The Bylanes of Burrabazaar: A Tribute to Calcutta’s Pluralism

From the Chinese settlements in Tiretta Bazaar, to the Armenians that gave Kolkata it's oldest Church and the Jewish community, dwindling in number : the city has been home to a variety of cultures.

One of the oldest neighbourhoods of Kolkata, Burrabazaar is famous for being India’s largest wholesale market. Over the centuries, Burrabazaar has witnessed it’s share of history and culture; merchants belonging to different communities eventually settled here, lending the neighbourhood a distinct identity.

burrabazaar multicultural calcutta
Kolkata Merchants by Colesworthy Grant | Victoria Memorial

The diversity of Burrabazaar even features in a mid-19th century book, ‘Anglo India Sketches’ by Colesworthy Grant. Here’s an excerpt:

“…Burrabazar, a mart tailed on to the north end of the China bazaar and occupied and visited by traders from all parts of the east. Here may be seen the jewels of Golkanda and Bundelkhand, the shawls of Cashmere, the broad cloths of England, silks of Murshidabad and Benaras, muslins of Dacca, Calicoes, ginghams, Chintzes and beads from Coromandel, fruits and firs of Cabul, silk fabrics and brocades of Persia, spices and myrch from Ceylon, Spice Islands and Arabia, shells from the eastern coast and straits, drugs, dried fruit and sweetmeats from Arabia and Turkey, cow’s tails from Tibet and ivory from Ceylon; a great portion of these and various other articles too numerous to mention are either sold or bought by the natives from the countries where they are obtained who together with visitors, travellers and beggars form diversified group of Persians, Arabs, Jews, Marwarees, Armenians, Madrasees, Sikhs, Turks, Parsees, Chinese, Burmese and Bengalees.”

A walk through the narrow lanes and gullys of Burrabazaar, decorated with strings of flags reveals a multicultural, pluralistic side of Calcutta.

Here, you’d find an Armenian church, three synagogues and a number of Chinese temples; within them you’ll find the generations of migrants who’ve changed and been changed by the city. Everything might appear haphazard, yet it aligns together perfectly.

On a chilly Sunday morning, we made our way to the Holy Church of the Nazareth, an Armenian Apostolic Church in the northwest corner of Burrabazaar.

burrabazaar multicultural calcutta
Etching by Frank Clinger Scallen for Bengal, Past & Present 1931

The original church was built in 1668, but the wooden structure was ravaged by a fire. The
building you see today was constructed in 1724, and is possibly one of the oldest churches
in Kolkata. The complex houses a monument for Armenians who were martyred in the first
World War. We were told that the compound graveyard also includes Kolkata’s oldest known grave.

burrabazaar multicultural calcutta
The Monument erected in memory of the Armenian Genocide during WWI – Image by BengaliHindu, Creative Commons

Interestingly, in 1798, an informal school was set up close to the Church to cater to the
Armenian community in the city. It was replaced by the present Armenian College and
Philanthropic Academy in 1821.

#DidYouKnow: The Armenians adopted Christianity in 301 AD and were invited “to come and settle in his dominions” by emperor Akbar in the 17th century. #history Click To Tweet

Unfortunately, once we stepped into the church, we realised we’d interrupted a service. We
were surprised to see it nearly full – senior members with their heads bowed, mothers
hushing their crying babies, and little kids scurrying along the aisles. We stood silently in the pews as the black hooded figure of the priest chanted, and decided to make a quick exit.

The Synagogues

burrabazaar multicultural calcutta
The interiors of the Magen David Synagogue. Picture by Indrajit Basu (published with permission)

A stone’s throw away from the Armenian Church is the magnificent Magen David Synagogue. The entrance to it is hidden by an array of small stalls – but get past the scaffolding, climb a few stairs, ask a few questions and lo! The 125 year old building makes quite an impression. Its gleaming floors and stained-glass windows are telling of the care with which it has been maintained all these years.

In the same complex stands the oldest synagogue of Calcutta – the Neveh Shalom, built in 1831 by Shalom Obadiah ha – Kohen and named in memory of his father.

Mashoor, its charming caretaker, tells us that he is a third generation worker here, and that most people in charge of the synagogue are Muslims. He says taking care of a godhouse helps his faith. Beaming, he claims this is one place where there has never been any religious conflict. As a history graduate, he takes keen interest in the building’s past, reading up and asking visitors whatever he can about Judaism.

burrabazaar multicultural calcutta
Maghen David Synagogue | Photo: Biswarup Ganguly for Wikimedia Commons

On the first floor, he showed us a century old wedding platform, still intact, but last used in
the 1980s. There are placards which describe the journey of the Baghdadi Jews who migrated to Kolkata at the end of the eighteenth century. The community is now down to a mere 20-25, Mashoor says. For any occasion or festival, a rabbi is flown in from Mumbai. The remaining handful of Jews, however, dedicatedly come to offer prayer here every Saturday.

burrabazaar multicultural calcutta
Photo: Sayantan Roni

Not far from here, just off Bradbourne Road, is the Beth El Synagogue. Though less grandiose than the other two, it was still a sight to behold. Mashoor’s friend tagged along, and told us that it used to house a mikveh, which is a Jewish ritual bath. Sadly, like the wedding platform, it is no longer in use.

The ‘Sea Ip Church’ in Tiretta Bazaar, Kolkata’s mini-China Town!

Sea Ip is just one of the six temples in Tiretta Bazaar, the 18th century Chinese settlement in the city. The others include: Toong On, Gee Hing, Nam Soon, Sea Voi Yune Leong Futh, and Choonghee Dong Thien Haue.

#FunFact: The Tiretta Bazaar, the market place in Kolkata, was designed by the Italian architect and town planner Edward Tiretta. 

The small building is easily missed, with a number of woodworkers setting up shops right
outside, and several trucks stationed on the road. It’s bright red façade and curved roofs,
however, stand out. A small reading room makes the ground floor, with old paper clippings and photographs on the wall. The stairs lead to an ornate temple, lined with cupboards chock full of figurines.

burrabazaar multicultural calcutta
Entrance to the Church | Photo: Kolkata Architecture Foundation

I could only recognize the ubiquitous Laughing Buddha. On the walls hang a number of
weapons, and figures of other deities.

burrabazaar multicultural calcutta
Religious weapons on the wall of the church | Photo: Bishwarup Ganguly for Wikimedia Commons

The walls of the terrace are dotted with rows of incense, and the heady smell fills the space. The main deity here, I found out later, is Kwan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of war, mercy and love.

burrabazaar multicultural calcutta

I realised that I barely touched the surface of all that there was to see, but there is always a next time. For now, however, Calcutta has left me awestruck. So many communities- carving out their little niches, keeping their faith alive, finding their refuge within a rapidly evolving city. Buildings of living memory, these serve as testament to the endurance of the past, of heritage and tradition – everything people hold on to in face of the unfamiliar, everything that stands together to make a city.

The next time you’re in Kolkata, go beyond the golden sunsets on the ghats and the puchkas on the streets & dedicate a few hours to explore the fascinating neighbourhood of Burrabuzaar.

Suggested Reading:

Nurturing Little Armenia in the Heart of Kolkata
Glimpses from Calcutta’s old Chinatown
Lunar year celebrations in Kolkata’s China Towns

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Kartika Menon
Kartika Menon
After completing her graduation from Lady Shri Ram College, Kartika is now pursuing her Masters in History from Ambedkar University, Delhi. She’s currently interning at the Keystone foundation, and is greatly interested in ideas of community heritage. She loves to walk, travel, make terrible puns, and consume several cups of tea through the day.

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