Kolkata and Dhaka – a tale of two cities

You can see some photos from Kolkata here 

Bangladesh in the heat almost clings to you, is impossible to wash off or escape from. So I can barely believe that it was a month ago now that Tom, Georgia and I made a little getaway to Kolkata for the weekend. It’s only about 150 miles away from Dhaka, was part of the same Empire until 60 years ago, and predominantly is made up of Bengali people – but it was like being in a different world.

We went on an overnight bus because it only cost six quid, but it did mean I had to suffer the nightmare scenario of following Spurs’ exit from the UEFA Cup via text message, standing on the top of a ferry at 3am in the morning – not the best way to begin a holiday. We reached the border around dawn, and then had to get off the bus and travel the last two miles along a perfectly good road by rickshaw, for no logical reason. Before I came to Bangladesh I would have thought this was nuts, but now nonsense makes perfect sense. We passed truck after truck transporting fruits and textiles and rice in to India, as Benapole is the major land-crossing between the two countries.

In the distance down the queue lay a huge iron set of gates and big trees, and genuinely grass that was lusher and greener, trees that were bigger. We had three hours of waiting and form-filling to do first, but eventually we had the last pointless, un-recorded document stamped and made it across. We were tired, but tired in India. Couldn’t help but smile.

Another couple of hours on the bus later we rolled in to the middle of Kolkata. I didn’t know where we were, as we had no map, but the street was non-descript and fairly crowded. It was hot, it looked much like Bangladesh. But it felt different. We gradually found our bearings and a nice little hotel, and began to explore. First you realise it’s quiet. Then you notice that there’s no horrible smell. Then you notice that no-one else is noticing you; you’re not an attraction to stare at. And then we walked out on to a main road, came face to face with a huge landscaped park and an enormous white columned English building, and all the tiredness leapt away; we were in a real city.

A poorly researched history: When the British came to South Asia, they settled on Bengal as a decent spot, and in 1690 created Calcutta as a trading outpost, buying off the Mughals of Central India and the Nawabs of Bengal. And then the Brits started making mountains of money. To protect their interests against the constantly fighting native population, the British built a huge fort, and as people flocked to it for stability, protection and economic opportunities the British expanded Calcutta and began designing a grand city as the population kept on growing. Indian Princes were initially content at being bought off by the Europeans, but as they realised they weren’t getting their due they started making life a bit less jolly, and by 1857 after the failed Sepoy Revolt the British government took full control.

All the while, to the East a little market town called Dhaka existed, but nothing much happened there.

Calcutta on the other hand was the capital of the British Raj, and the government invested heavily in creating lavish, grand buildings, large parks, a logical, expansive public transport network and even had a dashingly clever idea of building the sewage system underground. I say, full marks, what?

As time progressed the population exploded, gross inequalities became unsustainable, the British were kicked out of India, the capital moved to Delhi, and Calcutta has evolved in to a huge bustling
Bengal megalopolis. But the colonial heritage still remains, and in my opinion is greatly to the benefit of Kolkata. Just to be somewhere with a history, with culture and architecture that goes back more than fifty years was an aesthetic delight after Bangladesh, where nearly all the infrastructure is modern, cheap, functional and ugly.

Kolkata was crowded, as there must be nearly 20 million people there, but it felt bustling rather than chaotic. There were trees, rubbish bins for litter which were actually used (the only things clean in
Dhaka are the rubbish bins), traffic lights which worked, and were even obeyed. Tom and I were sitting in a taxi waiting at the lights, an open road in front of us and both of us recognised this as an impossible scenario in the Desh. Kolkata had lane markings on the roads. Taxi drivers queue up at ranks waiting for a fare, rather than hurtling straight for you and demanding your custom in exchange for not running you over. And they put it on the meter. Kolkata was quiet, as people don’t use their car-horns as if it’s a pacemaker. We kept on getting in trouble for walking in the roads, as we’d forgotten that some cities have pavements. The British had landscaped a lavish maidan right in the heart of the city to offer respite, and it’s still meticulously maintained, whereas in Bangladesh nearly every urban open space is either developed on or becomes a rubbish tip.

So we were very happy in Kolkata. In the middle of the city is the Victoria memorial, which was simply breath-taking in its scale, beauty and arrogance. Most celebrated leaders have their tributes in their own countries; Lincoln for example, but for the British to build an enormous marble edifice thousands of miles away just stinks of grandiosity. Stalin’s Palace of Culture in the middle of Warsaw previously took my prize as the biggest imperial penis extension, but the Victoria memorial now pips it. Today it’s host to a very informative museum about Kolkata’s history, but even though in some ways I think it’s awful to have this huge reminder of Colonial domination, it also must be acknowledged as a valid aspect of not just the history but the present of India.

