Walk through Kolkata for a great look at the city

PHOTO: The Star/ANN
Kolkata was my first port of call in the state of West Bengal in India, a start to an 11-day trip covering Kolkata and Darjeeling, and Gangtok in the north-eastern state of Sikkim.

Kolkata is a densely populated city of 14 million, thus there are numerous places to visit and things to do.

Since I had only three days in the city, I signed up for a walking tour because a walking tour is the best activity to start knowing a city's heritage and culture.

The tour which I signed up for was the Confluence of Cultures: The Melting Pot Walk organised by Calcutta Walks. Calcutta Walks is touted as the best walking tour in Kolkata, and the Confluence of Cultures Walk is one of their popular tours as the route passes through various quarters of different religions, cultures and languages that make the city of Kolkata so diverse.

The tour started at Buddhist Temple Street where our first stop was a Buddhist temple which was established about 150 years ago by a monk from Chittagong who was instrumental in reviving Buddhism in Bengal.

The temple was formerly a dilapidated house but the monk took over the house and converted it into a full-fledged temple.

The temple is also currently a guesthouse for pilgrims en route to Bodh Gaya.

Part of the walking tour route in bustling Kolkata.

A stone's throw away from the Buddhist temple is a row of decaying red three-storey brick flats with green shutters known as Bow Barracks.

Bow Barracks was a garrison for soldiers during World War I. By the time the soldiers left India, the area had become synonymous with the mixed descent community of Anglo-Indians.

Today, there are about 100-odd families living here, of which 80 per cent of the residents are Anglo-Indians. It is here that Santa arrives in a hand-pulled rickshaw during the Christmas celebrations!

We then walked through a labyrinth of narrow lanes and stopped at a Fire Temple on Metcalfe Street.

A fire temple is a place of worship for Zoroastrian Parsis. Parsis are descendants of Zoroastrians in Persia who fled to India to avoid persecution from Muslim invaders from the 8th to the 10th centuries.

Zoroastrians believe that the elements are pure, therefore fire symbolises purity and represents God's light or wisdom. However, they are not considered fire-worshippers.

The Parsis settled in Kolkata from the 18th century onwards in large numbers but now the community has dwindled to 600.

The Sea Ip Church (Temple) in Kolkata's Chinatown.

The next quarter we visited was Tiretta Bazar, home to India's only Chinatown. The population of Chinese Indians in Old Chinatown used to be 20,000 but has dropped to 2,000 due to overseas emigration for better prospects.

The first Chinese settlement in Kolkata dates back to the late 18th century when a Chinese tea trader named Tong Achew landed on the banks of the river Hooghly.

Tong fell in the love with the place and acquired a piece of land on which he set up a sugar-cane plantation along with a sugar mill.

Outdoor ironing at Bow Barracks, Kolkata.

He brought in Chinese workers to work on his plantation and factory, and since then a Chinese community was formed and their descendants continued to live in Calcutta.

Tiretta Bazar is also popular for their Chinese breakfast of pork dumplings (siu mai), steamed buns (pao) and momos served out of steaming pots but one has to be there at dawn and food gets sold out by 8am.

Well, we arrived at Tiretta Bazar during mid-morning, so no Chinese breakfast for us. However, we stopped by a sweet shop to sample some samosas and sandesh, a Bengali specialty made of milk and sugar.

The Magen David Synagogue is one of the two synagogues still operating in Kolkata today.

Our last stop for the Confluence of Cultures Walk ended at the Magen David Synagogue, one of the two synagogues still operating today.

Baghdadi Jews came and settled in Calcutta in the early 19th century when Calcutta was the capital of India during the British Raj rule.

The number of Jews was 6,000 at one point but has now declined to 20. The oldest Kolkata Jew died in 2014 at the age of 97 while the youngest is in his 50s.

There are no more regular services conducted on Saturdays but only one person from the community comes to the synagogues every Friday evening to light a candle. The caretakers of the synagogues come from a generation of Muslim families who have been helping to maintain the synagogues for more than 50 years.

I had such a great time learning about the different cultures, religions and languages belonging to no less than 16 communities, all located in a 5sqkm area!

In addition to the temples, churches, gurdwaras and mosques located in this area, I can imagine the fun and joy in celebrating festivals.

Hence I must say that Kolkata is not only a City of Joy but a City of Diversity.

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