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Until silting rendered it impractical for large ships, the River Hooghly, a tributary of the Ganges, was responsible for making Calcutta a bustling port. The ghats lining the river’s east bank serve as landings and places for ritual ablutions; unlike those at Varanasi, however, they have no mythological significance. Around 1.5km north of Howrah Bridge, Nimtolla Ghat, one of the city’s main cremation grounds, is sealed off from public gaze. Further north, behind Kumartuli Ghat, a warren of lanes is home to a community of artisans who make the images of deities used for the major festivals. In the days leading up to the great pujas, especially that of Durga, Kumartuli is a fascinating hive of activity. As you walk north, you come next to Baghbazaar Ghat, where overloaded barges of straw arrive for the craftsmen of Kumartuli. Baghbazaar, the Garden Market, stands on the original site of Sutanuti, its grand but decaying mansions epitomizing the long-vanished lifestyle of the Bengali gentry, the bhadra log (lampooned by Kipling in The Jungle Book, whose monkey troupe he called the “bandar log”).

South of Howrah Bridge, in its shadow, set behind the busy flower market of Mullick Ghat, the Armenian Ghat is most animated at the first light of dawn, when traditional gymnasts and wrestlers, devotees of Hanuman the monkey god, come to practise. As the Strand – separated from the river by the Circular Railway line – heads south, it passes several warehouses, Millennium Park and Fairlie Place and comes to another cluster of ghats. Frequent ferries (7.30am–8pm) from Chandpal Ghat provide an easy alternative to Howrah Bridge. Babu Ghat, identified by its crumbling colonnade, is used for early morning bathing, attended by pujaris (priests) and heavy-handed masseurs. Nearby, messy and busy Babu Ghat Bus Stand is one of Kolkata’s main cross-country terminuses. Further south towards Princep Ghat, between Fort William and the river, the Strand comes into its own as a leafy promenade, pleasant during the early evening with a café, food stalls and boat rides from the small jetty near Scoops café (around Rs150/hr).

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