More tastefully, we also went across to St Paul’s Cathedral, which had been rebuilt in the twentieth century after a fire but closely resembles the Palace of Westminster. There were many churches in Kolkata, and it was very strange to occasionally hear bells ringing out across the city, rather than just the Azan (muslim call to prayer).

We visited Jain temples, which were small in area but vast in terms of intricate decorations and passionate devotion. We went to Mother Theresa’s mission, which was humbling in its simplicity. We visited markets which were essentially the same as any other Bengali markets, although again, we could walk around without being harassed which almost made me feel unsettled, as if our star quality had eroded. And we poked around a marble palace, a huge stately home situated in the middle of town, enclosed by modern poverty outside its walls, yet sheltered by an English country garden on the inside.

The palace exterior was a little decaying and dilapidated, but it effused wealth and history and power and the Raj, essentially. We weren’t allowed to take photos but were given a tour by an old guard, and each room, once he’d cranked up big switches and got the electricity going, through a layer of dust sat so much money I was absolutely astonished. The family who owned it had invested in treasures from around the world, a huge rosewood statue of Victoria here, a set of Ming vases there, a Rubens on the wall over there, just above the French renaissance cabinet…All the rooms bar the ballroom were wall to wall Italian marble, hence the name of the mansion, and there was a large inner courtyard to the house which was simply exquisite. There’s no other word for it.

Through my events work in England, I’ve seen some pretty rich homes, but nothing compared to that. To achieve that level of wealth today would require billions, not millions, and the palace just sits there now in the middle of the city, crumbling away yet still full not just of magnificent objects, but also memories. Gauche as it is today to have such foreign splendour, I also think that it’s no longer a symbol of ostentatious wealth, but also a fabulous reminder of the world’s riches. And the fact that it’s still allowed to stand and hasn’t been bought off, renovated or demolished makes it a credit to the city.

Best of all for me, we went over to the Botanical Garden and saw the Great Banyan Tree. Over 240 years old, it had grown up and out and up and out and eventually roots from the branches had sprouted, dropped down and took hold in the soil beneath. Over time these ‘aerial roots’ had allowed the tree to continue to grow. And so after 240 years, the tree now covered an area bigger than a cricket pitch. The original trunk was removed in 1925, but the tree is in full health, and resembles now a large dense wood, with nearly 3000 aerial roots locking together in to a vast canopy. When you realise it’s actually just one tree, the effect is breath-taking. The Banyan tree is just one of those masterpieces of nature that a million microchips could never reproduce, and we spent a good twenty minutes just walking around it’s circumference and gazing in wonder and admiration.

We did all these activities powered by beer. And pork, although there’s still a large Muslim population. And Chinese food cooked by Chinese people. Even the Bengali food tasted better, more succulent. There was a McDonalds in the centre of town, which had a large queue constantly outside it, but it was also opposite a fantastic little pastry shop called ‘Flurries’, that boasted of being around for five generations, had an interior straight out of the 1920s, and served delicious Darjeeling tea along with your full English.

On the down-side, Kolkata has a lot more beggars than you get in Bangladesh, and they all live on the pavements which in Bangladesh is very rare. But Kolkata had a lot more wealth also, and an air of sophistication which eludes me here across the border.

Basically it felt to me as if this is what a proper South Asian city should be like; hot, busy, crowded and distinctly South Asian in the sights and smells and tastes. But a functioning city none-the-less, a city that has history and traditions and a public transport system and parks and social spaces, different cultures interacting with each other. And there was definitely a sense of civic pride in Kolkata, and a certain arrogance and self-importance, which would be a hangover from the British, I guess.

Whereas in Dhaka, part of the same Empire and same region, nothing special happened there until Partition and it suddenly became the capital of East Pakistan, and later Bangladesh. There’s almost no sense of colonial legacy at all other than the main court-house, and whilst Dhaka has exploded in population since 1971, to match Kolkata, it’s never had a similar level of planning, investment, or sense of pride I think, and it shows. Dhaka is what happens when 15 million people all move to the same small town with no-one in charge. Kolkata is what happens when you mix the world’s wealth of cultures and passions together. It’s not always pretty, but it feels good.


50 Responses to “Kolkata and Dhaka – a tale of two cities”

  1. 1 horizonspeaks May 21, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    I am an Indian and visited Dhaka last year. I found Dhaka to be a growing city where Kolkata is already congested one. But, I disagree that there are no free spaces in Dhaka like that in Kolkata Maidan. In fact, I felt, Dhaka is greener and less-polluted than Kolkata.

