Kolkata is a huge, sprawling city, divided into north and south, both spread along the eastern bank of the Hooghly River, which divides it from the vast suburb of Howrah, located on the western bank. Howrah is where you'll be deposited if you arrive by train; the main station is close to the Howrah Bridge, which connects with the city proper. Just east and south of Howrah Bridge are Kolkata's commercial and tourist hubs, centered around B.B.D. Bagh, still known by its colonial name, Dalhousie Square, and the long stretch of road once known as Chowringhee (now Jawaharlal Nehru Rd.) that runs southward, alongside the Maidan, Kolkata's vast urban park. Many visitors base themselves around Chowringhee; nearby Sudder Street teems with budget accommodations, while Park Street has plenty of boutiques and fine restaurants.

To the northeast is the rapidly expanding business district of Salt Lake City, which has few historical sites but is steadily developing a reputation for its upscale business hotels and high-tech entertainment facilities. It's the closest district to the airport.

The Miracle of Mother Teresa & the "Pure Hearts" -- Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity (MOC) is now headed by Sister Nirmala, a converted Brahmin. There are some 3,500 MOC sisters around the world, working in 569 centers in 120 countries, but their selfless efforts are not without controversy. Even during Mother Teresa's time, tales of pecuniary troubles and controversies over the way in which the poor and dying were being treated (and converted) beleaguered the MOC. There have always been plenty of cynics, despite the Vatican's confirmation of Mother Teresa's "miraculous" healing of a young woman's malignant tumor (the woman claims to have been cured after seeing Mother Teresa in her dreams), a move that has irritated rationalists and the medical profession. Still, in Kolkata alone, more than 50,000 destitute sick and dying are looked after by the blue-and-white-sari-wearing nuns of the MOC, a demonstration of selflessness that you might deem miraculous in itself. Adjacent to the Kali Temple is "Pure Heart," or Nirmal Hriday (251 Kalighat Rd.; tel. 033/2464-4223; Fri-Wed 8-11:30am and 3-5:30pm), the very first MOC center. Mother House (54 A.J.C. Bose Rd.; tel. 033/2249-7115; same hours as Nirmal Hriday) is the MOC headquarters, where Mother Teresa is buried. Nearby is Nirmal Shishu Bhawan (78 A.J.C. Bose Rd.; same hours as Nirmal Hriday), where some 250 orphans are cared for.

Durga Puja -- Not Just Another Festival -- Indians celebrate all year long throughout the country, but the grande dame of festivals is the Durga Puja (signifying the return of the goddess to her parents' home), the most sacred festival for the Bengalis. Though it is celebrated with much pomp all over northeastern India, Kolkata does it best, and if you're traveling here in September or October you simply have to include Kolkata in your itinerary. Literally every family is involved, not just in their own celebrations, but also as participants of the collective neighborhood presentation of Goddess Durga. Pandals, a kind of marquee used to shelter the idol, abound in the city, and have over the last decade become a commercial enterprise, with lucrative cash prizes for the most impressive -- this has led to some highly innovative designs, where the raw materials include everything from bamboo and cloth to futuristic high-tech gizmos. The mode of transport for Durga is declared by the pundits just before the festival commences, and for many orthodox Bengalis, it is a sign of what awaits them in the coming year -- for instance, an elephant could mean prosperity, while a boat may signify natural disasters. The festivities last for 4 days, with dances and frenzied drumming, lots of food, and endless bouts of shopping -- it is mayhem on a grand scale and well worth experiencing. On the last day, idols (ranging from 1 inch to grandiose figures of over 9m/30 ft.) are immersed in the Hoogly, which carries many a prayer into deeper realms.

Santiniketan: Where the World Makes a Home in a Single Nest -- Known as the intellectual capital of India, Bengal has given birth to plenty of big personalities, but the one every Indian is most familiar with is the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. His collected works are easily available in any bookshop or library but the literary domain was not the only one he contributed to. Visit his creation Viswa Bharati University (which means communion of the world with India) at Santiniketan, 160km (99 miles) from Kolkata, where you will find a unique setting for imparting education, with classes held in the open; much the same way as the ancient Indian school system (gurukul). Education takes on a different meaning here and with prior appointment, you can spend time amid students and teachers to learn more. If you decide to stay overnight, you could opt for one of the four guesthouses on campus (contact PRO) or try the simple but charming Hotel Chhuti Holiday resort (tel. 033/3293-4545; www.chhutiresort.com) or Hotel Camellia (tel. 03463/54-778; www.camelliagroup.org). (Note: Nearby, the exquisite terra-cotta temples of Kalna are an added incentive to make the trip.) Santiniketan, Birbhum, West Bengal 731 235. tel. 03463/26-2751, or PRO 03463/26-2626; www.visva-bharati.ac.in. Closed on Wednesday.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.