The many shades of Bowbazar

“এ কলকাতার মধ্যে আছে আরেকটা কলকাতা … হেঁটে দেখতে শিখুন” – শঙ্খ ঘোষ

While the rest of the poem written by eminent Bengali poet Sankha Ghosh narrates a very different tale, this line, in isolation captures the very essence of the city as it implies ‘There is yet another Kolkata within the one that is visible…all you need to do is walk’. And that’s what we did one winter morning, inspired by my friend Manjit Singh Hoonjan who introduced me to this beautiful addiction.

I am neither a historian nor a photographer. I am what you can call a “Padatik” in Bengali. In the absence of a perfect translated word, I would call it a concoction of a traveler or a wanderer on foot. So, a group of such ‘padatik’s took about 5 hours and a walk through less than 4 kilometers of the city to be presented with a look through a kaleidoscopic lens. Shades, smells, colours, sounds and feel of all possible cultures and religions that have ever enhanced the richness of the city embraced us with open arms. While each part of the day offers its own distinct touch, mornings offer a freshness that rejuvenates the soul like nothing else. A winter weekend morning most certainly enhanced the experience almost like that extra layer of cheese on your pizza or an extra layer of chocolate icing on your much-loved cake that you yearn for but always end up avoiding. So, wake up early one morning and start off the day in style, just like we did!

We started off from the Air India Building on Central Avenue, close to the Bowbazar Police Station. Now, Bowbazar is not famous only because of its rows and rows of jewellery shops, historically it is also believed to have been named ‘Bohubazar’. There are two popular stories leading to this name – the first being that the area was part of a gift to the Bengali daughter-in-law (Bohu) of Biswanath Motilal, an eminent businessman from the then Marwari Community and the second owing to the variety (bohu) of shops in the same area. Whatever be the history or belief, to me, this name symbolizes a culmination and peaceful coexistence of various (bohu, in Bengali) religions and cultures. And a considerable chunk of our walk covered parts of this very area around Bowbazar Street, also known as B. B. Ganguly Street, after the noted freedom fighter Bepin Behari Ganguly.

The first unique thing you notice as you walk past the Bowbazar Police Station is a one-storeyed structure with rounded corners – The Kapali Bandhob Library, a century-old library catering to the residents of Kapalitola Lane. Almost bang opposite the police station, this structure stands out with its style, architecture, and uniqueness. A closer look reveals an intricate concrete globe on both sides of the main entrance, almost in accordance with the exclusiveness of the building. Kapali Bandhob Library on Kapalitola LaneBefore walking through the legendary housing quarters, we come across the first stop – The Boudhha Dharmankur Sabha. Standing on 1 Buddhist Temple Street, this temple complex was set up in 1903, comprising a small shrine, with a golden statue of Lord Buddha on the ground floor next to an open courtyard. Be there on an early winter morning to soak in the beauty of silence that miraculously lingers in its serenest best in a location hardly a stone’s throw away from one of the busiest roads of the city. We, however, missed this one on this visit and moved further north.

A block ahead stands two rows of age-defying, red brick housing quarters that have their own legendary presence. Dating back to the 1900s, these buildings, designed by Halsey Ricardo, the architect of Howrah Station, were meant to house British troops depending upon their ranks in their spread of one, two and three-bedroom houses. But their refusal to stay in these flats led to the place being given over the Anglo-Indian Society, who have habituated in these minimalistically-designed block of buildings ever since. Moments from Bow BarracksWhat we take with us as we take a perfect U-turn back to Bow Street are the tinkling of the bells on the goats who come to home-deliver milk with their net-covered mouths, the red buildings with their little balconies and bottle-green fenestrations, and the lone bhisti (people carrying and delivering water in animal skin bags) as we pass by building entrances lined with a zig-zagging pattern of post boxes of multiple sizes and names. Bow Barracks is an enigma that needs to be felt, at least once in your life.

