Monday, 13 April 2015

Portuguese Church, Brabourne Road

Calcutta’s (Kolkata) Portuguese Church, formally known as The Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary, has existed in various forms since 1690, but has always experienced some friction with the British. Many Portuguese migrants to India took native wives, and their offspring came to be known as Kintal. Many of these Kintals moved to Calcutta in search of fortune, and the East India Company allowed them to settle in specific areas near the river. Since the Kintals were the only people in India then breeding and selling fowl, the area they settled in is known as “Moorgeeghata” or “the fowl market” even today. Job Charnock had originally granted 10 bighas of land to the Roman Catholics of the Augustinian order to set up a mass hall in the area. But when in 1693 Sir John Goldsborough of the East India Company found the company’s Protestant factors were converting to Roman Catholicism in the mass hall and taking native wives, he ordered them out. The friars would return on his death only 6 months later, and this time they erected a brick Church, a little further away from the original mass hall, and this is where the Portuguese Church or The Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary stands today.

The Portuguese Church

Portuguese Church Altar

The Chapel was enlarged in 1720 by Mrs. Sebastian Shaw under the direction of Vicar Fari Francisco d’Avsumpaco. In 1756, when the Nawaab of Bengal, Siraj ud Daulah ransacked Calcutta, the Portuguese Church was miraculously spared. However, the British finding their own Church of St. Anne’s destroyed in the war, took over the Portuguese Church and began conducting services there. The Court of Directors in London however was not in favour of this and three years later the Church was restored to the Portuguese. In 1796, the Portuguese community of Calcutta decided to build a modern Church and it is thus that the present Church of the Most Holy Rosary came to be. The present Portuguese Church was designed by James Driver. A striking and unique feature of the Church are its two giant towers which look almost like minarets, topped by crown shaped cupolas. In front is a neat pedimented porch. The Church was consecrated on the 27th of November, 1799. The cost of construction was borne by Joseph Baretto of the well-known Calcutta (Kolkata) banking family.

Goethals plaque
The Church is in active use today, and the congregation for Sunday Mass is quite substantial. Since the Portuguese Church is the largest Roman Catholic Church in Calcutta (Kolkata), it is also the seat of the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Calcutta. Visitors who are used to the muted interiors of Calcutta’s (Kolkata) mostly Anglican Churches will be somewhat startled at the liberal use of colour in the interiors of the Portuguese Church. Behind the altar is a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary, which now sports an LED Rosary! On the wall behind the altar may be seen two round windows with some lovely stained glass. But the most interesting feature of the Portuguese Church is the 14 wooden panels which depict the “Stations of the Cross” in bas relief. Scattered around the Church are many other statues which demand some time for proper appreciation. On the walls are a number of memorial tablets, among them one to Archbishop of Calcutta, Paul Goethals, a Belgian who was Archbishop of Calcutta from 1886 to 1901. His vast and precious collection of books which he donated to the Jesuit Fathers of St. Xavier’s College on Park Street formed the Goethals Library, which exists even today.

Portuguese Church stained glass

Behind and to the left of the altar is a little secret that the Portuguese Church has held for a long time. When Nawaab  Siraj ud Daulah ransacked Calcutta in 1756, the acting Governor of the old Fort William in Calcutta, John Zephaniah Holwell claims that that 146 people were forcibly driven into the Black Hole Prison, a military prison along the Eastern curtain wall of the fort, measuring about 18 feet by 14 feet. Holwell claims that in the night, through heat and suffocation, 123 of them died. Many eminent historians argue that this event did not occur at all. However, Holwell did erect a monument to the dead just outside the site of the Black Hole prison, which eventually fell into disrepair and was dismantled. Its place was taken by a replica built under orders of Lord Curzon, in 1901. That too had to be ultimately removed to the grounds of the St. John’s Church, due to energetic protests by Indian freedom fighters, led by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. The Portuguese Church is the final resting place for Mrs. Mary Carey, a Black Hole survivor.

