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 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.
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.
- 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:
- Calcutta Walks’ website, at http://www.calcuttawalks.com