  2. 3 sowula May 22, 2007 at 3:26 am

    How is Dhaka greener and less polluted? Where in Dhaka did you go? I must admit I only spent a few days in Kolkata, but even that was enough for me to confidently assert that Kolkata is cleaner than Dhaka.

    • 4 Asik November 4, 2014 at 1:25 pm

      Dhaka is more modern than kolkata. Dhaka is busier than kl. Dhaka is more clean than kl. Dhaka more internatinalised. Dh more beautiful. Dhaka is the city of high rising and nice buildims and markets. There is shoping mall in kolkata like bashundhara and jamuna future park. It looks so illustrius.

  3. 5 Sid May 22, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    I agree with you about the difference between Kolkata and Dhaka. Calcutta was the capital of the British Empire in India before it was moved to Delhi, a slight that Kolkatans have still not recovered from. But the look of dilapidated elegance does make Kolkata a joy to visit.

    In comparison, Dhaka is just loud, rambunctious, young and yes, unplanned. Although there is a Metropolitan Master Plan for Dhaka which was designed in the 50s which, had it been stuck to, would have ensured that the city would look and smell a lot better than it does now.

  4. 7 Sid May 22, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    Great blog by the way.

  5. 8 Muhamad May 22, 2007 at 9:18 pm

    I think both cities are as bad as each other. Even Ramna Park feels grubby.

  6. 9 Imtiaz December 7, 2008 at 1:57 am

    Biased and unfair comparison. I have been to both the cities and I don’t have the slightest clue of what it’s saying. My mum’s side is from Kolkata and my dad’s from Dhaka, so someone who is mixed in heritage this is my unbiased commment:

    1)Dhaka has broader and cleaner roads than Kolkata.

    2) Kolkata has more flyovers being recentely built.

    3) Dhaka is way ahead in terms of skyscrapers, Kolkata is nowhere close to it in that. Infact only Mumbai in South Asia is close.

    4) Dhaka has more International Shopping/Entertainment faclities like Jamuna Mall Opening next year(4th largest in the world, bigger than Mall of America).Currently Bashundhara city is also the biggest mall in South Asia

    5) Historical sites are different. Kolkata has Victoria memorial and other British era site. Whereas Dhaka boasts of Lalbagh Fort and Ahsan Manzil more of a Mughal Heritage.

    6) Dhaka is actually an older city than Kolkata and it’s history dates back to pre Mughal area. Infact Dhaka was the capital of bengal under Mughals not Kolkata. Kolkata came to prominence under British.

    7) Kolkata is more diverse in ethnicity, as there are marwaris, gujratis, sikhs etc. Dhaka is more uniform, with Bengalis comprising majority of the population.

    8) Dhaka is the capital and prospering, whereas Kolkata has been taken over by bangalore, Mumbai and other cities in India.

  7. 13 upal August 24, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    wel said @ imtiaz..

  8. 14 upal August 24, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    dhaka is more cosmopolitan and affluent whereas its stil booming..

    • 15 Diponmoy June 19, 2012 at 1:58 am

      What a rubbish comment.Kolkata is a beta world city that means global city and Kolkata is bigger cosmopolitan and mega city than Dhaka. Kolkata,s transport system is very well. Many flyover,road, metro rail service and have commuter railway service.Kolkata airport handled 10 milion passengers per year and handled 320 flights per day and soon the amount touch to 500. While dhaka handled 190 flights per day and dhaka has no metro rail, no commuter rail service. Some shopping mall in dhaka are larger than kolkata. But that is no factor. Kolkata has many big shopping mall like south city mall,Mani square mall. Kolkata,s economy is much better than Dhaka.Kolkata is a information tecnology centre of india. So, Stopped compare between Kolkata and Dhaka.

  9. 18 Ashik July 7, 2011 at 8:48 am

    The experiences are not surprising at all. Whatever I have heard, Kolkata is more quiet, less crazy, cleaner and more planned than Dhaka.

    Its more because of the relative importance of the two cities. Dhaka is the capital of a 150 million nation, where as Kolkata is just a regional city in Eastern India. Dhaka is immensely crazy and chaotic, while Kolkata is calm and relaxed. If you have been to US, its like comparing NYC to Boston.

    • 19 Diponmoy June 19, 2012 at 2:12 am

      Eastern india is more bigger than bangladesh,Ok and you go wikipedia and chek megacities ,you found that Kolkata is more populated than Dhaka.

