Walking along Prince Anwar Shah Road, Kolkata
— Epsita Halder
Prince Anwar Shah Road, stretched between Jadavpur Police Station to the east and Tipu Sultan Shahi Masjid to the west, where Anwar Shah Road meets Deshapran Shasmal Road, has a unique demography consisting of multiple neighbourhoods, economic zones and a complex juxtaposition of urban deliberations. In its 2.4 km stretch, in multiple phases of community settlement and urbanisation, the diversification of the local and global economy, the demography of the micro-localities that Anwar Shah Road combines evolved.
Colonial Calcutta emerged through the processes of intermittent migration and sedimentation. Armenians and Portuguese traders, invited by Job Charnock, came to Calcutta by the 1690s to settle in the emerging trade city of the East India Company. The Bagdadi Jews came as early as 1798 to be later joined by the Iranian trading families in the last half of the 18th century. Since the beginning of the 19th century, trans-regional diaspora started with the East India Company dislodging the rulers from regional states. At the southern suburbs of Calcutta where only a few houses of the officials of the East India Company stood, the princely Kannadiga quarters emerged since 1806 with the the family of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, coming to settle. In 1823 came the Cutchi Momins from Gujarat, and in 1857, the exiled Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of another princely state Oudh arrived on the southern fringes of Calcutta with his extended family, attendants and artisans. These communities needed to adjust themselves with the urban ways of life by consecrating religious structures — churches, synagogues, mosques and imambaras — for their religious gatherings and activities in and around those sites. Such settlements mobilized further processes of intermittent migration of regional Muslims from different parts of India, especially Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Gujarat, created densely populated urban neighbourhoods, often overlapping with each other, and mushrooming without any structured sense of urban planning. Such patterns of settlement and the citification of the lived religion by these families/communities/groups can offer a unique template which I am tempted to call a South Asian template. It is more so for the cities that emerged with the expansion of the East India Company in the Indian subcontinent, ushering in new economic opportunities across the land and the ocean. Many cities emerged — some revamping their pre-colonial status in polity and trade (like Surat and Ahmedabad) — and the others as new imperial cities drawing in trans-national pulls of diasporic communities. Bombay and Calcutta are cities that were built upon such community movements, sedimentation and citification of religion and appropriation of city features, both spatial and affective.
Urban settlement in this part of Kolkata where Anwar Shah Road now lies — connecting Tollygunge, New Alipur, Jadavpur and Gariahat — started when the descendants of Tipu Sultan were brought here in 1806 after the defeat and death of Tipu Sultan in the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799. But new forms of urban settlement came about in this area since the refugee families from East Pakistan started pouring in since the Partition in 1947 and settled here. As the decades rolled on, Anwar Shah Road saw different patterns of urban living coexisting cheek-by-jowl. At the turn of the millennium, several gated apartments started coming up replacing the first (early nineteenth century) and second (post-Partition) waves of urbanisation of the southern localities of Calcutta. The old Navina cinema (85, Anwar Shah Road) changed its shady character by graduating from B-grade English, Hindi and Bangla movies to screen new releases along with the multiplexes. In the place of Joy Engineer Works (375, Anwar Shah Road) that used to produce Usha sewing machines since the 1950s, now stand an ensemble of high-rise South City residential towers (since 2012, 31.14 acres) with an international school, a club and a shopping mall changing the name of the bus stop from Usha gate to South City. Circa 2022, the whole stretch carries the fractured fractal like growth of urbanization, testifying to artisanal, small and global economy surviving side-by-side that cater to multiple kinds of residents and consumers.
