Oh! Calcutta!

Leaving the tranquillity and majesty of the Himalayas, I found myself having to re-visit the grime of Indian cities once again.

Requiring a few days rest before moving on, my adventure took me to none other than Calcutta. This seemingly inhospitable cesspool of humanity typifies every traveler's nightmare of the newly emerging mega-cities. Merely a small fishing village three centuries ago, greater-Calcutta is now the second largest city on the Asian mainland (after Shanghai, China) clocking in at a whopping 14 million souls.

Coolies on the Howrah Bridge.

The hovels and poverty, as portrayed in The City of Joy, are so in-your-face and inhumane, one has to wonder what could possibly keep these people going? The millions of homeless, the midget beggar without a leg, the multitude of children dressed in rags, old people suffering from terrible diseases, all living on the fetid streets. Yet, underlying the worst of the worst is a vitality and spirit which evokes a powerful admiration of man's staying power under the most difficult of conditions.

Not all the citizens of Calcutta live in the squalor aforementioned, nor are the majority of the city's people in the lowest caste, the Untouchables. Indeed, the majority of city dwellers, and this is true in all Indian cities, are considered part of the middle class. This means most Indians are well-fed, have a roof over their head, and hold some kind of a job -- even something that pays only cents an hour. These are the Indian people travelers deal with day in and day out. But it is the Untouchables which leave the most indelible impression -- long after the journey has been completed.

Ritualistic bathers in the Hooghly River.

One thing is certain of Indians in all caste levels: religion plays a major role in their everyday lives, manifesting through action and thoughts. Although 83 percent of Indians are Hindus, (the world's oldest religion dating back 5,000 years) India is home to other creeds, including Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Jainism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. With over two million gods in Hindu lore, Indians are reputed to have the most festivals of any nation. This makes your average Indian quite happy and goofy, despite the widespread poverty.

For thousands of years, India had been sacked and invaded by foreign forces. The Persians, Greeks, Muslims, Turks, Moguls, and finally the Europeans all occupied India at different periods. The last, the British, did a darn good job of colonizing India because English is widely spoken today. The British built and implemented the road and rail infrastructure (which hasn't changed much since their departure in 1947). And with that infrastructure, the Brits also bestowed upon the Indians the most mind wrenching bureaucracy, which, unfortunately, is still in place today. The British rule, known as the Raj Era, left behind some of the finest monuments and architectural wonders in the country. Perhaps the most splendid leftover of the Raj Era in Calcutta are the multitude of Victorian style buildings, mostly in a state of disrepair. Calcutta had been the British capital until earlier this century when it moved over to the calmer waters of Bombay. Just goes to show, even colonial masters can only take so much squalor and instability.

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