      • 20 Mohsin chowdhury September 24, 2012 at 9:25 pm

        Yes kolkata is more population than Dhaka ,
        But Dhaka is neat& clean than calcutta …….
        And Kolkatas land Scap is too poor than dhaka ,
        Bcz: calcutta is costral area see label , but Dhaka is middel point of any bengal , and land is so Hard , for this many big building in here…… But it’s not possible to Kolkata

  10. 21 PurpleInside November 12, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    Well the author and I must have been to two very different cities then, because I’ve visited Kolkata and my experience couldn’t be less similar.

    Although I have lived in Dhaka most of my life I have no real bias. I had heard some good things about Kolkata and had expected good things, but when I visited (for 2 weeks), all I saw were narrow broken, dirty roads paving the way between broken-down, unkept, old buildings with little to no room to walk on safely (yet shared by both vehicles and pedestrians). Entry into the city was horrible; it looked run-down as hell and did not smell very nice either.The drains much worse than any I’ve seen in Dhaka and I saw no such bins anywhere..trash was all over.

    The people were extremely rude and while there were some nice, clean areas, the majority of the city was more slum-like. Dhaka has it’s share of bad bits too, but the main parts of the city are farrr better comparatively in my opinion. I did go around a lot of both cities btw and I did appreciate the colonial remnants of Kolkata.

    I’m not hating on the indian city (well I am but I’m being honest) but I’ve found Dhaka is wayyy nicer and cleaner overall with better modern architechture. Also I can’t believe the author dissed bangladeshi food! That’s the best thing about Dhaka!

    Perhaps Kolkata simply appeals more to foreigners as they have more familiar shops and eateries there and there’s not as much staring going on.

  11. 23 mkhan January 31, 2012 at 5:56 am

    The author is an non-bengali Indian.

  12. 24 mkhan January 31, 2012 at 6:12 am

    I live in New York. I know many people from Kolkata here. Some of them went to
    Dhaka and all of them told me that Dhaka is cleaner and roads are wider.

    Read the following link and find yourself what an Kolkattan said about Dhaka:


  13. 25 mr.bignoise May 7, 2012 at 2:51 am

    bangalis in indian side like kolkata over delhi or mumbai for very obvious reasons. but i guess they tend to romaticise dhaka over kolkata for being more bengali in nostalgic ideas, such as ancestral “desh” , the “eilish mach”, “sobai bangali”, “sob banglate lekha” etc. Today most of the non-hindi laguages in eatern India are loosing their grip over younger genaration because of the globalization in the job market. in this regard, i remember my wife mentioning how one of her bengali coleague was so enthusiastic in describing her holidays in dhaka. however for my cousin who went to dhaka more than once , was of no big deal.

  14. 26 Arijit Chowdhury May 17, 2012 at 11:38 am

    I am from Kolkata and lived and worked in Dhaka for 31/2 years in two stretches (2003-2004) and (2010-2011). And I found that Dhaka is steadily deteriorating and Kolkata is improving. In last few years, Dhaka population has multiplied but they haven’t improved their infrastructure-roads, flyovers, electricity or gas. So there is immense jam in roads, loadsheddings for 12 hours a day, no water or no gas supply for many consecutive days and life is really becomming horrible. I appeal Bangladeshi Government to immidiately improve the infrastructure of Dhaka as soon as possible.

    • 27 Mohsin chowdhury September 24, 2012 at 9:32 pm

      Yes dhaka is the more largest than Kolkata , but Kolkata population is largest than Dhaka , gas system is too good in the world in Dhaka city corporation ,
      But Kolkata after 100 years late gas line not find in house …. Hahahaha

      See it dear all

    • 28 Roney February 26, 2013 at 12:58 am

      I am from Dhaka and never been to Kolkata. Whatever you have said felt so accurate to me.

      Dhaka is for sure deteriorating day by day and the authority is reluctant about it.

      Not so sure about your comment on Kolkata as I have never been there, but based media information, I can say that it is improving. At least traffic-wise Kolkaka has more infrastructure than Dhaka (more flyovers, underground rail etc.)

  15. 29 DEVAJIT SINGHA September 29, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    I think kolkata is more beautiful & famous city than dhaka…………………….

    • 30 rabbyahmed April 1, 2015 at 7:48 pm

      haha what a nice joke! visit in dhaka then you must see!

      • 31 D Singh August 11, 2016 at 3:40 pm

        All Bangladeshis must visit(off course with a visa) Mumbai,Bangalore,Chennai,Kochi,Jaipur,Hyderabad,Indore,Lucknow,Patna,Visakhapatnam,Goa,Pune, Big Bros Of Kolkata! Case Closed!

