I am now in Calcutta and have spent about three days here. I had wondered if it would be as awful here as its' reputation, but to be honest I think it is a really lively city and is certainly no worse than anywhere else I have been.
I took an overnight train to get here from Puri and a nice Indian family took me under their wing and bought me chai and chatted throughout the journey. I have spent the past few days exploring the sights of Calcutta. My hotel is on Sudder Street which is a lively place and full of activity during the day with roadside stalls selling sugarcane juice, fried snacks and fruit and has lots of music playing and cafes and restaurants to relax in. You do see a lot of beggars here, as in all the big cities and there are obviously a lot of people who sleep rough on the streets. These include the local rickshaw pullers. Apparently Calcutta is the only city in India that has rickshaws pulled by hand. However, it also has a tube here and I've used that to get around too.
I have been to visit the Museums and Art Galleries here and enjoyed my time in them. It was nice to be able to recognise some pieces from places that I have visited eg. I recognised a horse from the Konorak Temple.
I spent one day just wandering around the centre of the city, getting lost and then finding my way again. I think my map must be wrong as it was hopeless, but it was a great way of just taking in the scenery here such as the grand old colonial buildings, next to lively squares full of people, roadside food stalls with all kinds of food cooking here, the ghats down by the River Hooghly and the huge park (or Maidan as it is known here). I saw one really old dilapidated building with 'Financial District' on it. It would have looked really beautiful at one time but now just looked derelict. However, I noticed above a doorway there was a Lloyds Branch sign.
I spent some time walking on the Maiden and watched the local cricket teams out in their whites. As I had walked away the ball fell near me and they all shouted 'Madam, Madam' to get me to throw it. My throwing is terrible and I knew there was no way I could throw it that far. However, I tried my best, with a bit of a run up, starting with the ball at my shoulder like a shot putter and then flung my arm in a jerky movement looking like I was having an epileptic fit. The ball soared high into the air and then came down about ten feet away, almost hitting an old man on a bicycle. I apologised to the old man and was really embarressed. However, the cricket team all clapped and cheered me so I gave a bit of a bow and laughed!
Today I visited the main temple in Calcutta called Kalighat. It was a very intense affair and I was accosted by numerous 'priests' who tell you that you are not allowed to enter without a priest 'guiding' you. I've been here too long to fall for that old money making chestnut and sent all of them packing.
I joined the queue to see the shrine at the centre of the temple. It was a tight squeeze with much pushing and shoving as everyone wanted to praise Kali. Kali is ferocious demon goddess who kills people and is generally a bit violent. Clearly her followers adopt the same characteristics in showing their devotion. When I got to the dark central shrine, the queue surrounded her encased statue and followed the four square walls which you had to slowly edge your way around in turn.
As I approached the front I was dragged forward by one priest who snatched my ten rupee note and thrust some flowers back in my hand, another priest then yanked me forward and pushed my arm to throw the flowers into the shrine of the cartoon like Kali with a huge gaping mouth bearing her teeth, another priest then grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and pushed me forward, whilst simultaneously another priest stamped his thumb firmly on my forehead planting an orange tilak on it. I was then thrown sideways out of the shrine. This whole process took less than three seconds and I was still reeling from it, when another priest pulled me back into the shrine and asked me my name. He then pushed me in between the other devotees in the middle of their worship and bellowed 'face Kali' before spinning me around and making me face the donations box. He demanded that I 'donate' 100 rupees and shouted 'you must donate it ....only 100 rupees'. I refused and said I had already donated and was not donating again. He repeated it even louder and the people standing nearby all stared as I refused again. I shrugged him off me and repeated myself and left as he stood looking incredulously at me. I was proud of myself for not getting bamboozled into anything, but my head was spinning a bit when I came out. I later went into the beautiful white marble spired St Pauls Cathedral here when a service was going on and the contrast could not have been greater as it was peaceful and calm and no hassle at all.
Anyway, I am heading back to Delhi tommorow and am looking forward to spending my last three weeks here in the north and finally seeing the Himalayas.