On a Christmas evening, we suddenly decided to visit Bow Barracks. I am talking about almost 12 years back. We were in the last year of college. That was a time when Christmas celebration had not yet become a carnival in Kolkata. Both of us grew up in Bengali families. Christmas to us was just wishing “Merry Christmas” to others and exchanging Greetings cards. We had heard that Christmas is celebrated in Bow Barracks near Bowbazar. And we also wanted to see Christmas in Kolkata.
So Agni and I, in our best dresses were off to Bowbazar on the evening of December 25, not knowing what to expect. Doesn’t the unknown excite more? All that we knew was it was Christmas and we would have a great time. That was the first time we stepped our feet on the cobbled lanes surrounded by the red brick buildings. And that was the first time we understood the true spirit of Christmas. Till then, Christmas was only about cakes and Christmas trees.
Bow Barracks and the Anglo Indians
The British merchants came to India for trade in the early 17th century and settled down at the various coastal regions of the country. And after the defeat of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, India came under the rule of the British Empire. Already, more and more people from Britain had started arriving in India as soldiers, doctors, engineers and officials. During the initial days, it was not quite easy for them to get used to the climate and culture of India. As they settled down, may of the British men married Indian women. The children born out of the wedlock who is of British and Indian descent were known as Anglo Indians.
Bow Barracks were originally built as barracks or quarters for the British troops during the First World War. There are one, two and three-bedroom apartments in the 7 blocks that were made. The troops were supposed to be allotted flats according to their ranks. However, the troops refused to settle down here and preferred to stay back at Fort William. It was then these quarters were offered to the Anglo Indian community, who by the time was an important part of the British workforce in India. The Anglo-Indians were seen in the important official posts as well as in the majority of clerical jobs.
After India gained independence in 1947, many Anglo Indians preferred to return back to countries like UK, USA, Canada and Australia. But many remained back and considered India to be their country and home. Anglo Indian settlements can be found in many parts of India apart from Bow Barracks in Kolkata.
Bow Barracks was designed by Halsey Ricardo, the same person who was the architect of the iconic Howrah Bridge of Kolkata. This is the best example of minimalist architecture. The three-storeyed buildings having a square balcony are arranged in a rectangle. They have green doors and windows. Once we were there, we were transported to a different era. There are 7 blocks. I am not quite sure of the number now. There is a grotto in between the blocks. This was made later in 1967. Long back, Kolkata Improvement Trust had deliberated on demolishing the barrack. But good sense prevailed and they scrapped the idea.
About 130 families reside in these red coloured quarters now. The population of the Anglo Indians is decreasing and with that other communities have found their home in these heritage barrack area. You might find a Chinese family, a Gujarati family or a Bengali family in the midst of them. Bow Barracks is now a mini-India.
Christmas at Bow Barrack, Kolkata | Our experience
The narrow lane is flanked by blocks of three-storeyed red-bricked buildings. The green window frames add a rustic medieval touch to the place. And don’t be surprised if you hear a Bob Dylan, John Lenon or Elves Presley at the background! The place seemed perfectly calm and at peace between mad rush of Central Avenue and Chandni just a few yards away.
The Anglo Indians are a close-knitted lot. It seems everyone knew each other in the area. They are quite friendly also. Once we arrived at Bow Barracks, the Christmas festivities were yet to start. The entire place was decorated with streamers, balloons, lights, snowflakes and silver bells. Chinese lanterns were lit up.
Everything looked bright and happy. We were not sure about what to do. So we just went up to a flat and rang the bell with much trepidation. We did not know at that time how the people beyond the door will react to random strangers knocking their door. The door was opened by an aged lady and she welcomed us with a smile.
“You have come here for Christmas, na?” she asked us with a toothy grin.
“Yes, aunty”, I replied. “And we also want to eat Christmas cakes”. I said cheekily as I could already got the mouthwatering smell of cookies emanating from the flats.
And then there was heartfelt and boisterous laughter from the lady. She ushered us into their drawing-room. We sat down there not knowing what to do. And then she brought us cakes, home-made ones. Those were some of the best cakes that we had tasted in some time. Uncle too came soon and we all started talking about this and that and Christmas. It happens that Uncle and Aunty stay at Bow Barracks and their son was in Australia. Every year he comes to home for Christmas.
