Calcutta: A brew of old and new

As new office blocks change Calcutta's skyline for ever, Matt Carroll is taken on a magical history tour of the city's grand but fading monuments – and still finds time for tea

Anywhere else in the world, I'd be in big trouble right now. I've just plonked myself down on an antique chair that's probably priceless. Yet nobody has batted an eyelid, not even my guide Anup."This chair belonged to Warren Hastings, first Governor-General of British India," he says, nonchalantly. "It's nearly 250 years old."

I'm sitting in a little side room off St John's Anglican Church in Calcutta – the first such to be built in the city, back in 1784 – and besides the chair, the room contains a beautiful octagonal table and several portraits of the men who used to control this city in the days of the Raj. In most cities, such valuable artefacts would be roped off to prevent visitors like me from putting their grubby paws all over them. But in Calcutta, the room is just another leftover from the "British time".

I'd first met Anup two years ago, when I'd arranged a quick trip around the city. In three hours, Anup had taken me on a brief tour of its grand old buildings, each telling a unique story about the evolution of the city and the important place it has in Anglo-Indian history. These buildings are as beautiful as any in London. Indeed, much of Calcutta's architecture mimics well-known designs by the likes of Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren. Unlike London, however, which often prohibits you from (or, at best, charges you for) getting up close and personal with its architectural treasures, in Calcutta you can pretty much poke your nose through the door and wander in.

Especially if you're with Anup. He has been showing people around Calcutta since 1983; you get the impression that he knows every brick in the city. And it's not just names and dates with which he's fluent. He speaks Japanese and Spanish, too – the latter no doubt coming in handy when the Latin pop sensation Ricky Martin showed up for a city tour. "I had no idea who he was until afterwards," said Anup, with a shrug "But he was very polite."

After that first real glimpse of Calcutta, I'd finally returned for the magical history tour I'd promised myself. Our first stop was the aforementioned St John's Church, where I'd sat in Hastings' chair. In the church itself, Anup showed me a lavish painting of the Last Supper by Johann Zoffany, a founder member of London's Royal Academy of Arts, who came to India in 1783 to seek his fortune. Beyond, tucked away among the greenery outside the church, were more historical treasures. At one time, this graveyard was an immaculately kept tribute to Calcutta's founding fathers; now it's a secret garden where nature has taken over.

At the end of a dusty, winding path, Anup showed me a monument housing the tomb of Job Charnock – the man who "discovered" Calcutta in 1690. At that time, the area was little more than a cluster of French, Dutch and Portuguese trading posts, strung together by three villages on the banks of the Hooghly: Sutanati, Kalikata, Gobindapur. Charnock finally settled at the last, establishing a trading post that evolved into British India's capital city. His tomb, two storeys high, is one of the oldest constructions in the city.

Calcutta is packed with monuments such as this. Sadly, however, a lot of them are disappearing. With the city reinventing itself for the 21st century, historic buildings are being knocked down to make way for new developments. Many of those that remain have fallen into states of disrepair. Indeed, the graveyard at St John's Church was in pretty good nick compared with the house that Anup took me to next. This red-brick mansion once belonged to the Indian revolutionary hero Raja Subodh Mullick. It looked as if it might collapse at any moment. Banyan trees grew into the brickwork, wrenching away the guttering as if eating the house alive. It was here that Mullick and his contemporaries gathered to plan for an independent India.

You'd expect a site such as this to be crammed with tourists, but a 30-year ownership dispute between the occupiers and Calcutta University has seen the house fall into disrepair. But just as we squeezed through creaky iron gates into the spacious courtyard, monsoon rain clouds closed in overhead, instantly turning day into night. With oily puddles collecting on the cobbles, we sought shelter in a nearby teashop.

All over the city there are hundreds of such family-run establishments that have existed since the British were here. Anup took me to his local, Favourite Cabin, in the centre of town, where old Indian men sat around slurping. The tea is still boiled on a fire out the back, filling the room with the smell of wood smoke. Forget "skinny" muffins: tea here is served with thick toast and lashings of butter, salt and pepper.

Calcutta is full of great restaurants, too, if you know where to look. Anup led me to a little place in the north of the city called Gazab – another former private residence. However, this one has been rescued and transformed into a stylish modern eatery. Entering through an anonymous-looking door, I found myself surrounded by exposed brick and dark granite, topped off by a trendy-looking mezzanine level that was perfect for people-watching. Despite being a curry addict, I was perplexed by the menu. While my local Indian restaurant at home caters to the British palate (the spicier the better), here it was all about taste and flavour. With Anup on hand to make suggestions, I sampled all sorts of wonderful dishes, including onion pilau – rice with grated carrot, cashew nuts, onions and sultanas.

