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 Kolkata for themselves. They influenced their adopted city in their own ways while soaking in the colors of Kolkata in their fabric of life.
Walk through the Cultural melting pot of Calcutta
One evening, Kolkata expert and a fellow blogger Rangan Datta took me for a walk across these busy quarters of Kolkata. 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 Kolkata? Armenian Church in Calcutta, 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 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 Kolkata 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 Kolkata (Calcutta), dating 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 Armenian church is a memorial to all those Armenians who lost their lives in World War I.
Jewish community came a bit later to Calcutta, 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
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 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 places along with items that showcase Jewish iconography.
Maghen David was built in 1884.
Neveh Shalom Synagogue
The Neveh Shalome or Shalom is the first Jewish synagogue of Kolkata 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 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 of the first floor here was showcasing the Jews in India. There was a wooden platform with poles on its all 4 corners. This is the place to get married. The exhibition had the 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 Kolkata 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 birth of Jewish state of Israel in 1948.
The Portuguese had a love and hate relationship with Kolkata. They set up their initial place of worship way back in late 17th CE. Their signs in Kolkata today remain 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 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 Portuguese church in Kolkata.
Shwetambar Jain Temple
In Indian communities, Jains cannot be far behind from 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
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 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 bound for non-Parsis. So I did not even attempt going to the other practicing Parsi temple in Kolkata.
Chinese settlements developed in Calcutta in 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 Chinese settled in a place call 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, 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 China town, 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 Kolkata or Calcutta.
I need another trip to Kolkata 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 of Calcutta. Like this one dedicated to a Russian Performer who used Bengali actors in a play in 1795.
What a walk through the cultural melting pot of Kolkata!
This Kolkata experience was curated by ITC Sonar for IndiTales.
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