At 22/1 Chattawala Gully, in Calcutta’s (Kolkata) old Chinatown stands the Chinese temple known as the Sea Ip Church. It is one of the many temples built by the city’s Chinese community which has been settling in this part of town since the early 19th century. The Sea Ip Church is one of 6 Chinese temples in the area, and one of the most active, with Chinese families still worshipping in the old way. But if you were to ask anyone in Calcutta today about Chinatown, they would tell you about a very different area called Tangra. This part of Central Calcutta (Kolkata) now goes by the name “Poddar Court”. So what are so many Chinese temples doing here?
TIRETTA BAZAR: CALCUTTA’S OLD CHINATOWN
The Chinese have been visiting India since the time of Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang, but the earliest Chinese in modern Calcutta were probably deserters from ships which had docked here to trade. The first official settler was a man named Yang Daijang from Guandong (Canton) who the British called Tong Achew (or Atchew). Little is known about Achew’s life, but we do know that during Warren Hastings’s tenure as Governor General (1774-1785) he was granted 650 bighas of land in Budge Budge to set up a sugar mill against an annual rent of 45 Rupees. In fact, white sugar is called “cheeni” in India because it was the Chinese who introduced it to the country. The area is still known as Achipur and there is an annual pilgrimage to it by the Chinese of Calcutta. The sugar mill is long gone, but a temple and a cemetery remain, with the chief grave being that of Tong Achew who the Chinese regard as a sort of Godfather.
According to the 1837 census, there were 362 Chinese living in Calcutta and the first Chinese settlement in Calcutta started around Kasaitola, near Dharmatala and extended further North, into the area that was then called Tiretta Bazar. Tiretta Bazar, also known as Teritty Bazar, gets its name from the Italian civil architect and town planner Eduardo Tiretta, who founded the market. Immigrants from different parts of China went into different trades in Calcutta. Those from Shanghai went into the laundry business, the Hakka went into carpentry and leather, the Hupeh or Hupak went into dentistry while the Cantonese ran the restaurants. Each immigrant community started its own social club, which controlled a temple or “Church” and a burial ground. The Sino-Indian war of 1962 caused a Chinese exodus from India. The few who remain are settled around two areas; Tiretta Bazar and a second, newer Chinatown in Tangra, in Eastern Calcutta, which was started primarily by the Hakka who built tanneries there. To the average Calcuttan today, Chinatown means Tangra. But the Tiretta Bazar settlement retains many of its architectural characteristics, including the temples to this day.
THE HISTORY OF SEA IP CHURCH
On the 20th of October, 1962, border disputes between India and China exploded into full-fledged war. As the Chinese army overran vast areas of North East India, the Indian government began rounding up Chinese citizens of Indian origin. Many were sent to a camp in Deoli, Rajasthan. Families and businesses were ruined. Those were times of panic fear, and in their fear the clubs of Tiretta Bazar burned many of their precious documents. In those documents were the details of when each club was established, which makes writing about the temples somewhat difficult now. There is some sketchy information which suggests that the Sea Ip Church may have been originally started on Ezra Street by Chinese shoemakers and moved here subsequently. While the date of establishment of Sea Ip is 1882, the present building was built in 1905. Immigrants from 4 districts of Guandong (Canton) province had established the club and the church and hence the name since Sea in Cantonese means four. Today, however, five communities are associated with the church, and this would mean it should be called Um Ip, but since that would involve changing names and the dates of the two festivals the church celebrates, this has been avoided. Some 20 families are associated with the Sea Ip Church or Chinese temple today and two festivals are held annually; one in April (which is complemented by a prayer service at the Tangra cemetery) and one in June. When the Chinese Prime Minister Chou En Lai visited Calcutta in November of 1956, he was welcomed by a Dragon Dance performed by members of Sea Ip.
THE ARCHITECTURE AND INTERIORS OF SEA IP CHURCH
The ground floor of the building on 22/1 Chattawala Gully is used as a social club. Gambling was a common practice here up until a decade or so ago. All proceeds from this would be used to embellish and maintain the church. Hung from the ceiling, between two columns at one end of the hall on the ground floor, is a long board with Chinese writing. Those who can read say that this contains the history of the establishment of the Sea Ip Chinese temple. The exact date according to the Gregorian calendar is not mentioned, however. The traditional Chinese way of documenting such things would be to say something like “in the so-and-so year of the reign of Emperor so-and-so, this temple was built”, and even locals now have to use a reference book to decipher dates. The Sea Ip club is active and members of the Chinese community gather here every evening, playing cards, carom, smoking and reading Calcutta’s only Chinese newspaper, which is published weekly now, from Tangra.
