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