For a long time, Calcutta or Kolkata was the city that the whole world wanted to come to. This was the trading and business hub and attracted merchants from all over. Over time, some of them settled here.
They started their families here, more people from their community joined them and they claimed a part of the city for themselves. They influenced their adopted city in their own ways while soaking in the colors of the city in their fabric of life.
Walk through the Cultural melting pot of Calcutta
One evening, Kolkata expert and fellow blogger Rangan Datta took me for a walk across these busy quarters of the megapolis. We walked through the roadside markets selling imitation jewelry. We walked through the electronics goods markets. Walked past people living on the roads next to the garbage piles. We saw some old monuments built by these immigrant communities. Some of them are well maintained, some wear the signs of aging while others are simply in ruins. You get a glimpse of the era when these communities would have flourished here. You get an idea of how the cosmopolitan spaces looked a century or two ago.
So come with me for a walk through some of the key milestones on this walk.
Do you know there is a piece of Armenia that exists in Calcutta? Armenian Church in the city, officially the Armenian church of Holy Nazareth, dates back to 1707. It is probably the oldest church in Calcutta and one of three Armenian churches in the city. The original church, built in 1688 was destroyed in a fire. The current structure was built in the early 18th CE. Now, Armenians have lived in India for a very long time. But it was in the first decade of 18th CE that they had an agreement with East India Company to build churches for them.
Clock Tower, Plaque
We entered the Armenian church through a narrow path that opened up to this pristine structure in white. Sun added a pale red tinge to it with its evening rays. A clock tower with a nice lattice window base stood tall and provided perspective to the white church. This is obviously a later addition. The plaque below the bust of a bearded man has something written in Armenian. I could just gather the style and flow of the language. And the fact that it was written, read, and understood in the city once. On one side was a wall with open windows indicating a kind of hostel. On the floor were various graves and the engraved stones had their own stories to tell. A grave belonging to Rezabeebeh Sookias is supposedly the oldest known grave in the city, dating back to 1630 CE.
Do you know Armenian Christians celebrate Christmas on January 6th ?
In the wall of the clock tower is fitted a donation box whose key has been lost – a perfect advertisement for Godrej locks.
Next to the main building of the Armenian church is a memorial to all those Armenians who lost their lives in World War I.
The Jewish community came a bit later to the city, but they were fast to establish their presence. Trading and Jews cannot be far apart for long, and along with Jews came their synagogues. They came from Syria, Iran & Iraq around the turn of 19th CE.
Maghen David Synagogue, Calcutta
The Maghen David synagogue is located at the junction of Brabourne Road and Canning Street. Be prepared to wade your way through the crowds and keep looking for a towering clock tower in red. You will see a red arch and a standard ASI board telling you it is a protected monument. By the time I reached the Maghen David synagogues it was already closed and no amount of coercing allowed us entry into the monument. I was told that the services in this synagogue stopped many years back but the interiors are very well preserved. You can see a lot of Hebrew inscriptions all over the place along with items that showcase Jewish iconography.
Maghen David was built in 1884.
Neveh Shalom Synagogue, Calcutta
The Neveh Shalome or Shalom is the first Jewish synagogue of Calcutta built in the 1830s. The original prayer hall of Jews stood at the same place where now Maghen David synagogue stands. The one you see now was built later in the early 20th CE in the same complex.
We were lucky that the caretaker of Neveh Shalom synagogue opened it for us and allowed us to see it in detail. For the first time, I saw the altar of a synagogue which has commandments written on it. It resembles a church except that altar is different. The hall is simple with old-style cane furniture. There is a central podium I assume for Rabbi to make announcements.
An exhibition on the first floor here was showcasing the Jews in India. There was a wooden platform with poles on all 4 corners. This is the place to get married. The exhibition had copies of wedding contracts called Ketubahs and how they changed over time. When I entered the synagogue, Rangan Da told me that only about 20 Jews are left in the city and most of them are senior citizens. When we were leaving the caretaker informed us of a recent death and the number was down to 19. The reason for this low population is that most Jews migrated when India became independent in 1947 and the birth of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948.