It is difficult to find an overarching archive with a script on these parts of the city that Anwar Shah Road stands for. One can only rely upon the fleeting memories of the neighbourhoods to hear the footsteps from the past and engage with the sensory material like the names of the lanes, bylanes, bus stops, a plaque on the wall, smells of incense and rosewater emanating from a shrine to imagine how multiple communities created their ‘lived spaces’ (Lefebvre, 1991 ) with new patterns of urban deliberations. The mosques, imambaras, temples, dargahs and mazars in densely populated palimpsestic ‘sedimentation’ (Young 1986) of community settlements along Anwar Shah Road testify to how these communities aspire to urbanise their living by citifying (Urciuoli 2020) their religion and ritual actions. Such aspirations, in their dynamic divergent ways, articulate themselves in the everyday urban living and practices of their lived religion, appropriating city spaces and everyday actions (Urciuoli & Rüpke 2018, 127-128).
When the heirs of a prolific Tipu, now exiled in the ‘malarious swamps’ of colonial Calcutta as the monthly allowance holders of the East India Company, were given autonomy on their spending in 1807 by Lord Minto, the Governor General of India, Prince Golam Muhammad Shah bought an impressive amount of land in Calcutta to establish his own estate and initiate religious mobilization for his community in the city.
Two identical mosques named the Shahi Mosque of Tipu Sultan were built in early 19th century by Tipu’s eleventh son Prince Golam Muhammad Shah (1795-1872), one at the Anwar Shah Road junction and the other at the Dharmatala junction in central Kolkata. After the endowment of the Anwar Shah Mosque in 1839 and the Dharmatala Shahi Mosque in 1842, these mosques were opened for community prayer, sermon sessions and to facilitate charitable offerings on the days of Eid.
He built charitable institutions like a free dispensary for the emerging Muslim community around the habitation of the expanding royal family, courtiers and attendants. In 1943 Gulam Muhammad established a community burial ground as his waqf with a sacred pond inside dedicated to Fatima Zohra, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad.
The most public religious procession on Prince Anwar Shah Road, the Ashura procession of the Shi’i commemoration of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Husayn goes from this imambara to the pond inside the graveyard joined by various other processions from the other imambaras in the vicinity. It can be imagined that Prince Golam Muhammad marked this stretch of the road for the Ashura procession in 1839 itself, between two of his waqf properties, keeping in mind religious mobilization for his family and the Shi’i members of his community. This religious process and collective lament added to Kolkata’s urban spatial imagination with the public movement of new actors/dwellers.
I first felt intrigued about community sedimentation and religious mobilization in this part of the city when I read a fragment in William Hickey’s Memoirs (written between 1808-1810),  volume IV. Hickey was the Attorney of Calcutta’s Supreme Court and the Under Sheriff of Calcutta then. He wrote: “There are half a dozen roads under the members of the Mysore family in the southern part of colonial Calcutta.” Along with Prince Golam Muhammad Shah, Prince Anwar Shah and Prince Bakhtiyar Shah and other heirs of Tipu lent their names to the roads connecting all the neighbourhoods where Tipu’s family spread over the years integrating with the influx of migrant Muslim families from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to finally turn it into a Muslim neighbourhood till 1947. Prince Anwar Shah (1826-1889) was the grandson of Tipu, from his tenth son Munir ud-Din Muhammad Shah. Muhammad Bakhtiyar Shah (1864-1913) was the son of Anwar Shah. Since 1947, the inundation of refugee families with various economic means changed the demography of this locality, pushing the Muslim neighbourhoods to obscurity and spatial marginality. As Golam Muhammad Shah Road turned into a narrow coiling lane touching the corners of the refugee settlements, Anwar Shah Road started proliferating as it connected southern Kolkata with other parts of the metropolis and then merging into the bypass to veer towards the eastern stretch.
I stood on the western side of Anwar Shah Road, on Deshapran Sasmal Road. All the houses founded and owned by the descendants of Tipu that John Barry described in his journal Calcutta 1940 were all gone, replaced by new establishments. But I can imagine how the sons, grandsons and great grandsons of Tipu followed by people of their community walked out of their individual households barefoot, beating their chests, to reach the Imambara in the Shahi Masjid complex, lamenting the martyrdom of Husayn. I could impose my imagination of the Muharram grieving by Tipu’s family led by Prince Golam Mohammad with a definitive standpoint on the long-drawn controversy over Tipu’s identity as a Sunni or a Shīʿa after discovering Prince Golam Muhammad’s Shah’s graveyard inside the Shahi Masjid campus, between the mosque and the imambara buildings beside the pond for ritual ablutions. No Sunni would choose to wait inside the grave for the sound of Israfil’s trumpet on the Day of Judgment (qiyamat) to be summoned for resurrection while listening to elegies culminating in frenzied chest beating and punctuated by self-flagellation.
