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Great Banyan Tree
The Indian Botanical Garden in Kolkata has many floral treasures, but none as impressive as the 250-year-old Great Banyan Tree, which covers nearly 5,300 square feet (500 sq/m). What at first seems like a forest of narrow trunks is, in fact, 1,573 drop-roots from a single banyan tree - either the largest or second largest canopy tree in the world depending on who you believe. The gardens, located on the west bank of the Hooghly River, contain 12,000 living plant species from every corner of the globe and offer some good bird watching opportunities and a quiet green space in which to walk, relax and picnic. There are many paths and trails to explore. Since July 2012 the gardens have been closed on Mondays for maintenance but walkers and joggers are still let in. Officially the gardens open at 8am, but those wanting to exercise can usually get in as early as 5.30am. The gardens are not as impressive in winter and maintenance seems to take a backseat in the off-peak months but the Great Banyan Tree is worth a visit at any time of year and in spring and summer the birds, butterflies and flowers are a joy. Be warned: the toilet facilities are rather primitive.
This astounding marble building is probably the most impressive colonial structure in India; in a city known for several great monuments and buildings, this palace is considered the architectural gem and most iconic landmark. It was built to commemorate Queen Victoria (although she never actually visited the city) and only completed in 1921, after 20 years of solid work. Inside is a fascinating museum of Indian history, including some wonderful sculptures and paintings. The monument is situated on 64 acres of land, which includes lakes, gardens and walking paths. The gardens are well-maintained and for many the lovely grounds and exterior facade of the memorial are the highlight - the museum is fascinating if you are genuinely interested in India's colonial history but the exhibitions are informative rather than entertaining. Although the museum officially opens much later, you can usually get into the gardens for a small fee as early as 5.30am. This is a really beautiful time of day to visit and wonderful for photographs or morning exercise. Note that although you can take wonderful photos all over the grounds, no photography is permitted inside the memorial. There is a sound and light show most evenings at 7.15pm.
With 60 galleries of art, archaeology and anthropology, this is India's largest museum, India's oldest museum, and quite possibly India's most attractive museum, housed as it is in a stunning, colonnaded palace. The Indian Museum was established in 1814 and the collection is vast and varied, including fossils, skeletons, coins, manuscripts, all kinds of Indian art and sculpture, traditional games, icons, puppets, toys, musical instruments and much more. The natural history collection is thought to be one of the world's finest and the museum library is famous for its impressive collection. Unfortunately, although there are fascinating things to see and learn in the museum, it is not as well-maintained as it could be, and sometimes the beautiful building seems slightly dilapidated. Nevertheless, a visit here is mandatory for those wanting a snap-shot view of India's past. As the collection is so big it is best to join one of the four guided tours that are available each day at 10.30am, 11.30am, 2.15pm and 3.15pm. There are restrooms and a simple little gift shop at the museum; there are also usually many hawkers outside the museum selling snacks, souvenirs and trinkets.
This humble and touching temple to Mother Teresa's life and work in downtown Kolkata is well worth a visit. Upstairs is a small museum, full of affecting and interesting displays; and you even have a chance to see Blessed Teresa's bedroom, preserved exactly as it was when she lived in the building. You can also visit Mother Teresa's tomb and spend a quiet moment praying or reflecting in this inspirational place. Not so much an 'attraction' as a deeply emotional and inspiring insight into a life of self-sacrifice and devotion, a visit to Mother House makes a fine counterpoint to more traditional tourist pursuits. In fact, for many visitors to the city it tops their list of worthwhile things to see and do, particularly as Kolkata is so strongly associated with Mother Teresa in the global imagination. Mother House is a memorial and museum but it is also an active charity organisation with real nuns at work. You can offer a donation of money or clothes if you wish to, and there is an orphanage nearby which is a beneficiary of the organisation and which some people like to visit to lend a hand. Mother House is a real gem in this sprawling city and a special place to visit.
This 350-year-old temple dedicated to Kali is Kolkata's holiest site, attracting a throng of excited pilgrims every day. You'll need to tip one of the priests in order to get inside through the mêlée of devotees. Inside the temple there are several shrines: a Krishna shrine where goats and buffalo are sacrificed to the goddess (the meat is distributed to the poor); a shrine to the goddess Manasa which consists of a tree, to which devotees (typically women) tie rocks with red thread in order to receive blessings, usually regarding fertility; a Shiva shrine with a Vedic fire pit in which a fire ceremony is performed daily; and, of course, a shrine to Kali which is a statue of the god with a three-eyed black skull and a long, golden tongue. Stalls selling votive items and various artefacts surround the temple. If you want to avoid the worst crowds, then the best days to visit Kalighat Temple are Wednesdays and Thursdays. You are advised to take ample change (in Rs 10 denominations) to tip the various priests and ushers. Visiting the Kalighat Temple can be quite overwhelming as it is a chaotic place but it is a fascinating experience and a good way to immerse yourself in the local religion and culture.
One of Kolkata's most unusual sites, this palace was built by a local member of the 19th century gentry in a marvelous patchwork of classical architectural styles. Lavish use is made of Italian marble, and the lawns contain an eclectic pantheon of statues including Christopher Columbus and the Buddha. The Marble Palace is a place of drama and dilapidation - and unsurprisingly, has frequently been used as a movie set. It remains a private residence, however, so you'll have to arrange a permit to view the interior (a worthwhile activity, if only to gawk at the impressive art lining the walls). Once you have obtained the permit, entrance to the palace is free and a member of the staff should show you around and tell you about the place - if you are impressed with your guide than a tip may be in order. Frequently, those who arrive without the permit are persuaded by the guards to pay bribes to get in but this is not advisable as once you have bribed one, you may be expected to pay another a few steps later! Next to the palace, you'll find the Marble Palace Zoo - the first zoo opened in India, it is now primarily an aviary, housing peacocks, hornbills, pelicans, storks and cranes. No photography is permitted in the palace.