If you only have 48 hours in Kolkata, what would you do? On Day One, my friend, Amrita and I had visited a museum, two synagogues, a coffee house, the river ghat, and walked along the prime commercial district in the city. A bit much? Well, our original list was much longer but we skipped other places as they were shut for the festive season.
For Day Two, I signed up for a half-day walking tour, and a walking tour is the best activity to know a city. The first time I went on a walking tour was in Mumbai in 2014, and I had a brilliant time. Since then I told myself that I would always look for a walking tour in a new city to help me familiarise with its heritage and culture. And nothing beats listening to stories and anecdotes from a local expert about the city’s deep secrets!
The tour which I signed up for was the Confluence of Cultures: The Melting Pot Walk organised by Calcutta Walks. Calcutta Walks is touted as the best walking tour in Kolkata, and they have received critical acclaim by major publications including Lonely Planet, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The Confluence of Cultures Walk is one of their popular tours as the route passes through the various quarters of different religions, cultures and languages that make the city of Kolkata a great melting pot.
Our group met at 8am, and coincidentally, we were also an eclectic “melting pot” of travellers: an Indian couple from Mumbai, a European couple from Delhi (husband is British & wife is Belgian-Venezuelan) and their couple friends from the Netherlands (husband is Dutch & wife is Indonesian-Chinese), a writer from Gangtok and his friend from Canada (I think), and yours truly from Malaysia. Now, we were certainly a “confluence of cultures”!
We started walking on Buddhist Temple Street. Our first stop was a Buddhist temple which was established about 150 years ago by a monk from Chittagong who was instrumental in reviving Buddhism in Bengal. The temple was formerly a dilapidated house but the monk took over the house and converted it into a full-fledged temple. The temple is also currently a guesthouse for pilgrims en route to Bodh Gaya.
A stone’s throw away from the Buddhist temple is a row of decaying red three-storey brick flats with green shutters known as Bow Barracks. Bow Barracks was a garrison for soldiers during World War I. By the time the soldiers left India, the area became synonymous with the mixed descent community of Anglo-Indians. Today, there are about 100-odd families live in Bow Barracks of which 80% of the residents are Anglo-Indians. It is here that Santa arrives in a hand-pulled rickshaw during the Christmas celebrations.
We then walked through a labyrinth of narrow lanes and stopped at a Fire Temple on Metcalfe Street. A fire temple is a place of worship for Zoroastrian Parsis. Parsis are descendants of Zoroastrians in Persia who fled to India to avoid persecution from Muslim invaders during the 8th – 10th centuries. Zoroastrians believe that the elements are pure, therefore fire symbolises purity and represents God’s light or wisdom. However, they are not considered as fire-worshippers. According to Zoroastrianism traditions, non-Parsis are not allowed to enter the fire temple. The Parsis settled in Kolkata from the 18th century onwards in large numbers but now the community has dwindled to 600.
Located opposite the fire temple is the Aga Khan Jamaat Khana, a place of worship for members of the Ismaili sect of the Muslim Shia faith. How fascinating to note that the Parsis fled persecution from Muslim invaders in Persia many centuries ago but now co-exist peacefully with the Ismaili followers on the same street.
The next quarter we visited was Tiretta Bazar, home to India’s only Chinatown. There are two Chinatowns in Kolkata: Old Chinatown is in Tiretta Bazar while the New Chinatown is in Tangra. The population of Chinese Indians in Old Chinatown used to be 20,000 but has dropped to 2,000 due to emigration to Singapore, Canada, Australia for better prospects.
The first Chinese settlement in Kolkata dates back to the late 18th century when a Chinese tea trader named Tong Achew landed on the banks of the river Hooghly. Tong fell in the love with the place and acquired a piece of land on which he set up a sugar-cane plantation along with a sugar mill. He brought in Chinese workers to work on his plantation and factory, and since then a Chinese community was formed and their descendants continued to live in Calcutta.
I knew that the Hindi word for Chinese is cini (or chini) and later on I learnt that the Hindi word for sugar is also cini – by any chance, is there a coincidence that cini for sugar is associated with the Chinese-run sugar plantations in Calcutta?
Old Chinatown is also popular for their Chinese breakfast of pork dumplings (siu mai), steamed buns (pao) and momos served out of steaming pots but one has to be there at dawn and food gets sold out by 8am. Well, we arrived at Tiretta Bazar during mid-morning, so no Chinese breakfast for us. However, we stopped by a sweet shop to sample some samosas and sandesh, a Bengali specialty made of milk and sugar.
For those of who us who are familiar with Indian tea, we kept asking our guide, Ram, several times “when are we going to have chai?” (the morning doesn’t properly begin until you have chai!). Finally we had chai by the street, served in clay cups.
By this time, camaraderie was formed among us, and I could not believe that our walking tour was coming to an end. Our last stop for the Confluence of Cultures Walk ended at the Magen David Synagogue, one of the two synagogues still operating today. I visited the synagogue the day before but didn’t mind visiting it again for the second time. As mentioned in my previous post, the Baghdadi Jews also came and settled in Calcutta in the early 19th century when Calcutta was the capital of India during the British Raj rule. The number of Jews was 6,000 at one point but has now declined to 20.
Here’s the interesting facts about the Kolkata synagogues:
– The oldest Kolkata Jew died in 2014 at the age of 97 while the youngest is in the 50s. Descendants of the remaining 20 Jewish families are now living in Israel.
– There are no more regular services conducted on Saturdays but only one person from the Jewish community comes to the synagogues every Friday evening to light a candle.
– The caretakers of the synagogues come from a generation of Muslim families who have been helping to maintain the synagogues for more than 50 years.
The walking tour ended at midday, and I had wished for the tour to continue a little longer because I had such great time learning about the different cultures, religions and languages belonging to no less than 16 communities – all located in a five square kilometre area! In addition to the temples, churches, gurdwaras and mosques located in this area, I can imagine the fun and joy in celebrating festivals and events, bringing people together. Hence I must say that Kolkata is not only a City of Joy but a City of Diversity.
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