Before south Kolkata recived its ultimate destination in South City Mall in 2008, Anwar Shah Road was only a workplace (Usha factory and Lord’s Bakery) for some, and a place to pass through for others. The present middle-class Hindu habitations — a majority now —have not included the history of Prince Anwar Shah Road that emerged from the Muslim settlements here, so conspicuously inscribed in the multiple sites of religious gatherings and actions in their everyday understanding of the city. They recentred the local religious demography by establishing a temple of the goddess Kali and calling it Dhaka Kali bari (temple of goddess Kali of Dhaka), a name that includes a city, Dhaka, they left behind in East Pakistan, in a process of healing the traumas of the Partition. As Dhaka Kali Temple became the most pronounced articulation of sedimentation of the refugee families in new forms of urbanisation, it characteristically marks the Kolkata with new hegemonic re-distribution of the urban communal settlements.
For me, in the beginning, Anwar Shah Road, was simply a passage too, in the course of occasional visits to Navina Cinema Hall, frequent auto rides to the Rabindra Sarovar Metro station to reach Rabindra Sadan or Park Street for various urban cultural experiences, the 1A bus route to the National Library. For me too, the religious structures of the ‘other’ were mute signs, invisible or seen through, their melody and clamour unheard, so embedded was secular Hindu liberalism in my urban self. Actually, nothing tapped on my senses as scripts of history and performances of everyday urbanity until I started walking along Prince Anwar Shah Road and visited the Muslim religious sites, first with the perplexity of a traveller and then with the scientific curiosity of an ethnographer. I realized that, the small religious sites like a small Sufi shrine or a mosque, or temporary sacralisation of the city space, can stand for the “invisibilised” voices of the minority groups seeking their claim to the city, to articulate their urban aspirations. I also realized that there was more to Prince Anwar Shah Road as a Muslim majority neighbourhood.
I tried to re-create a map of Anwar Shah Road, a cartography of the senses, emerging through my ethnographic exposures to multiple sensory atmospheres that the religious sites offered. Such atmospheres turn them into sensuous terrains with contrasting yet overlapping sensory experiences. Such an atmospheric walk, as a methodology, allures us to read the Kolkata urbanity as a multiplicity of sensuous terrains enshrined in these religious sites and actions by the people who wanted to be urban through their chosen religious actions. During my walk, although I was led by a particular sensory experience, the sensory atmospheres were porous and my experience was multisensory.
I. Following the sound of lament: Maa Bibi Fatma Dargah
Opposite Acharya Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri Law College on Prince Anwar Shah Road, there is a narrow lane, Anjuman Ara Begam Row, going south-west from Anwar Shah Road. Just before the lane, I was stopped by the melancholic sound of a male voice reading the nauha coming out of a tiny shrine dedicated to Bibi Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad, the mother of the martyr Husayn. The shrine was on my left. In front of me there was a makeshift covering turning the pavement in front of Maa Bibi Fatma Dargah into a temporary courtyard for the devotees who were walking barefoot. Inside the shrine — a rectangular room with plastered walls painted in cheap blue paint, garlands of fake zari shimmeried amid tiny bulbs that illuminated the venerated names of the panjatan pak, Muhammad, Fatima, Ali, Hasan and Husayn, engraved on white tiles.
