Oh, Kolkata!


Though travelers often associate India with earthy, jewel tones found in the great historic sites, palaces and temples of Rajasthan and the "Golden Triangle" (headlined by the wondrous Taj Mahal), Calcutta — or Kolkata, as it is now officially known — is awash in green.

While much of the city's foliage is a direct result of British colonialism personified in sprawling parks and gardens, most of it is a product of West Bengal's natural tropical terrain.

In fact, when you leave the airport, the wide, palm tree-lined boulevards and pastel-hued modern buildings evoke Miami. As you drive deeper into the city and closer to downtown past narrower residential streets, New Orleans comes to mind, with all the lacy verandas, terraces and quaint cafes. Through it all, every spare space is filled with lush equatorial plant life.

However, there is also plenty to remind you that you are indeed in India — from Hindu temples to bustling bazaars and markets to stores and boutiques of all stripes showcasing vibrant local fashion, textiles and jewelry.

Even the popular Chinese restaurants smell and taste wonderfully different from our favorite moo-shu joint back home. It is indeed surprising that Kolkata is not as popular a tourist destination as one would think.

"Why Kolkata? While Mumbai (Bombay) and Delhi are fast- paced and you may have to deal with touts (aggressive street vendors), Kolkata is more laid-back, and offers lush green parks and colonial charm woven into the city fabric," muses my host Dolly Soanse as we stroll through the historic New Market shopping area's patchwork of vibrant meat, fish, produce and sundry stalls to reach Nahoum's Bakery, an old-school Jewish bakery that remains an essential food-shopping stop for the locals.

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"We have a lot of culture and a very literate population — one of the highest literacy levels in India — as well as interesting diversity, including Gurkahs, native Bengalis, Nepalese, Tibetans and other groups from all over India, as well as Armenians and expats from Europe, North America and Australia," explains Dolly.

Beyond those attributes — and the many art galleries, museums and concerts in the cooler winter months — there are several reasons why Jewish travelers will find a visit to Kolkata satisfying.

Though only 30 elderly Jews remain from a population that once included Iraqi Jews and European Ashkenazi who settled in Kolkata before and after World War II, the Government of India Archaeological Survey and a small group of concerned citizens have taken up the cause of maintaining the city's five synagogues, including the Maghen David Synagogue and Beth-El Synagogue near Ezra Street, named for seminal Kolkata 19th-century real estate magnates David Joseph Ezra and Elia David Ezra.

David Nahoum is one of the aforementioned citizens. The grandson of bakery-founder Nahoum Israel Mordecai (who came to Kolkata from Iraq in 1870) literally keeps the fires of tradition burning at the namesake family bakery.

After more than 100 years, Nahoum's is still a thriving local business (complete with its own Facebook page), thanks to classic Jewish breads, cream rolls, baklava, macaroons, pastries and interesting Indian hybridizations, such as their cheese samosa.

After indulging in a few of these, Dolly and I make our way to the two neighboring synagogues. They are most impressive, with gem-toned Sephardic window treatments and Indian architectural flourishes framed by British Colonial structure.

Dolly, who visited two years ago, affirmed that the Indian government's support paid off, as the temples were in the best shape she had seen.Though most of Kolkata's Jews moved to Israel and elsewhere, the temples evoke feelings of pride, awe and wistfulness.

In addition to Nahoum's, foodies should not miss Halderam's, a stand-alone food court devoted to India's great street foods, sweets and chats (savory snacks) like puchkas (hollow, fried puri pastry filled with a mixture of water, tamarind, onion, chili, masala spice and potato), popular all over India, but raised to high art in Kolkata.

The upscale Oh! Calcutta and Sigree restaurants (www.speciality.co.in) are distinguished by regional menus with specialized dishes (for West Bengal and India's far north, respectively) that will surprise Indian food fans and non-fans alike through subtle flavors and low-fat cooking preparations that contrast with heavy Punjab and South Indian fare widely available in the United States.

As one of India's great draws is its status as one of the world's most tolerant countries, a popular bus tour covering a variety of Hindu, Jain and other temples is recommended, but often sold out.

Victoria Memorial will also keep culture vultures busy for at least a morning with its fascinating art and history exhibits, reflecting deep connections with the British Empire and other European cultures that brought their influences into India via the busy trade routes of the 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Indian Museum — one of the oldest museums in Asia, founded back in 1914 — makes for an unusual academic experience, with a 4,000-year-old mummy, fossils, coins, stones, Gandhara art, meteors and botanica mounted in library-like settings, with displays and artifacts exhaustively labeled. Make it a point to allocate enough time for a sound visit.

While open markets are as busy in Kolkata as they are elsewhere in India, Kolkata is also home to several spotless enclosed malls, like South City and the Forum, blending known European and American brands with chic Indian fashion boutiques, such as Ritu Kumar and Biba.

There is also a large branch of FabIndia that will appeal to anybody who swears by the Philadelphia-based firm Urban Outfitters, and wonderful discovery boutiques.

The temptation to return is firmly embedded on my mental to-do list, but it's combined with a belief that Kolkata is also figuratively one of the hottest cities on Earth.

It's only a matter of time before the rest of the world catches on.

For information on Kolkata and West Bengal, visit: www.incredibleindia.org, www.kolkatahub. com and www.tourismindia.com. For a customized trip, which can cover Jewish highlights, see: www. makemytrip.com.


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