Chennai Journal
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
O Kolkata! Part I
I am back from a few days in Kolkata (renamed from Calcutta). Although compact and you can mostly walk around to the main tourist sites, I can't say it's a relaxing city---at one point, after several hours battling crowds and beggars around the markets and area near my hotel, I just needed a break from it all and had to pop into the opulent Oberoi Grand for lunch and peace and quiet. This said, it's a fascinating place and I'll do a couple of posts with my impressions.

Kolkata was the great seat of the British raj. Here, fortunes were made and lives lost....the "Black Hole of Calcutta" was the 1756 incident (hotly disputed in terms of numbers/veracity) where over 100 British and Anglo Indian soldiers were said to have suffocated from being holed up in a dungeon after the capture of Fort William. Many more in the days of the Raj--probably most-- died of disease and many were young women and children. On the first morning I was there, I wandered down to the Park Street Cemetery, where there are hundreds of graves of British residents of Calcutta, dating from the mid-1700s when the cemetery was established. An association funded by descendants of the buried and others interested in British history maintains the cemetery, which has been ravaged by vandalism as well as the effects of time. Most of the tombs are in English only, but the one shown to the left, of a Christian philanthropist, carries inscriptions in Arabic and Hindi as well.

Kolkata once had a thriving Jewish population, more than 5000 souls. Most were from Baghdad or Syria, and were traders who found themselves at home and accepted in British India. On Monday I tried to find a synagogue that was marked on a local map. I walked all the way from my hotel up past the famous Writer's Building (so called because young men from England were sent as scribes to the East India Company) but was a bit too late in the morning---by 8:30 a.m., the sidewalks were already jammed with street vendors and traffic was horrendous. I could see a sign on a building that said "Synagogue Street", but no one could tell me where the synagogue was. I finally gave up and resolved to come back in a cab, and earlier in the morning. The next day, despite having a cabbie who spoke no English (and he didn't need to, because the only people who knew directions spoke Bengali....), I nearly had the same fate, and then, purely by accident, I spotted the word "synagogue" peaking through a mobile phone advertisement and a makeshift rain canopy over some street stalls:

My cab driver parked the car and accompanied me across the street, but this synagogue--Neveh Shalom--has been totally appropriated and is no longer a shul--to put it mildly. A street vendor pointed us down the street and around the corner, where, amidst blaring horns and a few bleating goats, we weaved our way through fruit stands, shoe shiners, morning tea drinkers, and assorted other entrepreneurs to find the magnificent Magen David Synagogue, once the largest and most splendid in Calcutta. The caretaker, an old Muslim, kindly let me in when I showed my necklace with a Star of David.

Magen David is not in regular operation---it still does have two Torah scrolls--but it is clearly cared for. In stark contrast to the cacaphony outside (which you can hear on the video below), the inside was full of peace and reverence. This week is the harvest festival of Sukkot, which follows on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and members of the nearby Beth El Synagogue--the only functioning shul in Kolkata these days-- had built a sukkah outside which you can see at the end of the video. A lulav and etrog, were on a stand at the entrance to the sanctuary, along with a kippah (men's headcovering) which looked as if it, too, dated from the 1800s.

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