A Kiwi Connection to the Oberoi Grand

October 3, 2009

Due to the length of our trip we are, by necessity, budget travelers. We arrange for periodic episodes of luxury from time to time to keep our spirits up, and to see how the other half lives in some of the places we’re visiting. We tend to do this when the opportunity presents itself or when we really need a break. Our friend Jackie recently provided such an opportunity. She is an executive at a company called ‘Kiwi Connection’ that provides a luxury hotel booking service. She is in no way from New Zealand, but she was our Kiwi connection to the Oberoi Grand, the finest hotel in Kolkatta.

We arrived by taxi from our 1-star guest house to this 5-star palace. It is an oasis in the middle of Calcutta, tucked away behind busy streets lined with hawkers and crowded with people.

We wrote about our experience for Kiwi Connection’s travel blog JetSetter. See the article we submitted below. Thanks Jackie!

A Kiwi Connection to the Oberoi Grand

I recently had the pleasure of staying at The Oberoi Grand in Kolkata, India. Kolkata, often referred to by its previous name Calcutta, is the capital of West Bengal state and was the original home of the British colonial government in India. Although it’s a large and vibrant city, it also has a rich culture and history. The Oberoi Grand is one of the landmark hotels of Oberoi Hotels and Resorts, which has nineteen luxury properties across South Asia, the majority being in India, Egypt, and Indonesia. India has a reputation among some groups as an exotic travel destination but Oberoi offers luxury hotels and resorts throughout the country.

The Oberoi Grand is quite literally a breath of fresh air, accompanied by a hint of fragrance from the huge bouquet of fresh flowers in the lobby. The hotel is a haven in the middle of the city. Just stepping into the building provides one with a palpable sense of calm and tranquility.

My wife and I arrived by taxi and experienced a seamless transition from the entrance to the lobby to our guest room. In the process we received a traditional Indian greeting from no less than ten attentive staff. The Oberoi Grand takes the security of its guests seriously, discretely checking cars, people, and bags as they enter the hotel. Hotel staff instantly recognized our reservation through Kiwi Connection, and we received a complementary upgrade to a luxury room with high ceilings and a view over the central courtyard. Our room was elegantly furnished including a four post bed and large flat screen television, with fresh fruit and flowers.

The Oberoi Grand is conveniently located, close to the main business and shopping districts of Kolkata — Park Street, BBD Bagh, and Chowringhee. The hotel is over 125 years old with Victorian columned architecture. It is in impeccable condition, with interiors and rooms stylishly appointed and spotlessly clean. The hotel has a lounge, two restaurants, and an outstanding buffet breakfast was complementary. Our Indian dinner at the restaurant was one of the best we’ve had in India. The Oberoi Grand has a luxurious spa, modern fitness facility with terrific equipment, and a relaxing courtyard with pool. Wireless Internet access is available throughout the hotel.

Soon after we arrived at the The Oberoi Grand, senior staff introduced themselves, and then addressed us by name for the remainder of our visit. They inquired frequently and sincerely if we were enjoying ourselves and if there was anything else we required. They discreetly asked about our plans, without being intrusive, so as to better assist us. They politely and efficiently handled the special requests that we made, like scheduling an appointment at a recommended hairdresser for my wife. We visited Kolkata during the final days of a large and spectacular Indian festival, Durga Puja, and the staff were pleased to provide us with information about the festival and how best to participate.

The Oberoi Grand provided everything we expect of a luxury hotel, plus a little more. We would recommend it for any business or leisure traveler seeking an exceptional stay in the heart of Kolkata.

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Durga Puja

October 3, 2009

We spent most of last night wandering the streets of Calcutta. We had no idea
where we were or exactly where we were going. It was amazing.

We’re here during a major Indian festival called ‘Durga Puja’. It is celebrated in many places in India, but nowhere with the fervor of Calcutta. It is like Halloween, Mardi Gras, and New Year’s Eve combined.