After some hearty conversation and genuine laughter, aunty offered us some homemade wine. These wines are a speciality of Bow Barracks. If you happen to reach Bow Barracks on a Christmas, do not forget to sip a glass of the wine. After cakes and wines, we went outside. The festivities had started. People were laughing and talking. Kids were running all around. And then there was an area where people were dancing. There was complete fun, chaos and reverie at Bow Barracks. Cakes, cookies and wine were served. Happiness and fun was infectious. And we felt that we were among friends. Aunty and Uncle wanted us to stay and dance the whole night with them! Such is the spirit of Bow Barracks Christmas. They share the joy of Christmas with everyone who visits there.
We danced our hearts out at Bow Barracks and met so many people there. There was a dance competition to be held, but it was at midnight. All those who were present there asked us to stay back for the dance. But I had to return home for the night. Somewhat reluctantly, but with fond memories, we left Bow Barracks.
Bow Barracks, Kolkata | Where Santa comes riding a rickshaw
Every year, the heritage quarters of Bow Barracks and the Anglo Indian community has been celebrating the birth of Jesus with food and fun. Christmas is incomplete with Santa Claus and his goodies. Here the red-robed Santa comes riding a typical Kolkata hand-pulled rickshaw. Anyone, who has seen such a rickshaw, can well imagine how funny Santa would look in a rickshaw.
Christmas Celebration at Bow Barracks, Kolkata
Christmas festivities start at Bow Barracks from 23rd December and continue till 1st January. The buildings are decorated with lights and streamers. A canopy of lights makes the place look ethereal. And the Christmas carols are played. A large stage is erected in the middle of the road for musical performances. Dance competitions are also held. Many relatives of the residents of Bow Barracks who are living outside India visit them during this period.
The grotto is decorated in a beautiful way. The Christmas tree with all its trinket and decorations stands prettily. You will find a shining star on the balcony of every house. Street parties, housie games, goody baskets and Christmas feasts are all arranged by collecting money from each household of the area. Recently, I had been to Bilaspur and attended an Anglo Indian party there. The experience there totally reminded me of the revelry at Bow Barracks.
Dancing starts in the late evening. Couple dancing is the most famous one here. While local bands play music, the residents dance to the melodious tunes. Dance competitions are also held. Yes, the paper dance for couples is a favourite! For senior citizens, there are bingo, musical chairs and dances. The year-end dance at SFX Church Hall starts at night and continues till the next morning. You can see posters for the various programs pasted on the walls that also include Christmas Ball and 2 days of floodlight soccer tournament.
The best part, however, is that the community celebrates the joy of Christmas with everyone. The community celebrates Christmas with the lesser privileged children of the society, irrespective of their religion. Food and gifts are distributed and various games are arranged for these children. The Christmas tree is decorated especially for these children.
The local residents set up food stalls in the area and you can taste some amazing home-made fruit cakes, cookies and wines. With the dwindling population of the Anglo Indians, other communities have also settled down in the area. That influence can be now seen in the food stalls.
Bow Barracks, a place tucked in the heart of Kolkata near Bow Bazar celebrates the spirit of Christmas with aplomb. This place is a confluence of heritage and culture. Kolkata is definitely a nurturer of cultures and traditions of various kinds. Yuletide celebration takes place with great pomp and show these days in Kolkata, especially at Park Street. But the charm of Bow Barracks will never decline. It will always celebrate the true spirit of Christmas.
Celebrating Christmas at Bow Barracks is something we would remember always. It is not just a festival, it is the spirit of the place, its people. Bow Barracks spread love and joy through this festival. So why not spend the Christmas eve at Bow Barracks? It will be a different experience altogether! We had been there almost 12 years back. After that, we had spent all our Christmas away from Kolkata, because of work. This year, we will be in Kolkata and plan to visit Bow Barracks during Christmas. We just want to see how much has changed in all these years. Or is it still the same?
How to reach Bow Barracks
Bow Barracks is situated off the Chittaranjan Avenue (C R Avenue) just behind the Bowbazar Police Station. If you are taking a bus, get off at C R Avenue and walk down.
The best way to reach is by taking a Metro. Get off at Chandni Chowk Metro Station and it is a 5-minute walk from there.
- Renowned Bengali Filmmaker, Anjan Dutt had made a film on the life of the people at Bow Barracks named “Bow Barracks Forever”. However, do not believe whatever the film shows. Many residents were not happy with the film’ content.
- Bow Barracks is also known for local hockey tournament held during the summer afternoon.
The Anglo-Indians are a friendly lot. But of late, Bow Barracks have seen footfalls of a lot of photographers. Some of them do not prefer intrusion in their daily life. So if you are taking pictures, it is best to take permission from them.