Two-three steps further there was the makeshift community kitchen on the pavement with two men baking fat nuns on a tandoor. The freshly baked hot nuns were stacked inside boxes, their aroma spreading into the crowded evening traffic and attracting eager young boys expecting a feast. Utterly intrigued with my new sonic finding, as such readings of the nauha are generally done inside the imambaras, I stepped into the lane to enter from the side gate of the shrine. Outside the gate, a big white goat was tethered, waiting for its final destiny. Men jostling in a tiny patch that cannot be given the honorific of a courtyard enthusiastically told me that it was the day of Chalisa.
Chalisa is the fortieth day from the day of Ashura, the day of Husayn’s martyrdom in the battle of Karbala (680 CE) which the Shīʿas commemorate as the final day of their annual mourning. Food would be served at night, after the qawwali. Having qawwalis as part of Muharram lament which does not happen in the imambaras was indeed a structural innovation. In Golam Muhammad Shah Imambara, like in any of the imambaras, Chalisa is commemorated with azadari sermons and reading of the nauha specific for the Chalisa. Some devotees would be oscillating between the Imambara and the Bibi Fatma Dargah throughout the evening until the commemorations would end in the dead of the night at both the places.
However, I lost the sonic and olfactory cues and the imagination of fresh bread with spiced mutton in the general cacophony of traffic and their carbon emissions as I proceeded further west and reached another Dargah on the same side of the road, a little after Navina Cinema. The Navina cinema complex, once the property of the Tipu-sons, gradually housed Shree Bharat Lakshmi Studio in 1930s and then a cinema hall called Navina, with recent additions of a residential complex and corporate banks. As the compound ended, another establishment of the Tipu-sons, much-dilapidated clusters of two-storey buildings carrying the unshakable weight of obvious legal disputes on their shoulders to ward off the land promoters, started. Narrow and dingy lanes that separated these rickety arrays of buildings with small shops and bike repair garages went deeper into the closely clumped neighbourhoods of lower economic groups of Muslims. Between these two urban spatialities and economic temporalities, so ubiquitous in the postcolonial megacities like Kolkata, this Dargah was empty at an hour when Bibi Fatma Dargah and the Imambara were bustling with devotees. In this Dargah, two adjoining rooms gave the impression of privacy with a small veranda outside. On the wall of the northern side room, a big marble plaque carried its name, Dargah Panjatani. It marked the year 1843 as the date of its establishment, just four year after the endowment of the Shahi Masjid complex which stood at the opposite side the road. Dargah Panjatani proclaimed the veneration of the panjatan pak and was a Sufi site that Bibi Fatima Dargah wasn’t. Bibi Fatma Dargah, while adopting Dargah as a generic name, venerated panjatan pak as a form of Shi’i intercessory piety.
At the same time, Dargah Panjatani, with its empty and silent veranda and inner chambers, announced its complete dissociation from the veneration of panjatan pak initiated by the royal family of Tipu inside the Imambara and continued in Bibi Fatma Dargah by the local common Shīʿas who did not belong to the Tipu lineage. There was only a tiny tea stall at the corner of the little clearing outside the Dargah which even if it ever had a courtyard-like presence, was now mostly used as a sort of open godown by shops nearby which otherwise did not have their own storage space. The tea-shop owner, while serving me over-sweetened tea to honour my presence as a visitor, told me that this Dargah held sessions on some afternoons for the young boys in the neighbourhood who came which their abridged version of the Qur’an to sit on this veranda around a moulavi.
