Unknown city found on foot6th May, 2013
We always complain about the hustle and bustle of Calcutta and look for an opportunity to escape. On Saturday morning, my ticket to escape was a walk through the heart of the city’s quaint north. The event? Prabha Khaitan Foundation presents The Telegraph Explore Calcutta Walks, in association with Calcutta Walks.
The journey began from the famous Chatubabu Latubabur Bari, now known for the family’s annual Durga and Kali puja. We then headed for Nayan Chand Dutta Street, through narrow lanes reminiscent of Varanasi. On two sides were houses typical of the part of the town, with a courtyard and slatted windows. Some of the buildings were over 200 years old and had wooden pillars, since they had been constructed when iron had to be imported from Britain. The imposing Mitra family house with a thakurdalantransported us back to the world of zamindars.
Crossing Darjeepara and Ram Narayan Bhattacharya Lane, we arrived at Tulika Art and Culture School of 1930s vintage with its grand teak staircase and wooden ceilings. Three quarters of the tour over, we stopped for kochuri and malpua at an eatery in Hari Ghosh Lane. Next up was a 300-year-old temple shrouded by trees on one side. Just standing near it was enough to give me goosebumps.
After stopping over at Sovabazar Natmandir, we ended the tour at the popular Chittaranjan Sweets with another helping of mouth-watering sweets.
What lingers is the taste of time travel in a unique part of Calcutta that I had never explored despite living in the city all my life.
I have known Rabindra Sarobar since I was born. On Sunday morning, for the first time, I appreciated it for what it is: a patch of natural bounty amid the concrete jungle, with a history longer than I would have ever guessed.
Opening my eyes was someone who has played a stellar role in preserving the Sarobar, Mudar Patherya, serving as the guide of our motley group.
The first stop was a large field that has become a football nursery, thanks to the efforts of the late Babu Guha, whose marble bust has been installed in the vicinity.
We were then led to a hundred-year-old decaying banyan tree, which, according to Patherya, should be “celebrated”.
The next stop was a mound, which till around 1980, used to serve as an open-air performance space. “You don’t need new places, you need new eyes,” said Patherya to a round of applause.
The exploration continued at the remains of a platform, from where visitors once boarded the toy train Swapnapuri.
A remarkable sight followed, that of a classroom under a tree, where underprivileged children are being taught free for 22 years.
The rest of the tour took us to a “dancing” Mexican tree, a rare Lacur tree, a 60-year-old open-air swimming pool that is being revived, musical fountains and two old canons that had recently been painted. Patherya pointed to two uprooted trees and rued that nothing was being done to save them.
We really enjoyed crossing the hanging bridge in front of Lake Masjid, built in 1813, and listened to the inspirational story of how it came to be.
The walk ended on the rooftop of an adjacent building that offers a breathtaking view of the entire Sarobar.
The Chinese have been in my city since Job Charnock’s time but I would have remained oblivious of the community’s deep local roots had I not joined the group that set out to explore the old Chinatown and Tiretta Bazar on Sunday morning.
The community has even inspired the Bengali word for sugar — chini — because they had first produced it in the city. Dishing out such trivia and guiding us was Joseph Percy Ling, who chose the Chinese breakfast stalls as the first stop. Pity that nobody wanted to eat for fear of getting late!
A temple tour followed, starting with the Sea Ip Church, which houses the god of mercy and compassion. Those who wanted to know what the future held in store for them shook a bunch of wooden sticks until one fell off. Depending on the number on the stick, a piece of paper was handed out with predictions about the person’s future.
We proceeded to the Nam Soon temple, home to the “mad monk”, who earned the sobriquet because of his fondness for meat and wine. A room in the temple housed quite a collection of antique Chinese furniture.
Nanking Restaurant, which was apparently frequented by Shammi Kapoor, was the next attraction. On the floor above the closed restaurant, the Tong On Church was the highlight of the walk. Locals brought out dragon masks and treated us to dragon dance, which is usually performed during the Chinese New Year. Some of us even got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of trying our feet at dragon dance.
The final stop was Gee Hing Church, where community members were playing mahjong, which I felt was a complicated version of the popular card game, rummy. We also visited the place where the last rites of the Chinese are performed. Whether a body is cremated or buried depends on the person’s last wish.
“Religion is psychotherapy. India is a land of religion and culture and Calcutta, the city of smile; and with that smile on our face let’s embark on a journey.” With these words by our guide Santimoy Bhattacharya began our discovery of the Kalighat temple on Sunday morning.
The first thing I got to learn was the significance of the name Kali — the feminine version of time — but the focus was mostly on learning about the people who keep the temple and its surroundings buzzing.
Some of the titbits we were told were shocking: for instance, most beggars in Kalighat eventually become priests.
The temple has always been associated with tantra and we spent much of the time exploring its myths and symbols, such as the significance of bel pata (the three leaves represent past, present and future), joba (Kali’s tongue) and the third eyes of the coconuts.
A thriving mini-industry around the temple churns out its quota of folklore, the spookiest of which is about Jatayu Buri, who supposedly drowns people in Dudhpukur, adjacent to the temple.
We also met Bhola the goat, who is very human-like in his ways.