One of India's four great urban centres, KOLKATA (CALCUTTA), to its proud citizens, equals any city in the country in charm, variety and interest. Like Mumbai and Chennai, its roots lie in the European expansion of the seventeenth century. As the showpiece capital of the British Raj, it was the greatest colonial city of the Orient, and descendants of the fortune-seekers who flocked to participate in its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century trading boom remain conspicuous in its cosmopolitan blend of communities. Despite this, there has been a recent rise in Bengali nationalism, which has resulted in the renaming of Calcutta as Kolkata (the Bengali pronunciation).
Since Independence, mass migrations have tested the city's infrastructure to the limit. The resultant suffering – and the work of Mother Teresa – has given Kolkata a reputation for poverty that its residents consider ill-founded. Though Kolkata's mighty Victorian buildings lie peeling and decaying, and its central avenues are choked by traffic, the city exudes a warmth and buoyancy that leaves few visitors unmoved, while the booming IT industry has created a renewed sense of optimism.
Kolkata's crumbling buildings and anarchic streets can create an intimidating first impression. With time, though, this huge metropolis starts to resolve itself into a fascinating conglomerate of styles and influences. Its heart is the green expanse of the Maidan. At its southern end stands the white-marble Victoria Memorial, and close by rise the Gothic spires of St Paul's Cathedral. Next to the busy New Market area looms the all-embracing Indian Museum. Further north, the district centred on BBD Bagh is dominated by the Writers' Building, built in 1780 to house the clerks or "writers" of the East India Company. A little further out, the Armenian church stands on the edge of the frenetic, labyrinthine markets of Barabazaar, while the temple of Kalighat is away to the south.
In terms of climate, Kolkata is at its best during its short winter (Nov– Feb), when the daily maximum temperature hovers around 27°C. Before the monsoons, the heat hangs unbearably heavily; the arrival of the rains in late June brings relief, but usually also floods that turn the streets into a quagmire.