Choong Ye Tong, Chinese Church (Temple)
Meredith Street, Calcutta (Kolkata)
Also see: My blog post on Calcutta (Kolkata) Chinatown
I was welcomed into a small courtyard, with walls lined with sepia tinted photographs bound in ornate frames. Flights of stairs led me to the the second floor housing a small hermitage housing beautiful images of unknown Gods and Goddess. Yes this is the Choong Ye Tong, Chinese Church (Temple), one of the seven Chinese Temples of Central Calcutta.
The Chinese settlement of Calcutta dates back to the late 18th century when a Chinese trader, Tong Achew settled near present day Budge Budge.
The then Governor General of India Warren Hastings offered Achew land and he set up a sugar mill complete with a sugar plantation. Achew soon brought a band of Chinese workers for his sugar project. But Achew died soon after & his mill was soon abandoned. The Chinese also deserted the place, which later came to be known as Achipur, after Achew.
The Chinese moved to the centre of Calcutta, where they settled in Tiretta Bazar. A market place designed by the disposed Italian architect and town planner Edward Tiretta. It was at this very place Calcutta’s (Kolkata’s) first China Town came up.
Today Tiretta Bazar has a significant Chinese population and still has a feel of China Town. The Chinese breakfast is still available for the early-birds in the Chatawala Guli. But the star attraction of Tiretta Bazar are the six Chinese Temples (or Churches), as the Chinese calls.
In Meredith Street, a short distance from Tiretta Bazar, is another Chinese Temple. Known as the Choonge Ye Tong Church it is located behind the Hindustan Building. The white coloured building with red coloured window sunshades creates a striking contrast amongst the hustle and bustle of one of the most chaotic areas of the city.
But Calcutta (Kolkata) is home to many such fine buildings but the plaque above the arch entrance sets the building apart. It reads Choong Ye Tong Church along with beautifully engraved Chinese calligraphy.
The Chinese Temple is run by the Choong Ye Thong club, which was established in 1860s by Hsieh Qui Chong. Even today the club owns a lot of property in Titetta Bazar (Old Chinatown) and also in Tangra (New Chinatown). Their properties include the Tian Hau Temple and the funeral Parlour in Tiretta Bazar. The Choonge Ye Thong Church initially started in early 1900s and shifted to the present location in 1935.
A walk through the arched entrance leads to a small courtyard. Straight ahead on the wall hangs the national flags of Indian and Taiwan and just below them are the portraits of M K Gandi and Sun Yat Sen, the respective Fathers of the Nation.
The side walls are filled with sepia tinted photographs bound in ornate frames, containing the portrait of Choong Ye Tong club president and group photos of its members. Sadly all the titles are in Chinese and it was not possible for me to find how far the photographs date back to.
The first floor opens into a open verandah lined with rooms, said to contain a library with amazing collection of Chinese Text. Sadly during my visit the room was locked.
The start attraction of the Choonge Ye Tong lies in its second and final floor, where it houses a small shrine dedicated to Chines Gods and Goddess.
A walk past the caretakers office leads to a small chapel housing idols of two Chinese deities, placed in glass cases. According to the caretaker one of the idols represent the Chinese version of Goddess Lakshmi. A large table, placed in front of the the idols occupy much of the room and used by devotees for placing their offering. It always contains a large assortments of fruits and vegetables.
A large assortment of chandeliers hung from the roof just at the entrance of the chapel and golden Chinese calligraphy in red background adds to the grandeur of the small but elegant shrine. A statue of two horses and a man stands in one corner of the courtyard.
According to the caretaker the Choonge Ye Thong Chinese Temple does not have regular service but remains open during the 7 am – 11 am every day. During festivals like Chinese New Year a large number of local Chinese assemble in the Temple.
Choonge Ye Thong Church is a perfect hideaway for people wanting to escape the chaotic existence of the city outside.
~ Birth Place of Calcutta Chinatown ~
In the late 18th century a Chinese tea trader by the name of Tong Achew landed on the banks of Hooghly, somewhere near present day Budge – Budge, never to return again. The then Governor General Warren Hasting granted land to Achew to set up a sugar cane plantation and sugar factory. According to records to British East India Company “Achew was granted 650 bighas of land about 6 miles south of Budge – Budge for an annual rent of Rs 45.”
After acquiring the land Achew set up a sugar – cane plantation along with a sugar mill. He brought in a band of Chinese workers to work in his plantation and factory and thus forming the first Chinese settlement in India. But Achew died soon after and his sugar factory was abandoned. His workers left for the city of Calcutta, where their descendents still continue to live.
The place came to be known as Achipur after Tong Achew. Sadly today apart from a Chinese Temple and Achew’s horse – shoe – shaped grave Achipur has no Chinese connection. But once every year, on the Sunday after Chinese New Year, the sleepy hamlet of Achipur comes alive with the beating of Chinese drums. Possible every Chinese of Calcutta make a pilgrimage to Achipur to pay tribute to the man, who started the first Chinese settlement in India more than 230 years ago.
Located 33 km from Calcutta, Achipur can be best reached by route No. 77 bus from Esplanade. Get down at Boro Shiv Tala and walk for 10 minutes to China-man-tala, housing the Chinese temple.
As you enter the Temple you will be surrounded by hordes of Chinese offering prayers to the Chinese Deities. Candles and incense sticks are lit and the table in front of the alter is laid with an most amazing spread, ranging from whole roosted pig to chicken, from bottles of wines to heaps of fruits from exotic spices to expensive nuts. Sadly the mouth watering food is for personal consumption, so it is best to carry your own food.
The temple houses the male & female deity of Khuda & Khudi. Although distinctively Chinese in appearance their head gears are predominantly Islamic. Although legends says that the Temple was established by Achew himself, but historians doubt about its authenticity. It is quite likely that the Temple was established at a later date but the idols of Khuda & Khudi are quiet likely to be brought in by Achew himself.
The low ceiling of the temple has remarkable wood work and so does the pillars. The walls are filled in with excellent Chinese calligraphy. Apart from the main alter there are several prayer halls, which are lit up with candles, during the New Year celebration. Also Chinese fortune tellers make a brief business by predicting your fortune for only a couple of rupees.
Bidding farewell to the Temple head for Achew’s grave. The Horse – shoe – shaped red coloured grave overlooks the Hooghly. Here also the Chinese pays tribute by lighting candles incense sticks, to the man who started it all. It is also a place to enjoy the breeze and a senior Chinese can well narrate you the good old days of Chinese New Year celebration in Calcutta.
Even during the 1950s the Hooghly was navigable and whole vessels were chattered to bring the Chinese to Achipur. The decks consisted of food & gambling stalls and money flowed freely. The Chinese New Year in Achipur was celebrated with Dragon & Lion Dance complete with beating of hundreds of drums.
The river have long silted up, the Indian Government has imposed ban on gambling and the young Chinese are leaving Calcutta for greener pastures. Today the Dragon & Lion Dance have long stopped and the beating of drums can hardly be heard.
So if you want to experience the last of the dying culture of the Chinese of Calcutta it is best to visit Achipur on the Sunday after the Chinese New Year, which can double up as a winter Sunday picnic.
Related links from my website:
- Article on Achipur
- Photos of Chinese New Year Celebration (Achipur & Tiretta Bazar)
- Chinese Temples of Tiretta Bazar, Calcutta (Kolkata)
List of my Blog entry on West Bengal