Along with Dargah Panjatani, evidently the oldest one, the other dargahs sprang up in the locality along the roads carrying the names of other heirs of Tipu like Prince Bakhtiar Shah, the son of Prince Anwar Shah, as the Muslims continued to pour in this part of the city. The Sufi mendicants came as early as they could, right from the 1840s. The atmosphere of complete silence during the days of Karbala-centric piety in these Dargahs places them at a distance with the Shīʿas. Such an obvious difference in the form of veneration of panjatan pak marks the religious landscape with multiple deliberations to actualize their presence in the urban neighbourhoods. But the date on the marble plaque was intriguing. 1843. Just four years after the Shahi Masjid and Imambara were endowed by Prince Golam Muhammad Shah. Feeling quite curious about the story behind this date, I took out a biscuit from the glass jar at the teashop. How could there be a non-Shi’i Sufi Dargah here which was evidently the property of the Tipu-sons? Prince Golam Muhammad consecrated the Shahi Masjid of Dharmatala exclusively for the Sunnis to citify Islam as the impressive patron for a broader Sunni community present in central Calcutta. Was Dargah Panjatani ordained with Sunni discourses since the beginning of religious mobilisation by the Tipu-sons to acquire a more inclusive urban character in the same vein? Or did a Sufi master come with the family of Tipu and start preaching here? Was it that some of Tipu-sons endowed a piece of property for the veneration of panjatan pak in the mystical way too? Was it for the expansive Muslim community that was not fully Shīʿa in orientation? It was not a mazar, that is, there was no grave of any Sufi master here lending his name to the establishment. Did the patron want to remain an authorial figure along with the Pir who was perhaps appointed to bring mystical dimension to the community? In absence of any archive, I could only unleash my imagination, an odd archive triggered by the several signs around me, standing in front of the real structure which now catered to the devotional needs of the low-economic group Sunni neighbourhoods along these dingy lanes and bylanes. The informal madrasa like function of this Dargah also indicates the urban aspirations specific to this Sunni neighbourhood.
As I was invited with evident warmth, I came back to Bibi Fatma Dargah after 9pm when the qawwali session was ending for an audience who sat on the dusty cotton spreads rented from the decorators and arranged on the pavement and in the Anjuman Ara Lane. As an outsider, I was allowed to eat in public whereas the community women took packed food for the other female members and the children to have it in the privacy of their homes. Anjuman Ara was one of the great granddaughters of Tipu, coming from the line of his eighth son Prince Muhammad Subhan Sultan, himself not so prolific to have a street or lane under his name or his sons’ names. How could, then, Anjuman Ara become so important among so many daughters and granddaughters to have a lane with her name, the only woman from Tipu’s family to have such a public honour? Was it because she was a woman enterprising enough to lead the mourning rituals in the zenana? Or was it because of the influential position of her husband Nawab Muhammad Sultan Alam (d. 1922), Attorney-at-Law and Chair, Tollygunge Municipality, that this piece of property was endowed to Anjuman Ara? Having a waqf endowed with her name, she might have organized mourning sessions with women of the family inside this small two-room building. Now there are mourning sessions for the Shi’i women in the neighbourhood only in the Imambara while this Dargah has been appropriated as a space for public urban ritual where Shi’i men from the neighbourhood announce their presence on Prince Anwar Shah Road both spatially and sensorially.
II. The City of Tailors
Along Anwar Shah Road, there was another mosque, which now cannot be entirely seen from the main road now but stands along a bypass that takes us from Anwar Shah Road to the Golam Muhammad Shah Muslim Burial Ground. The sacred pond inside the burial ground named after the Prophet’s daughter Fatima has been used as the final destination of the taziyeh of the Ashura procession of Muharram commemoration, while the burial ground is now exclusively used by the Sunnis. The Sunnis and the Shīʿa cannot share a singular place for burial. Such spatial porosities, rather than indicating a fusing of intra-Muslim community boundaries, points to temporal sedimentation of the Muslim communities in a densely populated part of the city. Scarcity of space and position as the minority religious community in a Hindu populated city energised such cospatialities of the Sunnis and the Shīʿas which are otherwise un-imaginable in the other Indian cities where the Shīʿas and the Sunnis live in similar close proximity.
