More Bengali than Byzantine

Read more below

  • Published 8.06.07
The altar inside the Greek Orthodox Church. Picture by Sanat Kumar Sinha

At first it may sound Greek to your ear, but if you listen carefully you can make out that the young girl, boy and two priests singing and chanting a capella are actually mouthing Bengali.

Bengali, albeit with a strange syntax similar to the early Bengali translations of The Bible, samples of which can still be seen painted on the walls of Old Mission Church.

Apart from its beautiful structure next to the Kalighat tram depot and the inscriptions in Greek on plaques on the walls, there is little to suggest that the prosperous mercantile community of Greeks had constructed this church, one of the most carefully maintained buildings in Calcutta. The Greeks had built a church in Dhaka too.

With its Doric columns in the portico supporting the pediment, and smart whitewashed facade the Orthodox Greek church stands out amidst the chaos of Kalighat.

The small congregation for Sunday service consists entirely of Bengalis and even the priest, Father Andrew P.K. Mondal, is from Krishnagar. The only person of Greek descent present in the church is Tim Arestou, a lay person from New York who is here to help with charity work.

Perhaps the only surviving Calcuttan of Greek descent is Cedric Spanos, who is known for his histrionic abilities. Jute and spices were what Greeks dealt in and the establishment of Ralli’s Brothers is still remembered. Most Greek businessmen left after Independence.

Like most Europeans the Greeks once lived close to Lalbazar and the first Greek Orthodox church was located near the Portuguese church on Amratola Street and was built at the instance of Haji Alexios Argyree. His family had borne a large part of the cost of the building and the balance was raised by public subscription. Warren Hastings was involved in raising funds. It was built in 1780 and consecrated in 1781.

In early 20th Century the church was moved to its present location. The foundation of the church was laid in 1924 and it was consecrated a year later.

The floors are marble and the pews are wood and the three huge chandeliers are like brazen chrysanthemums turned upside down. The altar of polished wood with painted panels is well preserved.

The cemetery in Narkeldanga. Picture by Sanat Kumar Sinha

These paintings on canvas depict Christ after his transfiguration, Jesus and his apostles and Virgin Mary and the archangels Gabriel and Michael wielding swords. St Catherine is painted in one corner.

Father Andrew explained that although traditionally John the Baptist is depicted there, the priest who commissioned these was from St Catherine monastery of Egypt.

The door leading to the sanctum sanctorum has panels depicting the Annunciation with Mary and angel. These paintings in typical late 19th Century style are by D. Tsevas of Athens, 1930. His signature at the corner of each panel says so.

A printed copy of an ancient icon is displayed in front of the altar which parishioners kiss in the course of the service, followed by consecration. The only new paintings are the four on the walls in the severe Byzantine style. These are likenesses of saints sent from Greece. Tim Arestou, who has been here for over a year, says the building is the property of Greek nation.

The nation also owns the Greek cemetery at the Phoolbagan end of Narkeldanga Main Road. It is hemmed in by buildings, and Basanta Das, who lives there with his family, looks after it.

The low-lying cemetery gets flooded during monsoon. It has been cleaned of late but many stone crosses on the graves need urgent repairs.

There is a tiny, plain chapel in the graveyard. Basanta Das points out the oldest grave. The year 1777 can be made out.

The floral relief and inscriptions on the grave resemble those in the Armenian churchyard near Brabourne Road.