Arriving in India I waited for the famous Indian culture shock for quite a while. Visiting Kerala, the most southern province of India, was a bit overwhelming, but there was nothing that was too much for our senses. My first true culture shock came while visiting the Calcutta flower market also known as the Mallik Ghat market. It was a very powerful experience and still is one of the activities I’ll recommend when visiting Calcutta or Kolkata in West Bengal, India. Just as I’m putting it on your to-do list, it was praised to us as a true local experience by a friend of a friend and, he was right. This flower market is, just as most things in India, unlike any other flower market you have visited before. I went thinking of Columbia flower market in London or the local foreigners market (aka vreemdelingenmarkt) in Antwerp and quickly had to adjust my expectations. First of all they don’t sell flowers to put in vases and you will most certainly not find any plants. What you will find is fresh flower petals, flower heads, flower decorations and garlands in all colors and shapes. Most of these flowers will be used for ceremonial purposes and only a small fraction of the flowers will be used to decorate a home, unless there is a ceremony held within. The most important flowers are yellow and orange marigolds, roses, orchids and several other flowers that all serve a different religious and/or medicinal purpose in daily Indian life.
It is hard to describe what it feels like to walk through the Kolkata flower market. In a city of 15 million people, this market, in the shadow of the Howrah bridge, is one of the biggest flower market in India and some even say Asia. Forget everything you know about flower markets and imagine flower buds as far as the eye can see. In bags, on the floor and in little makeshift stalls you will find them side by side in an overcrowded market with people walking around and pushing through in all directions, selling, buying and staring at you for being the odd one out. Needless to say, the market is busy, it is very busy. Filled with all kinds of flowers and colors, the smells of fresh blooms and sweat intermingle with Indian food and poor hygiene. Expect to find poorly looked after children who might be begging for money, dogs and all other kinds of animals looking for a scrap of food, sweaty salesmen who are entertained by your appearance and will most likely offer you all kinds of roses, people washing and defecating in the river behind the market (which is the same river where the dead are burned) and one man, who is particularly fond of his pigeons. Aside from sellers coming from three in the morning and going once the market is over, a large number of people had to make this market, the bridge or the pathways to the market their home. Consequently, you will be looking into or stepping on people’s homes, especially upon entering the indoor part of the flower market, which creates a very intrusive feeling like you shouldn’t be there. A feeling that is put under the magnifying glass as you soon realize in what conditions people are living compared to you and that you are the traveler with a camera that is often worth more than their entire home.
If you’re excited to see the Mallik Gath flower market (find the location on Google Maps here) with your own eyes, aim to arrive at 7 am. Don’t bother to book a tour and just get a taxi, they will know where the market is (if you’re apprehensive about the cab driver, track the route via apps such as Google Maps or Maps.me). If you can, head out before sunset and pass by the marble palace first. With the sun coming up, it turns the most beautiful shade of pink. Don’t forget to walk around in the beautifully
landscaped garden where several Calcutta locals will be getting their morning exercise in. When the sun is fully up, continue your drive to the market and stick around for as long as you like. As it is a local market I would advise you to dress appropriately showing as little skin as possible and if possible taking a male travel partner if you are a female traveling alone. Wearing closed shoes is also a good idea as hygiene in this part of the town is quite low and you’re going to want to protect your feet. Be careful with your belongings because it is a very busy place and you never know you you’re going to run into.