Portuguese Church - plaque marking Mary Carey's grave

About the events of the night of 20th June, 1756, Dr. Bishop, Headmaster of Merchant Taylor’s (where Clive was educated) writes, “on all sides strong men fell, maddened by thirst and dying with heat, a woman outlived the weakness and the horror”. This woman has been identified by H.E. Busteed in his “Echoes from old Calcutta” as Mrs. Mary Carey, wife of mariner Peter Carey, who was probably a sailor. She may have been rescued by a general in the Nawaab’s army by the name of Mirza Amir Baig who helped her escape. By all accounts she was strikingly beautiful and only 16 when she entered the Black Hole of Calcutta. She remained in Calcutta (Kolkata), and before long, remarried. By her second marriage she had two sons and a daughter. During later life she reverted to the name of her first husband. Mary Carey died on the 28th March, 1801 at the age of 60 and was buried in the graveyard that was once attached to the Portuguese Church. When the Church was enlarged that graveyard was cleared. The Bengal government later identified the approximate spot where she had been buried and placed a plaque on the wall marking the spot, which is visible to this day. Busteed claims that he got this information from near relatives of Mrs. Carey who were still living in India at the time the book was written. Does Mrs. Carey’s bloodline exist even today? Who can tell?

Portuguese Church interiors

 Within the compound of the Portuguese Church today is a Presbytery, and inside we found the priest, an elderly, soft spoken and kind South Indian gentleman, who showed us around the Church. The best time to pop in to the Portuguese Church would be just after the Sunday Mass. While they are chilled out folks, and have no issues with people clicking photographs, please do seek permission before you start clicking. Also keep in mind that this is a place of worship; be respectful, do not eat or smoke or drink alcohol inside, dress modestly and speak softly.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh



Churches of Calcutta           - Roy, Pijush Kanti
Echoes from Old Calcutta    - Busteed, H.E.
Calcutta Old and New         - Cotton, Evan


Monday, 6 April 2015

Saroj Bhavan, Guruprasad Chowdhury Lane

The article in the Times of India’s Times City, on the 24th of March, entitled “House that! Old but still shining” by Saikat Ray and Subhro Niyogi caught the eye of many members of my mother’s side of the family. That was because the article carried a photograph of a house that they once called home. What the article calls “Sen Bari”, owned by the Sens of Senco Jewellers fame, was once known as “Paul Bari”, home to the Pauls of Burdwan, and that is not the only factual error in this story either. But let’s start from the beginning.

Saroj Bhavan today

The Pauls were landlords in the village of Gotan, Thana Rayna, in the district of Burdwan in West Bengal. Harendranath Paul (1877 – 1961), the 2nd of three sons, shifted to Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1899. Of his two brothers, one remained in Gotan and his family still stays there. The younger brother, Gour Chandra Paul, became an advocate. Among his classmates was India’s first President, Dr. Rajendra Prasad. He moved to Patna, Bihar and the family has lost touch with him since. In Calcutta (Kolkata), Harendranath initially joined the staff of Raja Subodh Mullick, doing mostly clerical work. A palmist is said to have recommended that he quit his job, and predicted that he would prosper if he started something connected with river trade. Harendranath had observed the comings and goings of vessels on the Hooghly and the Europeans engaged in the jute trade. He started by buying an old ship and selling it for scrap, making a large profit. This gave him enough capital to leave his famous employer and start his own business as a stevedore, partnering with a certain Biharilal Chakraborty under the name Paul & Chakraborty Private Limited in 1901. Within two decades he would make enough money to move his family from rented accomodations on Madan Mitra Lane (no connection to the current minister) to his own house, at the crossing of Guruprasad Chowdhury Lane and Shankar Ghosh Lane.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Chitpur Local Photowalk

