Bowbazar to (former) Black Town, Calcutta

1-bow-barracks

Bow Barracks sits at the very heart of Bowbazar.

Calcutta in its heyday was divided into two main districts – White Town, which was where the British and other Europeans lived their lives and did their business, and Black Town, which was where the local Bengalis resided. Some of these Bengalis became very wealthy indeed from the busy international trade that Calcutta did as a global city in its time – indeed, the second most important city in the British Empire, after London. And it was in Black Town that these babus – as they were called – erected their fabulous villas and mansions.

In between White Town and Black Town, a kind of “grey area” emerged; a district in which everyone who was neither British nor Bengali were housed. Here in the area generally known as Bowbazar, one found Calcutta’s Chinatown, Muslim and Jewish Quarters, as well as communities of Buddhists, Parsis, Ismailis, Portuguese-Eurasians and Anglo-Indians. Here one finds the kind of cosmopolitan, multi-cultural human, cultural ad religious landscape that was typical of many other major Asian port cities, including Singapore.

Bowbazar

Bowbazar is Calcutta’s “precinct of harmony” – with all the world’s grand religions concentrated here in a tiny precinct squashed between White and Black Towns.At the heart of Bowbazar is Bow Barracks – a small cluster of three-storey, red brick turn-of-the-19th century apartment buildings that used to house soldiers, but today, house some 100 or so Anglo-Indian families, all of whom are Christian.

Another place of note is the area around Tiretta Bazaar and Sun Yat Sen Street, which constitute Calcutta’s Chinatown. This is one of two Chinatowns in Calcutta, the other being in Tangra, a little further out the city. Calcutta has the largest Chinese community in India, with more than 2000 families still living in the city. Many of the families are Hakka in origin, and have contributed to the city what is today considered a typical Calcutta dish – Hakka Fried Noodles.

The best way to take in Bowbazar is with Calcutta Walks, a walking tour company specialising in heritage walks of the city with extremely knowledgeable guides. It’s best to take in Bowbazar with one of these guides as they can literally open doors into some of the places of worship along the tour.

 

2-bengal-buddha-association

The Bengal Buddhist Association (1892), on Buddhist Temple Street.

3-l-madeira-undertakers

L. Madeira & Co – Portuguese-Eurasian undertakers on Bow Street.

4-parsi-dharamsala

Manackjee Rustomjee Parsis Dharamsala, or Guest House.

5-bow-barracks-i

Bow Barracks, with its distinctive red brick walls and green french windows.

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A view through the central spine of Bow Barracks.

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Zoroastrian/Parsi Fire Temple on Metcalfe Street (1912).

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Just across from it on Metcalfe Street sits an Ismaili Khanaqah of the Aga Khan, established in 1917.

9-jain-temple

Nearby is a Jain Temple.

10-parsi-church-st

Parsi Church Street is entirely commercial today but there must have been a Parsi Fire Temple here. Interestingly, Parsi and Chinese places of worship were referred to as churches.

11-chinese-residence

Chinese residence near Tiretta Bazaar.

12-sea-ip-church

Sea Ip Church – a Chinese Temple in the heart of Calcutta’s Chinatown, serving the city’s Hakka community.

13-sun-yat-sen-st

Sun Yat Sen Street – the Chinese community here originated as leather workers.

14-red-mosque

Nakhoda Masjid (1926), also known as the Red Mosque, is Calcutta’s main mosque.

14a-red-mosque-ii

Alternate view of the Red Mosque, built in a Moghul style.

14b-red-mosque-area

Muslim Guest Houses in the vicinity of the Nakhoda Masjid.

15-beth-el-synagogue

Beth El Synagogue, built in 1886, is one of three synagogues in the Bowbazar area.

16-neveh-shalom-synagogue

Neveh Shalom Synagogue on Canning Street was established in 1825 but this building was built in 1911.

17-maghen-david-synagogue

Maghen David Synagogue was built by Jewish magnate Elias David Ezra in 1884. The Ezra family is associated with a few other monuments in the city, including Esplanade Mansions and Chowringhee Mansions.

18-maghen-david-interior

The exquisite interior of Maghen David Synagogue.

19-portuguese-church

The Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary, or the Portuguese Church, on Canning Street. This is the oldest Roman Catholic Church in the city, built in 1799.

20-armenian-church

The Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth is the oldest Christian church in Calcutta, first established in 1690, though this present church dates from 1724. Armenian presence in Calcutta predated that of the British.

20a-armenian-church-gravestone

The oldest Christian gravestone in the Church, and quite possibly in the city is dedicated to one Rezabeebeh, who was buried here in 1630.

20b-armenian-street

We end our wander through Bowbazar at Armenian Street, which is a bustling marketplace.

Black Town (a.k.a. North Kolkata)

From Bowbazar, we head north to the former Black Town – commercial, religious and cultural heart of the local Bengali community. Then as today, the main thoroughfare through Black Town, Rabindra Sarani, presents a scene of daily hustle and bustle.

Secreted here and there behind the main streets in Black Town are the city’s many residential villas and palaces, erected by the many wealthy babus that grew wealthy and opulent from Trade.

We visit two of these villas on this tour – the first is Jorasanko, famed for being the childhood home of Bengali poet laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tagore (and Black Town) had been at the very heart of the Bengal Renaissance – the political, socio-cultural and intellectual awakening of the Bengalis that took place in the course of the 1800s and sparked off a flowering of the arts and sciences.

The second is the so-called Marble Palace – a magnificent palace built in 1835 by Bengali merchant Raja Rajendra Mullick. Members of the family still live in the palace today. The architecture of the palace is eclectic, blending Neo-classical architecture with traditional, Bengali courtyards and adornment. The house is full of Victorian-era antiques and artworks collected by the family.

21-black-town-i

Residential buildings in Black Town.

24a-black-town

Residential buildings in Black Town.

22-black-town-ii

Crumbling glory – residential buildings in Black Town.

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Residential buildings in Black Town.

25-jorasanko

Jorasanko, or Tagore House is the ancestral home of the Tagore family. It was built at the turn of the 18th century.

26-jorasanko-closeup

Jorasanko Close-up

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Inner courtyard and verandah at Jorasanko.

28-marble-palace-i

The Marble Palace was built in 1835 and is immaculately preserved.

29-marble-palace-ii

We end our tour on the grounds of the Marble Palace. Unfortunately, no photographs were allowed inside.

References:

  • Calcutta Built Heritage Today. Compiled and edited by Nilina Deb Lal, and published by INTACH Calcutta Regional Chapter, 2006.

For more information on the walking tour of Bowbazar, check out: 

About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
Gallery | This entry was posted in Art & Architecture, Cities & Regions, Culture & Lifestyle, Heritage, India, Landmarks & History, Photography, Sociology & Urban Studies, Travel & Mobility and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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