After stuffing ourselves silly, Anup and I sampled the delights of a chauffeur-driven Ambassador. These quirky Indian saloon cars are re-badged and locally made versions of the 1950s Morris Oxford. Bouncing around on the springy plastic seats, it felt as if I was sitting on a museum piece. Forget air con: we were lucky to have cassette player.

Travelling by car in Calcutta is an adventure in itself. The basic rule of the road (if indeed there are any rules at all) is "he who hoots loudest, wins". Scary it may be, but it's impossible not to be excited by the sights and sounds outside your window. I saw shirts being sold, shoes polished, shaves administered, and (I kid you not) a flock of pink-painted sheep being shepherded through the city centre at rush hour.

Having explored Calcutta's more hidden sights, Anup began the final day of my tour by taking me to the grandest and best-known attraction in the city: the Victoria Memorial. You can see it from miles away, a vast stately hall of gleaming white marble, bulbous domes and intricate stonework, standing minty-fresh against the electric-blue sky. On Sundays, when Calcutta takes a breather, you'll see families strolling the surrounding gardens and lakes, the women in saris that fizz with vibrant colour against the pale brickwork.

A century ago, Calcutta was the epicentre of British power in India. It formed the administrative and industrial hub of the East India Company, which took control in 1690, before power was transferred to the British government under Queen Victoria, in 1858; she was Empress of India until her death in 1901. The Memorial, built between 1906 and 1921, was constructed to commemorate her.

It wasn't just the British who got rich here, though. A class of Indian aristocrats evolved alongside the East India Company, building hundreds of palaces in the north of the city as testament to their new-found wealth. Many are now derelict, but some – such as the Khelat Gosh palace, which has belonged to the same family for more than 200 years – are slowly being restored.

After weaving our way through a maze of narrow lanes, Anup and I arrived at the gates of a salmon-pink marble palace. Imposing classical colonnades lined the façade, stretching up to an early-evening sky that was turning peach Melba. Anup talked us past the guard, and we made our way through a dark vestibule that opened out on to an oasis of calm.

In this quiet courtyard, Calcutta's interminable soundtrack of hooting horns was suddenly replaced by birdsong. But before I had a chance to savour the tranquillity, I was being ushered upstairs to meet the current owner. Pradip Kumar Gosh is descended from a long line of Indian aristocracy, which has inhabited this palace since the days of Warren Hastings. Once, its walls would have echoed with the sounds of servants rushing from room to room, but now it's just the slow, shuffling feet of the latest Mr Gosh. He has lived here his whole life – more than 70 years.

"As a young man, I remember Calcutta was a bright, vibrant city," he said. "There was so much money here. But more than that, it was a centre for business and learning. While I've spent my life in this palace, the city that surrounds it has slowly faded from glory."

Times are changing once more, however. India's star is in the ascendant, and it has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Symptoms of this change can be seen all over the city, with swanky new offices and apartment blocks springing up everywhere. As with every revolution, however, there are casualties. For each new tower on the Calcutta skyline, umpteen historical buildings disappear for ever. Visit soon and you'll still be able to catch a glimpse of the old Calcutta, in all its faded glory.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

Calcutta is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) and Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com) from Heathrow; and by Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) from UK airports via Dubai.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce My Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

The writer travelled with Indus Tours (020-8901 7320; www.industours.co.uk), which offers a one-week tour of Calcutta from £850 per person, including return BA flights from Heathrow, transfers, accommodation in city and heritage hotels, some meals and sightseeing.

Getting around

Bespoke sightseeing tours are available with Anup Saha. For details and prices, email to: anupsaha_jr@yahoo.com

Eating & drinking there

Gazab, 34 Shyampukur Street, Calcutta (00 91 33 2555 5708).

Red tape & more details

British passport-holders require a visa to visit India, available from the High Commission of India in London (020-7836 8484; www.hcilondon.net); or the Consulate General of India in Birmingham (0121-212 2782) or Edinburgh (0131-229 2144). A short-term tourist visa costs £30. You are advised to apply well in advance in case of delays.

The Indian Ministry of Tourism: 020-7437 3677; www.incredibleindia.org

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