The plaque outside the mosque marked it as part of the waqf estate of Rahim Ostagar with 1883 as the date of its consecration and endowment. It is amazing to observe how a migrant Sunni tailor, as his surname Ostagar indicates, could have amassed the property to hold a waqf estate and build a mosque for his community. Who was Rahim Ostagar who could become so prolific that instead of a sharif Sunni Muslim, it was a tailor who mobilized the Sunni community’s urban settlement competing with the royal family of Tipu when many of Tipu’s heirs were important personages in the trade guilds and urban corporations of colonial Calcutta? There is a road, too, named after Rahim Ostagar, one that now runs between the circular railway tracks to the north-west and Dhakuria Bus Stop to the east indicating his prominent presence in the Sunni settlement there. It is not unique to Calcutta streets, basically lanes and bylanes, immortalizing tailors like Budhu Ostagar, Mian Jaan Ostagar, Shariatallah Ostagar or Gulu Ostagar. Do they hint at the thriving micro-economic pockets in the city contributing to the larger endeavours of the Empire? Or, to again tap into the odd archives of imagination, can we ask that did these tailors satisfy the extravagant sartorial fancies of the officials of the Raj to get lanes and bylanes named after them as an honorarium, perhaps? An array of lanes and bylanes in Kolkata still carry the names of the khansamas (personal attendants) and bawarchis (cooks) from the colonial times, perhaps as the testimony of such preferences by the members of the Raj. But such speculations only lead us to an imagined historical locus from where no return is possible. Instead, we come back to the question of urban aspirations as embedded in religious sites that act for us as evocative objects of history. It is not easy to hold a piece of land to consecrate another mosque so close to the Muslim burial ground which started in 1839 under the Golam Muhammad Shah waqf estate. As I was not allowed to enter the mosque compound, I was looking at the half-closed windows stretching from the cornice down to the floor. I suddenly realized that the outer walls with the small dome above somehow resembled the architectural design of Tipu Sultan Shahi Masjid.
III. The Fragrance: Owned and Shared
As I was pondering over all these while looking at Rahim Ostagar Waqf Estate Masjid and moving between real and imagined histories, a waft of fragrance swept my senses. I followed the clues of cheap incense sticks to find their source and discovered Dada Pir Saheb Mazar, bang opposite the Masjid. A pleasant yellow one-storey building with a freshly painted green grilled gate, half-open for visitors after three shops selling flowers, candles incense sticks and chadar. No sooner had I thought how all these could slip my notice even after hundreds of auto rides through this particular lane, I saw bikes stopping and Hindu men and women getting down, or pausing while walking past the mazar. They covered their heads with a handkerchief or the end of their sari and removed their slippers to pay homage to Dadu Baba Pir through the window while standing barefoot on the pavement.
I was invited by the flower-seller to enter the mazar which had a small courtyard and a frangipani tree at the corner, a tree generally found in many mazars of Bengal. Inside a cool, shadowy and sombre hall, devotees from both Hindu and Muslim communities prayed together to the Sufi pir Dada Baba and his primary disciple Dadu Baba urf Haji Mumtaz Hosain Saheb. The pir and his disciple were resting under their graves in this hall covered with chadar and beds of flowers — roses, marigold and tuber rose, exuding an aura hypnotic for the senses.
I learnt that regular qawwali sessions are held on Thursdays perhaps inspiring the Shi’i devotees of Bibi Fatma Dargah barely 300 meters away to have qawwali on the night of Chalisa. Pir Dada Baba’s legacy and teachings were carried forward by Dadu Baba. Dadu Baba, with his teachings, attracted many Hindu devotees who came to settle as the refugees from East Pakistan in the adjoining Muslim neighbourhoods after the Partition in 1947. The Hindus visiting this mazar and paying homage to Dadu Baba found such solace here that when in 1967 the Mazar Samiti Trust was created as a registered organization to facilitate the functioning of the mazar, the majority of members were Hindus. Nripendra Narayan Niyogi, a Hindu Brahmin bachelor now in his eighties, was chosen as the khadem of the mazar. Sitting in a tiny room, full of Sufi images and icons and speaking in Bengali replete with Arabic and Persian words, Niyogi told how Dadu Baba’s soft and melodious voicespeeches on love and empathy made the refugee Hindus find a new devotional home here after losing their homes on the other side of the border. Perhaps I understood what Niyogi wanted to convey in his calm, aged voice that was therapeutic even for me, an occasional visitor-cum-ethnographer. The faint smell of detergent from Niyogi’s white cotton clothes and the fragrance of frangipani flowers made me a recipient of his life stories on how he could forget the atrocities faced by his core family when they were crossing the border in 1947. How he could forgive the perpetrators while listening to the voice of Dadu Baba.
