Ye olde travel guide: Calcutta 1905

Anne de Courcy recommends the marriage market of the Raj, where energetic sports and flannel underwear are the order of the day

Image by Jonty Clark.

This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

Advertisement

When to go

Make sure you travel to catch India’s ‘cold weather’. In the winter months, during which entertaining is at its height, the climate is summer’s-day pleasant, and insect life less oppressive. This means arriving in October or November.
The long journey to India by ocean liner also carries a hidden bonus. If you are a man looking for a wife, a carefully-chosen mid-autumn departure date means that your ship will be loaded with nubile young ladies travelling out to stay with friends or relations, to rejoin their families or, in some cases, actively looking for a husband. India is known as a place where European men outnumber women by roughly four to one. However, if you are a lady travelling out, be careful whom you let lead you on to the boat deck.

What to take with you

Evening wear is essential; the Raj is very formal. Because of the heat, ladies are advised to invest in special lightweight stays, obtainable from an establishment in Bond Street. Medical opinion advises flannel underwear; failing that, at least a flannel cholera belt.
Ladies, if you’re not travelling with a lady’s maid or valet, take your oldest, most ragged drawers and petticoats, which can simply be pushed out of the porthole after wearing, thus obviating the need for laundry (dismiss from your mind images of the Indian Ocean strewn with a trail of soiled nightwear).

Costs and money

Tourists to India need spend very little, as local society is both hospitable and delighted to see a new face. Your first activity on landing should be to have calling cards printed; armed with these, call on everybody you can think of and invitations to dinner will follow. Nor should you forget to sign the book at Government House if you wish to be included in festivities there.

Sights and activities

Take a stroll through the Indian Botanical Gardens or visit Kalighat’s Kali Temple with its queue of pilgrims. For those who wish to venture further afield, the Taj Mahal and the Khajuraho temples are not to be missed. Be warned, though, that the explicit nature of the carvings in the latter makes them unsuitable for any delicately nurtured female.

Dangers and annoyances

These can range from an upset stomach – or worse – from drinking unboiled water or milk. There are also snakes seeking the cool of bathrooms, and abounding insect life – in hot weather, covers on wine glasses are needed. The sun is the enemy and you should wear a sola topi (a type of sunhat) at all times. For chic, buy one with a suede chinstrap.

Sleeping and accommodation

Few visitors stay in hotels – indeed, few visit India without prior invitation or family links. There is no servant problem here, so entertaining is easy and visitors are welcome. Everyone knows someone in a distant spot and any visitor who so wishes it can be ‘handed on’ from place to place. Running water has only just been installed in Government House; elsewhere ‘thunderboxes’ (Raj for commodes) are the norm.

Eating

In British bungalows, which is where you will be staying, the food is generally as English as your host’s cook can make it without ever having seen a roast joint, plum pudding or cheese soufflé. Curries of various sorts are also a staple.

Entertainment

The government does not allow its employees to marry before the age of 30 and most trading firms follow suit. So, in order to prevent the thoughts of these young men straying into unwholesome channels, they are directed into vigorous sports. Many of these are horse-based, as indeed is much recreation, such as hunting – with pink coats and English foxhounds, but after jackal instead of foxes. Riding is, therefore, a useful skill for the visitor. Paper chases or moonlight picnics in some romantic spot are also popular.
In the Hills, amateur dramatics – sometimes leading to regrettable and scandalous interplay between the sexes – are popular.

Getting around

The Indian train journey is an experience in itself. Often lasting several days, always dirty – the three layers of gauze, shutters and glass on train windows fail to keep out soot and dust – and frequently so hot that a huge block of ice on the compartment floor is essential for maintaining sanity, these journeys are
the only way to cover the length or breadth of the subcontinent.
En route, your servant will bring you food, drinks and lay out your bedding. In cantonments (military quarters), a few have cars but most go by tonga (think one-horse traps for two passengers), bicycle or horse.
In Simla, to which the government migrates for six months of the year, rickshaws are the conveyance of choice – only the viceroy and the commander-in-chief are allowed cars there.

Shopping

Find jewels, silver, ivory, silks, and embroidery in the better shops, or have them brought to your bungalow to view. India is shoppers’ heaven!
Anne de Courcy is author of The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012)