In Kolkata, the old capital of colonial India, one street – Brabourne Road – is home to many abodes of God, with churches, synagogues and mosques side by side with temples of all faiths.
Up a flight of stairs in a yellow building in old Kolkata, at the back of a room decorated with gold and fine wood, is a small, hand-carved idol: Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy and a beloved deity in Chinese folk religion.
Around her neck hangs a garland with fresh white flowers, an Indian way of paying respect.
“What you get in India is not what you get in China,” says Michael Ho, a member of Kolkata’s Chinese community. “The way we celebrate religion here is more like it was in the old days, and with some added Indian traditions.”
There is a cultural hub at the bottom floor of the Chinese temple; Michael Ho is a daily visitor. He chats with friends and reads Kolkata’s still-in-print Mandarin newspaper, once handwritten in calligraphy. Born to a father who arrived by boat to work as a chef, he is one of thousands of other Chinese in India’s second-largest city. Kolkata’s Chinatown had grown to become one of Asia’s largest.
The Chinese were far from the only ones to settle in this particular area, known as the grey city during British colonial rule; an in-between space connecting the European-only “white city” with the surrounding “black city” where Indians were allowed to live.
The area was a place to trade and developed as a multi-religious hub.
“People call it the parliament of religions for that reason,’ says Deepanjan Ghosh, a journalist and writer on heritage.
Within walking distance of each other are Jain and small Hindu temples, mosques and Sufi shrines, three Jewish synagogues, two Buddhist temples and a Zoroastrian fire temple, one Portuguese and one Armenian church, a Shia gathering place and many Taoist temples of old Chinatown.
“Kolkata also has a Sikh gurudwara, the first Hare Krishna temple in India and a Greek church, nowadays catering to converted Indians since no Greeks remain in the city,” says Jael Silliman, an author and academic who is also the youngest member of Kolkata’s once-thriving Jewish community.
She is seated in her home in an old building in the city centre of the city, with her own paintings decorating the walls and her mother, Flower, solving a crossword in the salon.
“Kolkata was always a truly multicultural place, which manifested itself in many ways, through shared neighbourhoods and schools, intimate friendships across communities, shared meals at each other’s homes. All of this made Kolkata richer in every way.”
Judaism was one of the very first foreign faiths to find its way to India, as early as the 500s BCE.
It came to Kolkata far later, when the Aleppan Jew Shalom Aharon Obaidah Cohen, a trader in indigo and Arabian horses, moved to the city in 1798.
He quickly rose in prominence and became a court jeweller to the nawab of Lucknow – he is said to have been asked to value the Koh-i-Noor diamond. Soon, Jews from Iraq and Syria followed in his footsteps, and established a dynamic community.
“The Jews of Kolkata knew how to interact and adjust, and they were always moving. They would go to Shanghai and Karachi, to a bar mitzvah in Rangoon or a wedding in Bombay,” says Jael Silliman.
Five synagogues were built in Kolkata, three of which remain today – in perfect condition, courtesy entirely of the community. Maghen David is the largest and most impressive: it has stained glass windows and ornate floral pillars, once brought from Paris. All three synagogues, by tradition, have caretakers who are Muslim.
“We are the third generation here. Our father only retired this winter, after having worked in the synagogue all his life,” says Siraj Khan, who cares for the smaller Beth El synagogue along with his brother. They sleep in rooms at the back, and go home occasionally to their families in the neighbouring state of Orissa.
Siraj Khan puts a white kippa on his head as he enters the synagogue, and offers each male visitor to do the same.
“Jews and Muslims have always had good relations here,” says Navras J. Aafreedi, a scholar on India’s Jewry.
“There are no political issues like in the Middle East. And remember, the number of Muslims in South Asia is much larger than in the Arab world.”
Islam is deeply rooted alongside Hinduism in the Bengal. Kolkata’s most impressive mosque is the Nakhoda Masjid, only a short walk from Beth El. It can fit 10,000 worshippers and spans an entire block; the streets outside are busy from morning to midnight, with vendors selling attar perfume, prayer mats and some of the city’s best late-night snacks. It was constructed as a replica of the Mughal emperor Akbar’s tomb near Taj Mahal, with a bright red façade and intricate details adorning the interior walls. Hiralal, Gandhi’s eldest son, at one point chaired joint Hindu-Muslim peace meetings inside.
As diverse as they may be, these places of faith all serve one common function: to provide a moment of respite. On late mornings, the marble floors of the Nakhoda mosque are filled with people taking a nap. The monk at the Myanmar Buddhist temple, housed in an old wooden apartment building, invites visitors to sit down and meditate. Chinatown’s Gee Hing temple is crowded with tables where people meet to play the old tile game mah-jong.
“You may cheat once, that’s okay,” says one of the players with a smile. “The question is how to cheat in the best way!”
Along with all European colonial attempts, varieties of Christianity were brought to Kolkata. But the city’s oldest church, hidden behind a wall barricaded by vendors of bric-a-brac jewellery, was built by Armenians from Persia. On Sunday mornings, when traffic is less blaring, a soft singing can be heard from inside. It is the choir of the Armenian College, a proud educational institution dating back to the early 1800s. The youngest boy in the choir is no more than eight years old; his fingers barely stick out from the heavy red robe as he listens patiently to father Movses Sargsyan preaching in Armenian.
Most Armenians however, did the opposite of Armen Makarian. Only 150 people remain in the city today, including the 90 students at the school. The same is true for other minorities: the Jews, once 4-5000 people, are only twenty individuals today; the Zoroastrian Parsis, who came to Kolkata in the 1700s, a few hundred. The Chinese community is much larger, perhaps 3-4000 people, but still far from its former self. Economical reasons have been the main cause for their departure: Kolkata faces a real lack of job opportunities, which for long has pushed Kolkatans of all backgrounds to leave the city. In the last census, it was the only among India’s 100 largest cities to decline in numbers.
Multicultural Kolkata might not be what it once was, when minority communities were large and their places of worship busy. But it remains a city where white flower garlands get hanged around icons of all faiths – and around the framed portraits of pioneering ancestors who came here from lands far away.
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