Walking down Weston Street, with the half-a-century-or-more-old Ajmeri bakery on the left and a number of restaurants on the right, including Zahury’s, serving the most mouthwatering Nihari and Dalpuri, it will be a challenge to walk by without tasting anything from either. Gastronomic spread from Weston StreetWe succumbed and ended up having a fruit cake from Ajmeri and a plate of Dalpuri and Nihari from Zahury’s. Trust me, your day is bound to start off in style with that kind of breakfast! Topped up by the customized tea from the tea-stall at the crossing of Metcalfe Street. Less sugar, more sugar, liquor tea, milk tea, milk tea with sugar, milk tea without sugar…you name it and they serve customized steaming hot tea in freshly washed earthen pots, or ‘bhnaar’s as they are locally called. And finally, some steaming hot halwa to appease those with a sweet tooth.

The short walk down Metcalfe Street, a major artery of Bowbazar Street, is like a jigsaw puzzle combining Parsee, Chinese, Islamic cultures along with a dilapidated office of the All India Anti-Imperialist Forum. The diversity on Metcalfe StreetInterestingly, Metcalfe Street is also known locally as Bandook Gali, though the reason remains unknown to me. On one side of the road stands the Parsi fire temple, Anjuman Atash Adaran, established in 1912 by Ervad Dhunjeebhoy Byramjee Mehta. Locally known as Parsi Agiyari, this meticulously maintained temple houses the holy fire – ‘Atash Adaran’, believed to be burning since the days of the inception of the faith. While visitors can take a walk on the ground floor containing a century-old grandfather’s clock, walls containing bras plate of Faravahar, a winged disc, with a male upper body, the Primary Symbol of Zoroastrianism. Bang opposite stands the Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismaili Jamatkhana, a place of worship and philanthropic activities run by the Aga Khan trust, set up in 1917. The thin street harmoniously houses both religions for more than 100 years.

A short stretch across the tram tracks of B B Ganguly Street takes you through a short cut towards Tirreta Bazaar – the much-known Chine Patty. Pretty much everybody is familiar with the famed Chinese breakfast that attracts people from all over the city every morning. Chine PattyTo avoid the rush, we had chosen a later time and while the breakfast stalls were wrapped up, we passed a number of shops selling freshly made Lop Cheong (pork sausages) and Tofu, among other things. Bypassing the lane and temptation, we headed towards Sea Ip Church on Chhatawala Gulee, another name that must be having a history that I am not aware of.

The most accessible of the six Chinese temples in of Tirreta Bazaar, the Sea IP Church stands mostly surrounded by trucks, being right at the center of a truck yard. But the red sloped roof topped with inverted porcelain fishes stand out and is sure to lure you to step in. Built in 1905, this quaint little temple is two-storied with a reading room on the ground floor and the main temple on the first floor. While the reading room appears to be frozen in time beautiful artifacts on the wooden walls, on the table lies a day-old copy of a Chinese Daily. Believe it or not, the Overseas Chinese Commerce of India is one of the few daily Chinese newspapers that gets published in Kolkata every day. Sea Ip ChurchAs you walk up the wooden staircase, you could well be transported to a monastery far up on the hills, if you can ignore the constant honking of vehicles on the busy road just around the corner. Interestingly, this temple, dedicated to the Kwan Yin, the Goddess of war, mercy, and love is believed to 12th century Buddhist Bodhisattva transformed from a male to a female. This much revered and popular Chinese goddess is known as Padma-pâni, or one who was born on a lotus, in Sanskrit. You can also see a set of weapons, and numerous other images of Buddhist and Chinese gods along with ornate wall and roof hangings.

As we head down the stairs of the Church and walk away from the humdrum called Tiretta Bazaar, we bid adieu to ‘Bohu Bazaar’ with its myriad colours, cultures, and history. The remaining part of the walk will be covered in the next blog.

So, keep coming back for more on this most enriching walk!

Picture courtesy: Shameek Sarkar, Shibaji Banerjee, Aritra Ganguli, Sanchari Sur

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