The Sikh connection to Kolkata dates back to 1510 when saint Guru Nanak visited the place during continuation of his first journey to the east preaching the doctrines of peace and brotherhood. He stayed for around a fortnight in present day Burrabazar area (where Gurdwara Bara Sikh Sangat stands now) and is rumoured to have used his divine powers to cure the epidemic among the people in that locality.
Subsequently Guru Teg Bahadur Sahib visited this holy place in 1668 and ordered the establishment of the Gurdwara to continue religious programmes, hold congregationson regular basis and 24 hrs langarkhana. The strong connection is evident with University of Calcutta credited of being the first institute to introduce regular research and teaching on Sikhism more than a century ago.
In 1914, the infamous Budge Budge riots took place where a group of 350 immigrant Sikhs, denied entry to Canada, came back to Calcutta in the Japanese ship Komagata Maru. They were subjected to indiscriminate firing by British Police who suspected them to be revolutionaries. The incident resulted in the death of 18 Sikhs.
A massive influx of Sikhs occurred during Partition as a safe haven for the community and the bonding has only grown stronger. Even during the 1984 riots, Kolkata was barely impacted.
Khalsa High School was established in 1933 with the objective of the city Sikhs to establish a foothold in the realms of education.
The Sikhs who made the city home post partition, ventured into eateries and establishments to feed growing families primarily in Bhowanipore and Hazra areas. The 90-year-old Balwant Singh’s Eating House in Harish Mukherjee Road is one such example, so is the Dhaba in Gariahat area which is rumoured to have supported the revolutionaries. The iconic restaurant Kwality, owned by the Ghais followed soon.
The restaurant was a pioneer in fusing Punjabi cuisine with local flavours and ingredients to cater to the palette of Bengali upper middle class segments. Most of the Punjabi restaurants recreated the feeling of a midnight dhaba. While a significant chunk of second generation Sikh population have moved out of the city, food remains the biggest connect of the community with the city.
Arguably the most prosperous community in the city now, the Marwari association with Kolkata started in the basas (common mess) in lanes and bylanes of Burrabazar. Strongly correlated with doing business sitting on a white mattress on the floor, the community traded in jute futures, grains or clothes from British factories and pioneered the cashless hundi remittances system.
Firms like Tarachand Ghanashyamdas controlled Kolkata’s money market in 19th century and soon the community developed wings to spread to the poshest parts of the city which include Alipore, Salt Lake and Ballygunge. Post independence once the British moved out, most of the premium firms -engineering firms, tea gardens, film and movies — were bought by the enterprising and cash rich Marwaris.
However, Marwaris have often been stereotyped as insular, conservative and money-loving, lacking taste. Bengali literature often followed this stereotype, be it Parashuram’s Ganderiram or Satyajit Ray’s Maganlal Meghraj.
Most of Kolkata’s elitehospitals and schools (apart from Missionary controlled ones) are Marwari owned, which includes even South Point — the once dream school of the Bengali intelligentsia. Kolkata Marwaris can literally say “Let there be light” as CESC is now owned by the Goenkas.
The footprints are visible all over with Birlas ruling the roost with multiple institutions bearing their name including the Planetarium – the second largest in the world. Hindustan Club and Marwari Rowing Club are two of the most popular Marwari clubs in the city with a menu that doesn’t smack of anything non-vegetarian.
Bengali culture has been influenced by fairy-tale big fat Marwari weddings – many Bengali weddings now have a customary ‘sangeet’ sessions and Puja pandals have provisions for Dandiya dances. Apart from them, the prosperous trading Jain community also plays a crucial role in the social fabric of the city since the 19th century. The magnificent Pareshnath Temple located in Belgachia is the focal point for the community.
Established in 1867, the temple is dedicated to the 23rd Jain Tirthankar and contains a cluster of temples catering to the Shwetambar sect.
To conclude the series, Kolkata is not just about the imposing Victoria Memorial or the magnificent Howrah Bridge. The city is truly a sum of its people and the hugely cosmopolitan nature has been pivotal in establishing it as the city with a soul. In the words of Vir Sanghvi, “To understand Calcutta… you can’t do it till you come and live here, till you let Calcutta suffuse your being, invade your bloodstream and steal your soul. But once you have, wherever you go, a bit of Calcutta will go with you”.
If you venture out into the interiors of Lake Market, you might be surprised to find a ‘mini-Madras’ complete with restaurants that dish out yummy dosa-idlis, tika smeared gentlemen, women with gajras, and the aroma of filter coffee simmering all around. Shops selling banana chips, appams and agarbattis complete the ambience. Indeed Lake Road has been renamed after legendary Tamil poet Kavi Bharati.
The connection dates back to early 20th century when South Indians started arriving in the city People would initially come for a few weeks to test waters but then a few families stayed back to settle here. Later, many more started coming in. Some of the more famous ones included Sir CV Raman and Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan who incidentally were respectively the first and second presidents of Calcutta’s South India Club.
Established in 1926, this club in Hindustan Park soon became a home away from home for people from all the south Indian states. Another popular joint is Komala Vilas established in 1930 off Deshapriya Park – a lodging house with a grey building and an open terrace. If one steps into Sri Ganesh and Sri Murugan Temple on Prince Anwar Shah Road, near Dhaka Kalibari, the overwhelming fragrance of camphor, coconut oil and flowers will immediately transport the discerning visitor to a ‘gopuram’ laden temple in South India.
Apart from them are few other South Indian temples like Sree Guruvayurappan Samajam, Rama Mandir, Veda Bhavan which have emerged as social hubs and centres for the four lakh strong community. Despite the spate of recent migrations to the Gulf, the community has not only enriched the country’s cultural capital, but have themselves inculcated certain qualities that make them an integral part of Kolkata. How can we forget Usha Uthup crooning in her signature style “Aha tumi sundori koto, Kolkata!”