The Portuguese had a love and hate relationship with the city. They set up their initial place of worship way back in late 17th CE. Their signs in the city today remain in the form of this Portuguese church that was built around 1799 CE. This church is dedicated to Rosary Virgin Mary and is built in a classic Catholic style. It is a fairly large church and impeccably maintained. The white exterior with a blue outline reminded me of the churches back home in Goa.
I would remember speaking to the nuns there. When I told them I have come from Goa, they immediately switched to Konkani.
One of the ladies who survived the Calcutta Black Hole is buried here – do look out for a tablet announcing that in the Portuguese church in the megapolis.
Shwetambar Jain Temple, Calcutta
In Indian communities, Jains cannot be far behind a trading hub. So in a small lane in Canning Street, we found this white marble Shwetambar Jain temple. Dedicated to 24th Teerthankar Mahaveer, the temple has his idol in the middle. The main temple is surrounded by white marble torans and carved pillars. These were covered with colorful clothes, something that I saw for the first time in a Jain temple. The recessed ceiling is decorated with lights in multiple colors.
Apparently, only Jains are allowed to visit the temple.
Parsi Fire Temple, Calcutta
We passed through many narrow lanes to reach the base of an out-of-service fire temple. The temple was built in the 1830s for the followers of the Zoroastrian religion. Now only a skeleton of this temple remains along with a plaque that chronicles its age.
Parsi fire temples are usually out of bounds for non-Parsis. So I did not even attempt going to the other practicing Parsi temple in the megapolis.
Chinese settlements developed in Calcutta in the late 18th CE when Tang Chew came and set up the sugar mill. He brought Chinese workers along with him to the mill. The mill did not work for long but the Chinese settled in a place called Tiretta bazaar. This place incidentally was designed by an Italian architect but was known as China town. Later a new china town came up in Tangra. However, the Tiretta bazaar is where you find the old Chinese temples. They are all called churches as that is how they were registered in the records of the government.
No wonder the Indian word for sugar is Cheeni.
Since it was quite late by the time I reached Chinatown, I could only see one of the temples from outside – Toong on Church or temple. Temple is on the first floor and the ground floor used to be the famous Nanking restaurant. It is said that Bollywood celebrities used to give public appearances here when they visited the megapolis.
I need another trip to the city to discover its Chinese heritage and hopefully, meet some Chinese people living there. It is fascinating when you hear a Chinese person speaking fluent Bengali.
China town is best known for its early morning breakfast. Unfortunately, there is nothing much for vegetarians like me.
Here and there we met memorial plates dedicated to the prominent residents or contributors to the city. Like this one is dedicated to a Russian Performer who used Bengali actors in a play in 1795.
What a walk through the cultural melting pots of this city!
This megapolis experience was curated by ITC Sonar for IndiTales.
Recommend you to read the following Travel Blogs.
Colonial Kolkata Heritage Walk
Terracotta temples of Bishnupur
Wonderfully captured the melting pot of cultures of Kolkata. Rangan da is a friend, and perhaps the best person to take one around Kolkata. Wish I had known this so I could have joined you both. Want you to come back real soon for exploring Kolkata more
Anindya, I also want to come back and explore more of Kolkata. There is so much to be seen, explored & experienced in your city. Rangan Da is simply great – you can not get a better person tp guide you in Kolkata.
Now that is a fascinating walk and something I know I will love. I did not know of the Synagogue and Parsi Fire temple.
Wonderful article of temples and churches. My last visit to Kolkata was 48 hours long. This city deserves a longer stay. The above mentioned places will be in my to do list.
Thank you, Kishor. Totally agree Kolkata deserves much more than 2 days. However this time in 2 days I managed to do 2 lovely heritage walks.
I think I love this article the best of all! Thank you Anuradha, for seeing beyond Durga Puja and exploring the various facets of the people in the city and places of cultural interest. Kolkata charms its tourists in its own diversity and yet unites all who have some connection with the city in far off distant lands. You must go to China Town and try the various food options there! All said and done, I insist that you must visit Kolkata during Durga Puja, however crowded may the place be. The celebrations are alive and the city adorns a festive look like no other, or so claimed by people who have been to various parts of the country during festivals. Feel free to let me know if I can assist in any way while you are there.
There is so much more to Kolkata that I am yet to explore. Let’s see when this lovely city calls me back.