  16. 32 Rafiq December 11, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    The author of the article, likely a British, is clearly showing his bias on colonial heritage. Dhaka is an older city than Kolkata and was the capital of undivided Bengal under the Mughals. I believe the author didn’t get the chance to explore the older part of the city where lalbagh fort and Ahsan Manzil are situated. Those places will give an idea of the rich heritage of Dhaka… Just spending few days in modern neighborhoods of Gulshan and Baridhara will give one a wrong impression.

    I believe both cities have their own strong and week ….its like comparing London and Paris.

  17. 33 Prasenjit De January 22, 2013 at 11:56 am

    A lovely comparison. Kolkata has a character, despite all the recent troubles. In India, cities carry distinct characters rather than being an amalgamation of grandiose buildings. if multi-storeys were the definition of cities, then Paris is no city at all. Our Bangladeshi friends base their very identity on anti-West Bengal/India sentiments. But besides infiltrating, the only other thing they can do is to create an artificially architectured city … only one … a centralist city that is supposed to exemplify one whole nation … created by donated and smuggled wealth. Kolkata is a fixity flux and will keep on being so. Yes it’s dirty. But so is Mumbai. And I sincerely advice our Deshi friends to learn better English. Open culture doesn’t reflect in a Deshi mind. That’s what makes the difference more poignant.

    • 34 Mohsin Barguna January 24, 2013 at 12:08 pm

      Yes kolkata is more population than Dhaka ,But Dhaka is neat& clean than calcutta …….And Kolkatas land Scap is too poor than dhaka ,Bcz: calcutta is costral area see label , but Dhaka is middel point of any bengal , and land is so Hard , for this many big building in here…… But it’s not possible to Kolkata

      Dhaka is an actually 500 years older & more Largest city than Kolkata and it’s history dates back to pre Mughal area. Infact Dhaka was the capital of bengal under Mughals not Kolkata. Kolkata came to prominence under British….

      please see wikipedia rangking : dhaka is most senior or greater than costral area kolkata

      • 35 chowdhury January 24, 2013 at 12:25 pm

        Dhaka has more International Shopping/Entertainment faclities like Jamuna Mall Opening next year(4th largest in the world, bigger than Mall of America).Currently Bashundhara city is also the biggest mall in South Asia
        Historical sites are different. Kolkata has Victoria memorial and other British era site. Whereas Dhaka boasts of Lalbagh Fort and Ahsan Manzil more of a Mughal Heritage

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  22. 40 SDas November 12, 2013 at 6:16 am

    Nice post and a lot of comments. Let me enter my not so humble opinion. Books, music and movies is an intrinsic part of being Bengali. Kolkata is central to our beloved books and movies, despite its crumbling facade. Its streets and localities feature prominently in our classics. Dhaka is the largest Bengali city and the capital of a nation. Its investment and wealth dwarfs Kolkata. But its that romantic aura that we cling to makes Kolkata a must-visit among the Bengaliana.

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  25. 43 Sanjoy Ghosh July 17, 2014 at 9:07 am

    @ Imtiaz & Mohsin chowdhury for your information, Kolkata at present has more Skyscrapers compared to Dhaka (Dhaka has around 27 Existing & under construction combined where as Kolkata has 134) ,check Wikipedia & stay updated 🙂


  26. 44 leroy September 23, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    Looking forward to seeing it. Seems like a long time since the launch party

  27. 45 Agnibesh Dasgupta June 24, 2015 at 2:05 pm

    As for the subject,it is a great dilemma for one to comment with ideas based on a particular side.Both cities are beautiful in their own ways.Dhaka as the capital of Bangladesh will of course be more privileged than Kolkata from every aspect.But personally, I believe,on being a Bengali, that Dhaka caresses its culture more than Kolkata does.Kolkata has been filled with numerous cultures and thus struggles to keep its own culture stable unlike Dhaka .I’ve never been to Dhaka but i believe that Bangladesh as a whole gives tremendous respect to Bengali culture.But as it is,Kolkata being one of the metropolitan cities of India has more foreign influence so today’s tech savvy community finds it a better place.But to say frankly,though now divided,are the land of Tagore,and have the richest culture in the whole world.Only difference is Dhaka keeps its mother tongue its first priority no matter what happens,and Kolkata being part of a land where unity lies in its unlimited diversity is just behind Dhaka.

  28. 46 chiranjib September 18, 2015 at 4:55 am

    Kolkata is more clean ,modern consmopoliatan city,whereas upgradation of point of view dhaka very backward than kolkata.Kolkata is wifi city,I think to enrich wifi of dhaka will take 20 years

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