Calcutta: Colonial Grandeur

Fine museums founded by both Bengalis and British dot Calcutta’s colonial streets, with two of the best being the Victoria Memorial and the Indian Museum. Calcutta’s turn-of-the-20th-century viceroy, Lord Curzon, conceived the former as a landmark tribute to his queen-empress, and the building itself, a gleaming white wedding cake of a structure designed by Sir William Emerson and completed in 1921, is perhaps the greatest of the museum’s exhibits. It sits in its own park, with a soaring dome topped by a figure of the Angel of Victory, but the works within command attention, too. They recount the city’s rich history and display grand British paintings depicting the empire’s lands and servants. The Indian Museum opened in 1814 as the Subcontinent’s first national museum. Try to overlook its shabbiness and focus on the sublime early stone carvings on the ground floor. Seek out the room with Buddhist sculptures from Bharhut, in Madhya Pradesh, the first- and second-century remains of elaborately carved red sandstone railings, posts, and gateways that once surrounded a stupa. The lively narrative scenes provide a window into a world that thrived more than two millennia ago, and if the room should happen to be locked, simply ask a guard to open it. It’s as easy as that.