Calcutta or Kolkata, whichever name one prefers for this over 350 year old lady full of contradictions and oxymorons, is a settlement that is random, predictable, boring, exciting, serene, stormy, picturesque, ugly. She is at once everywhere and nowhere- there is an intentional aimlessness to her that is at once charming and frustrating. Therefore, it is of little wonder that while walking through some of her most intimate alleys and bylanes, one will come across entire worlds, where gods and men cohabit in a parallel universe that often crosses paths, with astonishing consequences.
The Confluence of Cultures Walk conducted by Kolkata’s famed Calcutta Walks walking tours company, is a walk to remember. It traverses the arteries, veins and capillaries of one of the most intriguing areas of the city. It is an explorer’s delight, because it takes him or her, on a most fascinating journey to places where men, who came to this city from far off lands and from varied cultures and identities, carved out for themselves little pieces of their essence into the very breeze that blows through these roads.
I went on this walk on a pleasant December morning in 2013, and I wish to return to it once again. To any individual on this planet, the sheer differences in the religions, communities and languages that resonate from this area, can be the most wondrous thing ever. But what this walk, (crafted so deftly and conducted so effectively by Ifte/ a.k.a Iftekhar Ahsan, who grew up in this area), actually does is fill one with the sense of the Oneness of things, the underlying unity that Wordsworth, Tagore, Shams Tabriz, Rumi, or even Gibran spoke of in their moments of epiphany.
I will not embark on a journal entry on the list of places, landmarks I saw on my walk but I wish to recall the varied flavours of the city I have been born in and known so little about. Buddhist Temple Street of Calcutta gets its name from the Buddhist vihara or temple with its built in monastery and dharamshala or inn. The peace of the Enlightened One, who saw through the sufferings of Man, over thousand of years ago, emanates from the tranquil surroundings here.
The Parsis, whose voyages landed them in Gujrat and then to the rest of the subcontinent, are a much loved community in the city. Though their numbers are dwindling, they zealously protect their identity in this mishmash world, just like the pure fire that blazes within their closely guarded agiary or Fire Temple. Catching the sun’s increasing brilliance in a strategically positioned stained glass window, is my “forever-memory” from this experience.
The grandeur of the Chinese temples, with their intricate boat motifs carved everywhere, are the long standing symbols of Calcutta’s relationship with China. The city’s Communist past was not its only link to this Asian giant, but over the ages, Chinese travellers have visited India, often seeking in the form of Buddhist scholars or profit-seeking traders. The Chinese community of Calcutta has woven itself into the very fabric of our lives here- their cuisine, the favourite of every true blue Calcuttan, their leather products like shoes and bags, and even the Bengali word for sugar is “Chini”, referring to the sugar traders of this community!
This walk provides a glimpse into the Jewish heritage of the city. According to Ifte, there are only about 25 Jews or so in the city, but the synagogues built to honour their Jehovah, breathes majesty. My breath was taken away by the Maghen David synagogue, that is one of the most awe-inspiring house of worship I have ever visited. My heart can be located somewhere in its Italian stained glass windows and pillared hall 🙂
The Anglo-Indian community was engendered when our colonial rulers mingled with the “native” population, and to this day, this community carries with it the forgotten flavours of the Raj. BowBarracks, with its grottos, aromas of cakes (it was Christmas season then), is a living testament of this colonial legacy.
For many of you reading this, it must sound overwhelming to take in so many details all at once. But that is the beauty of this walking tour- you assimilate the different cultures as you walk with the explorer, and then all at once when you sip that steaming cup of tea in a claypot, or bite into the Christmas cake of the area, you know, that the disparity is only skin deep.
Come and visit my Calcutta- put on your walking shoes, arm yourself with a camera or just a cellphone that does justice to what it captures, and step out to walk through the most wonderful experience of the diversity that this city has to offer. And don’t be surprised if after walking for over three hours, you get hungry for more of gods and their men 🙂