Ever seen Santa Claus arriving in a rickshaw?
As you step into the tiny lane just behind the Bowbazaar Police Station off Central Avenue in Calcutta, you step into a territory carrying a rich history of colonial legacy. These streets are bearers of stories and anecdotes that span the entire colonial history of the city.
The British merchants, who came to India in the 17th century as part of the East India Company, settled down in the various coastal regions of the country. After the defeat of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, Bengal came under the rule of the British Empire. Children born out of the wedlock or love between the people of British and Indian descent came to be known as Anglo-Indians. Members of the community still live in the red brick houses in Bow Barracks in Calcutta, the lane behind Bow Bazaar Police Station. Bow Barracks was originally built as a set of barracks or quarters for the British troops during the First World War. The troops were supposed to be allotted flats according to their ranks. However, they refused to settle down there and preferred to stay back at Fort William instead. It was then that these quarters were offered to the Anglo-Indian community, who by that time, had become an important part of the British workforce in India.
After India gained independence in 1947, many Anglo-Indians preferred to migrate to countries like the UK, USA, Canada and Australia, but many stayed back and considered India to be their home.
Bow Barracks was designed by Halsey Ricardo, the same person who was the architect of the iconic Howrah Bridge of Kolkata. It has been read as one of the best examples of minimalist architecture. The three-storeyed buildings with a square balcony are arranged in a rectangle and have green doors and windows. In present times, Bow Barracks is home to not only Anglo-Indian families, but Chinese, Bengali and Gujarati families. As a cosmopolitan space, it is also a melting pot of different cultures.
However, the most special time of the year in Bow Barracks is none other than Christmas time, when the residents of the area come together in mirth and laughter. Bow Barracks in Calcutta is the only place in the world where Santa Claus arrives in a rickshaw. Usually, the celebrations begin a week before Christmas day. The grotto where the local residents pray is spruced up and decorated. A crib is set up in a corner. A decorated Christmas tree sits pretty with all its baubles and ornamets. Every flat is decorated with a shining star atop the balcony.
Senior citizens as well as the poor and the needy children of the area irrespective of religious faith, take part in various programmes conducted by the natives of Bow Barracks. The celebrations, which continue for a week, are held on the stretch between the rows of buildings on two sides of the street. The programmes of the fest can be found written on the walls. It usually includes a Christmas Ball, Senior Citizen’s Day, two days of a floodlight soccer tournament, and a year-end dance held at the SFX church hall. Children’s games and pony rides are arranged for the kids, and the underprivileged ones receive gifts as well as food packets. For senior citizens, there are rounds of bingo, musical chairs, and dancing. The year-end dance starts late in the evening and lasts until 6 am in the morning.
Some of the best Christmas cakes, breads and wines are made in these native homes for the festivities. There is also a Christmas market held in Bow Barracks a day before Christmas, where home-made cakes and wine are sold. The Barua bakery ‘round the corner of the lane is famous for its fruitcakes and ‘Chhana’ pudding.
Bow Barracks has been depicted in pop culture in renowned Bengali filmmaker, Anjan Dutt’s film, Bow Barracks Forever (2004). However, many Anglo-Indians did not approve of the film’s content and consider the depiction inappropriate.
The best way to reach Bow Barracks is by taking a metro to Chandni Chowk Metro Station, from where it is a 5-minute walk.
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