Durga Puja celebrates the triumph of the Hindu goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasur who had taken over heaven and earth. The three main Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (all male) were unable to defeat him individually so they combined their powers to create Durga. This strong female goddess has ten arms carrying the signature weapons of each of her creators and rides upon a lion. Durga was able to defeat Mahishasur restoring heaven to the gods and earth to humanity, and the festival Durga Puja celebrates this triumph of good over evil. In Calcutta it is also believed that Durga leaves the home of her husband Shiva (yes, this bad-ass chick is married) once a year to her parental abode. She appears for only a four day period during the festival to eradicate all evil from the earth, after which she returns to her husband’s abode at Mount Kailash in the Himalayas.

People in Calcutta spend much of the year preparing for Durga Puja. Huge images of Durga and her children (Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha, and Kartik) are prepared and placed in temporary structures called ‘pandals’ for public display during the period of festival. They are elaborate and beautiful, made primarily with painted clay over straw and bamboo.


The pandals that house them are the size of houses and both they and the streets around them are lit up with electric lights, often animated in displays superior to the best Christmas lights. The streets are full of vendors selling food and drink for the visitors and loud music is usually played about twenty hours a day. Neighborhood associations are generally responsible for putting the pandals together with the help of corporate sponsorships. They work all year, similar to the ‘crews’ of Mardi Gras. It is estimated that there are 2000 pandals throughout Calcutta, with many more across the state of West Bengal. On our trip to the Sunderbans we passed many of them in small villages.


People visit the pandals day and night during the festival. They’re open twenty four hours a day. The crowds are largest at night, when the pandals and streets are lit up. The most popular ones receive tens of thousands of visitors per day, filing past in huge lines. It is definitely a family event, and parents walk with or carry their children. The women seem to be wearing some of their finest clothes. Traffic comes to a virtual standstill and public transportation can be overwhelmed. The police are out in full force to control the pedestrians and vehicles. We don’t have anything quite so overwhelming in Canada. Perhaps if the Vancouver Canucks won the Stanley Cup on Halloween night it would come close. Although the idols are religious for Hindus, there is a definite party atmosphere and it doesn’t appear to be a particularly spiritual occasion. There is a lot of noise, children running around, and drunken men wandering the streets.


On the last evening of the festival, the idols are removed from the pandals, transported, and then carried into the river Hooghly and immersed. The idols are transported in trucks full of supporters cheering and dancing, then hoisted by groups of straining men to the river bank where there are spun around repeatedly before being carried into the river. Thousands of them float away into the darkness.

We visited about twenty pandals during the festival. Some were within walking distance of our guest house on our first night in Calcutta. It’s easy to find a pandal – just listen for the music, look for the lights, and follow the crowds. A couple of nights later, upon our return from the Sunderbans, we went ‘pandal hopping’ beginning at about 8 PM. We caught a cab to the south side of the city to see some of the most highly regarded pandals. All we had was their names on a scrap of paper. We started at Maddock Square and walked from there, reading the names of the places we wanted to get to, and asking people in the crowd to point us in the right direction. We walked for several miles through the streets, getting lost, then re-directed, then lost again. It was very hot, very humid, and very crowded.

We decided to head home at about 1 AM. We were both tired and Diane had a heat rash on her legs. The streets were still packed with people, as were the buses, but they were no help to us since we didn’t know where we were or which bus might take us where we wanted to go. We finally got a cab after about thirty minutes of trying, and made it back to our hotel at about 2 AM.

The next morning Diane was ill, perhaps overdoing it the night before, but she had sufficiently recovered by evening that we could walk down to the river to watch the immersions. The crowds were crazy, the drumming loud, and it wasn’t possible to get close to the water as the police were restricting anyone who wasn’t carrying an idol. We did get a few photos though.


Durga Puja was something that we’d heard about in Canada, and we’re so glad that we were able to be here when it took place. It was bit earlier this year than normal, usually occurring in October or November, so it worked out for us. It was absolutely one of the highlights of our trip to India.