The skyline of Dalhousie Square is incomplete without the milk white church with steeple — St Andrew’s Kirk (Kirk means Scottish Church) — the only Scottish Church in India. Completed in 1818 by the Presbyterians, the Church had its steeple higher than that of the then Anglican Cathedral St. John’s. In 1843, a serious debate divided the Church of Scotland, which had Presbyterians split into two groups and a new Free Church of Scotland was born in present day Wellesley Street. The two congregations eventually merged in 1942 and the Church is run by Jesuits under the banner of Church of North India.
The Scottish contribution started to boom in the city with the arrival of a young missionary, Alexander Duff. His idea was to set up an institution which linked western education with Christian mission and the eventual progress of the people. His idea turned to reality with generous support from Raja Rammohan Roy with the formation of Scottish Church College in 1830.
Till the early 20th century, the college used to have teachers from Scotland, and the notable scholars include William Urquhart, Henry Stephen, H.M. Percival among others. The union of Scotland in 1707 opened the floodgates for Scottish into Kolkata mainly as traders, engineers, missionaries, tea and indigo planters, missionaries and teachers. Some 19 of Calcutta’s private merchant houses were dominated by Scots during the early 19th century. Many of them could never go back home and their bodies now lie in Park Circus’ recently renovated Scottish Cemetery. More than 1,500 Scots are buried there and has a distinct Scots character.
Just next to Kalighat Tram Depot, stands one of the most carefully preserved buildings in the city- the Greek Orthodox Church majestic smart façade with Doric columns in the portico supporting the pediment. Apart from that, there is little evidence in the city of the prosperous mercantile Greek community which had made an indelible impression during the growing years of the metropolis. The capital of East India Company had attracted the Greeks in hordes for trading of jute and spices. They had settled around present day Lalbazar. The first Greek church was located in Amratala Street with the patronage of Warren Hastings way back in 1781. However later the church was moved to its present location in 1924 and is currently the only existing Greek Church in whole of India. The main altar of polished wood with painted panels with three giant chandeliers above is a sight for the eyes.
The Church plays a major role in social service in Kalighat area and conducts regular services in Bengali. However the Greek cemetery at Phoolbagan is crying for urgent repairs. Kolkata’s Greeks were mostly closely knit clan of royal families from Chios, Greek. The most famous Greek establishment in the city is Ralli Brothers which was sold off to an Indian family in 1960 and the owners along with most other Greek families moved out of the country. Arguably the most famous Greek from Kolkata was the gifted violinist Marie Nicachi who played at the courts of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Demetrius Panioty, personal secretary to Lord Ripon (after whom the Panioty fountain in Maidan is named).
Another European community’s, the Portuguese, relationship with Kolkata dates back to 1700 when a semi brick structure was constructed for prayers in present day Brabourne Road and Canning Street crossing. The continued animosity with the British led Lord Clive to expel them from Kolkata and the Portuguese Chapel was converted to an Protestant one. The ban was lifted in 1796 when decision was taken to construct a church with handsome contributions from the Portuguese community. Dedicated to Virgin Mary, the Portuguese Church there still stands tall and serves as a Cathedral Church for the city’s catholic community. A major attraction of the Church are the 14 Cross Station of Christ.
Although they were here for cotton textile trading, for than anything else, Bengali cuisine and ingredients have been deeply influenced by the Portuguse. According to some sources, they introduced the technique of curdling milk and produce chhana (Indian cottage cheese) which is the mainstay of most Bengali desserts including rosogolla.
They are credited to have introduced several vegetables here which include Peanuts, cashew nuts, pineapple and the ever popular potato. Portuguese bakeries were popular in colonial Calcutta for the sheer variety of breads, cakes and pastries. One of the varieties which still exist is Bandel Cheese, made out of chhana and come in white and brown colours varying as per level of smoking.
They are available at a handful of stores in New Market including the iconic J Johnson. Thanks to popular Bengali movies, the most celebrated Portuguese of Kolkata happens to be Anthony Firinghee, the ballad singer who successfully competed with the giants of Kobigaan in the 18th century. He is associated with Firinghee Kalibari in Bowbazar and his philosophy of secularism and humanism is valid even to this day.
Despite the presence of Buddhist centre in Gupta age, Chandraketugarh, just 22 miles north east of Kolkata, the Buddhist influence in Kolkata happened much later in 19th century. The Mahabodhi Buddhist Temple arguably the most prominent Buddhist centre was founded in 1911 by the Ceylonese Buddhist monk Anagarika Dharmapala. It houses a precious relic — a tooth of Lord Buddha which is displayed on his birthday. The Burmese Buddhist Temple in Central Avenue also serves as a dharamsala for visiting Burmese monks in the city.
This finds a mention in Amitabh Ghosh’s recent novel The Glass Palace. Nearby in Bow Street, stands Dharmankur Buddha Vihar set up in 1892. The large complex contains a golden statue of Lord Buddha and serves as a guest house for Buddhist students in the city. A hidden treasure — the Japanese Buddhist temple next to the Dhakuria lakes was built in 1935 by the Japanese Buddhist monk Nichidatsu Fujii. This contains several statues of lions, pillar with Japanese inscriptions and services are conducted twice a day. The solemn beats of the drums from the temple reverberate in the whole area communicating the non violence and humanist doctrines of the Lord.
Another notable Buddhist shrine is Hsuen Tsang Monastery in Tiljala. The bright monastery is built in the memory of Hsuan Tsang, the famed traveller who came to India during the reign of Harshavardhana. Post independence, due to the porous Tibet-Sikkim border, the city attracted significant number of Tibetans who mainly vended in woollens. The community has also contributed to a large number of Tibetan restaurants mainly in Bhowanipore area serving authentic cuisine including the popular street food, momos.
The cacophony of Chakraberia makes spotting the Karma Gon Tibetan Monastery very difficult. But once you identify it, this shrine is worth a visit. Founded in 1935, this monastery complete with a Buddhist prayer hall with altar, Purba&Dorje, a picture of Karma’s Guru, the Tibetan drum, red walls, wall paintings, statues will surely transport you to the ones in Sikkim and Darjeeling. It is indeed an oasis of peace.