saint Ramakrishna spent a long time meditating and has a number of Shiva shrines as well as the main Kali image. I arrived as drumming and darshan was happening as people queued up to offer to Kali. This was a crush but good to see and the rest of the temple had a relaxed and peaceful.
From here I intended to take the ferry across the Hoogly river to the Belur Math complex, a home for monks created by Ramakrishna’s disciple Swami Vivekananda. After searching for some time I eventually found the jetty down another muddy path. The man behind the decidedly locked gate informed me that they had cancelled ferry services due to the cyclone heading our way. This continuation of the previous night’s storm scuppered my plan.
I could get a bus up the road so I waited by a busy intersection. It took a while but eventually my bus arrived and I hopped on, managing to squeeze into a spot right at the front. The rain came heavily as we drove through the Kolkata traffic and when we arrived at the bus stand it was a torrential downpour.
After sheltering for some minutes I took a dash for it as the rain eased only to have to take cover again under the umbrella of a man selling crisps and other snacks from a cart. Belur Math closes for lunch so I decided to find somewhere to eat and wait for the afternoon opening. I found a small restaurant which looked OK but they had no veg options so I carried on, sheltering for a while in a Kali shrine and then inadvertently taking the wrong road.
Google Maps was my saviour in many ways in Kolkata but on this occasion I took a wrong turning. I tried to follow the route but ended up walking along a thunderous main road. Then the heavens opened and I got soaked. Taking shelter where I could, I cut through the back streets to get on track. I found myself in an alleyway, amusing the local children with my appearance. The rain was so heavy that these basic residential areas were flooding and at one point I had to wade through the water up to my ankles. Google was leading me to a restaurant but after seeing the dismal conditions in this part of Kolkata I never expected an enormous shopping mall. The place was almost entirely deserted but I found a reasonably priced biriyani in the food hall and a Cafe Coffee Day to warm me up.
Belur Math is a beautiful place, so I’m glad that I showed perseverance to get there. I sat by the main Ramakrishna shrine and meditated for half an hour as the rain began again and got chatting to a guy from Assam who was also visiting all the temples. We continued to look around together and then got chatting to one of the monks who looked very sprightly for his age and exuded a peace and tranquility. We decided to stay for the evening service and this was a session of Bhajans, beautiful singing and chanting by the monks, such a meditative experience and well worth the visit alone. The rain started to come again and this time I decided that there was no way I was struggling with public transport to get back. I had downloaded Uber and despite moral objections to the way they do business and so on I bit the bullet and ordered one. The car arrived, picked me up and dropped me directly at my hotel in central Kolkata for 200 Rupees (or about £2).