Wooden stairs to the right of the main entrance lead up to the shrine on the 1st floor. As you climb up, notice that even the writing under the switches on the switchboard was in Chinese! The shrine on the 1st floor is dedicated to Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. Red and gold are liberally used in the decoration and the addition of yellow-tinted lights gives the entire shrine a grand appearance. Like the club, the shrine too is active and candles and incense sticks may be seen burning. The sloping roof is supported by wooden beams, painted a bright red. It seems the temple has come up with some sort of mechanical contraption for ringing bells during worship; a press of a button causes the bell to chime a certain number of times. Next to Kwan Yin is Choi San (also known as Pi Kan or Caishen), the Chinese God of Prosperity. But some people also identify this as being an idol of the Chinese Earth God, To Tei Kung or Tudigong. To the left of the main shrine is another, smaller shrine. The locals say it is dedicated to Kwan Ti, the Chinese God of War, who is a deified military leader, but Dr. Tansen Sen, a respected scholar on China, identifies this as a shrine to Ba Gong. Incidentally, only a few minutes away from Sea Ip Church is the Chinese temple known as Toong On Church, which is dedicated to Kwan Ti. Also, on display inside Sea Ip are a large number of ceremonial weapons on both sides of the main shrine.
Like in other Chinese temples, some intricate woodwork may be seen in Sea Ip Church. Most of this was executed by one man. Known simply as Athoo, he was an architect and an eminent artist. Several of the articles inside Sea Ip came from China, including the idol of Kwan Yin. The ornate roof was imported in its entirety from the Chinese mainland. Guangxu Emperor, the penultimate ruler of the Qing Dynasty is said to have sent the temple a citation, which may still be inside Sea Ip somewhere. Guangxu Emperor's successor was the ill-fated Pu Yi, whose short reign was interrupted by the Japanese invasion of China and finally ended by the communist revolution. Hanging from the roof of the shrine, is a large and exquisite wood carving which looks like a boat. This is in fact, the artist's conception of heaven and earth and is carved from one tree trunk. Another such boat may be seen hanging from the ceiling of Nam Soon Church.
KWAN YIN – THE GODDESS OF MERCY
Most of the Chinese temples of Tiretta Bazar are dedicated to the old Chinese folk religion. However, Sea Ip’s diety, Kwan Yin (also spelled Quan Yin, Kuanyin, Guanyin or Guanshiyin), known as the Goddess of Mercy, has an association with Buddhism. While she is the model of Chinese beauty today and is one of the only Gods that the Chinese love, rather than fear, Kwan Yin was a male God until the early part of the 12th Century. From then, it seems, she has evolved modeled on the Buddhist Avalokiteshvara. Avalokiteshvara is a Bodhisattwa embodying the compassion of all Buddhas. Kwan Yin, legend says, was guaranteed a place in paradise, but chose to give it up and remain on Earth to tend to the suffering of the people. Her full name, Guanshiyin, means “One who sees and hears the cry from the human world”.
THE CHINESE TEMPLES OF TIRETTA BAZAR – FROZEN IN TIME?
Mr. Ho Yuan That of Sea Ip Church tells me of one time when a group of Chinese visitors from China had come to see the temples of Tiretta Bazar. They were startled by what they saw. “My God! You guys are still worshipping in the old way?” they remarked. “We have been cut off from China for a long time”, That says. “We have no idea what things are like over there now. So we carry on with the traditions that our forefathers brought with them”. This makes the Chinese temples of Tiretta Bazar a fascinating area of study. On the one hand, here is India’s oldest Chinatown, which has managed to survive against all odds and is evidence of the fascinating melting pot that Calcutta once was. On the other hand, here is a little bit of China, untouched by the Communist Revolution, unscarred by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, preserving the rituals and traditions of an ancient faith.
NOTE TO VISITORS
Sea Ip Church is open on all days of the week, throughout the day. Entry is free and all are allowed in. Photography is permitted. However, do bear in mind that this is an active religious site; you may be required to remove your shoes, and smoking/eating/drinking is not permitted in the shrine. Here is Sea Ip Church in Google Maps.
- by Deepanjan Ghosh
MORE ON THE CHINESE TEMPLES OF TIRETTA BAZAR
- I am deeply indebted to Rinkoo Bhowmick and everyone involved with the Cha Project. Without their help, this post would not have been possible. The Cha Project aims to revitalize the Tiretta Bazar area and promote it as a tourist site. Check out their website here.
- Something more than a simple “thank you” is due to Ho Yuan That, Lawrence Ho, and all the wonderful people of Tiretta Bazar for patiently answering my endless questions and sharing their stories with me.
- I was accompanied on my visit to Sea Ip Church by Soham Chandra. Soham is an enthusiastic blogger on Calcutta’s heritage and history. Check out his blog here.
New Faces in Old Calcutta – Roy, Pijush Kanti
Temples in Calcutta – Roy, Pijush Kanti
Chinese Gods: An Introduction to Chinese Folk Religion – Chamberlain, Jonathan
Calcutta Mosaic – Banerjee, Himadri (Ed)
Hidden Calcutta - Mitra, Rathin
Hidden Calcutta - Mitra, Rathin