With a name that sounds like a local train, Chitpur Local is an event, or rather a collection of events aimed at reviving Calcutta’s Chitpur area, which was once known for its association with “Jatra”, the popular Bengali folk theatre form. Two photowalks were part of Chitpur Local and I decided to join in. Chitpur gets its name from the temple of Chitteshwari, and Chitpur Road (now Rabindra Sarani) is one of the oldest roads of Calcutta. Old roads = old architecture, I thought, and hence decided to join in. But the theme, I was told wasn’t flat architecture, this was more in the nature of street photography, and the best photographs would be used to create picture postcards of Chitpur. I decided to do what the pros do, shoot with a “prime” lens. A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length, no zooming. I chose the only prime in my arsenal, the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM, and turned up at Lal Bazar Police Headquarters, on the corner of Chitpur Road and Lal Bazar Street.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Yumthang Valley, Sikkim

North Sikkim Travelogue Part 2

For 2 ½ hours we were enchanted by the beauty of India’s 2nd highest lake, Gurudongmar, but we finally had to make a move for the equally beautiful grazing pasture called Yumthang Valley, in North Sikkim. After a short stop for lunch, I and my friend Prasenjit reached the little town of Lachung, where we would rest for the night. Our tour operator had set us up in a top floor room and we had a beautiful view of the mountains from our window, and since I can never sleep peacefully in a new place, I woke up obscenely early, and managed once again, to get that “sunrise in the mountains” shot, that so fascinates tourists.

Sunrise at Lachung

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Gurudongmar Lake, Sikkim

North Sikkim Travelogue Part 1

Yumthang Valley and Gurudongmar Lake had been on my travel wish-list for a long time. Both of these places are in the Northern part of the Indian state of Sikkim, high in the Himalayas of North East India. Our travel agent in Calcutta suggested we add Dzongu, a forest valley that has been reserved for the Lepcha peoples of Sikkim, to our itinerary. Since I am not the type who treks, me and my friend Prasenjit chose to do the normal tourist thing, i.e. travel from Calcutta to Bagdogra via air, and take a car from there to Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital. A four by four would then take us for our week-long vacation in the mountains. I don’t know why, but to me, music always sounds better in the mountains, and I find myself quietly staring out of the car window at peaks and valleys, listening to classic rock. Sikkim is magical, they say, and the first piece of magic happened as we pulled in to Gangtok. I had just turned on Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy album on the iPod, and as if on cue, as the first strains of The Rain Song started playing, it began to rain! We arrived at out hotel as it was getting dark, to the sounds of thunder echoing in the mountains.

Thunderstorm in Gangtok

Monday, 2 March 2015

Gillander House, Clive Street

It is fairly simple business to pigeonhole a building based on its architectural style. The Writers’ Building is Greco-Roman. The High Court is Gothic. The Esplanade Mansions are Art Nouveau. But one building in Calcutta completely defies such pigeonholing, partly because it was designed by a man who was a musician, alongside being an architect. The man in question is Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel, and the building is Gillander House.

Gillander House

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The South Park Street Cemetery

Located at the corner of Park Street (now Mother Teresa Sarani) and Lower Circular Road (now A.J.C Bose Road) is the South Park Street Cemetery, known to many as “the great cemetery”. One of the largest colonial cemeteries of its kind, it is today one of the many tourist attractions of Calcutta (Kolkata). The South Park Street Cemetery replaced the St. John’s Church graveyard as the principal burial ground of Calcutta and the road leading to it, which is today called Park Street, was originally known as Burial Ground Road. It is perhaps difficult to imagine that this part of the city was a jungle back then. Clive hunted tigers in what is today Free School Street. Indeed, so far away was this from the main city, that the Bishop who had to be present for the burial, had to be paid a special allowance so he could maintain a carriage and horses. The reasons behind siting a cemetery so far away from town are not difficult to understand. Calcutta was a malarial swamp, and in an era where there was no understanding of tropical disease, poor hygiene and poorer diet, the mortality rate was shockingly high. The monsoons were particularly bad, and every year at the end of the rainy season, feasts would be organised by those left living to give thanks to God. In such a scenario, repeated reminders of death in the form of funeral processions were thought of as undesirable.

Graves in the South Park Street Cemetery