But it was intriguing to notice how in this co-ownership of the Sufi devotional realm there were internal divergences in terms of participation in religious actions. In this milieu of communal co-presence, while the Hindus came to venerate Pir Dada Baba and Pir Dadu Baba along with the Muslims and offer flowers, incense and candlesticks and chadar to them, the qawwali sessions were attended mostly by the Muslims. While seeing me off, nearby florist Mohsin added in a lowered voice: “They neither like such shared participation, nor all these flowers and music.” I understood that he was talking about the Rahim Ostagar mosque that stood only at the other side of a 50-metre wide road. “Is there any tension on account of that?” I was very conscious about choosing my words and deliberately used “tension” in English to retain some neutrality. No, said Mohsin. “But sometimes, they talk about how the intention of their prayer is getting wasted in such close proximity of bid’at.” “Who?’ “The authorities, or the preacher at the Friday sermons,” Mohsin was clearly confused. “But aren’t there people who visit both the mosque and the mazar? Only going to the mazar cannot make you a Muslim. No?” Mohsin, said, “Yes, certainly. I myself will join the Maghrib prayer after a few minutes there. My nephew who has attended the Asr namaz, will come and take care of the shop.”
Conclusion: Urbanity via Religious processes
In the beginning, standing alone on pavements half-ushered in by the benches of the street-side eateries and gaudy displays hanging in shops, I was tempted to adopt flâneur-like (fem. flâneuse) inimitable steps. Solitary and improvisational steps, discovering the sensory explosions that Prince Anwar Shah Road was to offer me at that moment. Nevertheless, I walked as an ethnographer, curious about the possible histories embedded in the sensory urban atmospheres of the religious sites and in religious actions. Eventually I understood that from the sensory fragments of the urban atmospheres of Prince Anwar Shah Road, it is possible to trace the growth of the urban neighbourhoods and their characteristics as the sedimented spaces of religious aspiration and deliberations. The temporal processes of the citification of religion can be derived from real and imagined loci. In the absence of archival material to fully derive historicity, elements had to be collected through sensory experiences, and by speaking with the people who organise their lived religion according to their urban experiences. Sensory experiences and narratives drawn from such perception and participation at the places and practices of sacralisation might not match with each other fully to create a round singular (hi)story of urbanity. Fissures, lapses and confusion will remain embedded in this mode of history-making modelled on speculation, deduction and imagination.
There cannot be one singular story either about Prince Anwar Shah Road for its fractal, overlapping neighbourhoods with contrasting, competitive and sometimes converging urban and religious deliberations. They are both inter-religious (pertaining to both Hindus and Muslims) and intra-Islamic (pertaining to Sunni, Shīʿa and Sufi orientations). These urban practices embodied in religious actions are again responsive to a bigger framework of power that defines the Hindu-majority urbanity of Kolkata. Prince Anwar Shah Road, in a way, is a case study to define its multiple religious sites through different and similar sensory experiences. A set of specific sensory habits is associated with a particular kind of veneration (Low, 398), say Shīʿa or Sufi. But some elements are adopted from the other, atmospheres collide, marking the unique adaptability of the communities living in a crowded neighbourhood.
All images used in this blog post were taken by the author.
Epsita Halder is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, India. She was a fellow in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” in the summer semester 2022 with a project on “Everyday Shi’ism Online: Use of Social Media and the Contest over Urban Space (Kolkata, India)”.
Bid’at means innovation in Islam that is not permissible.
Imambaras are the religious sites for the ritual congregation of the Shia Muslims. Sermons and lament rituals take place inside the imambaras to commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. On the day of Ashura, the 10th day of the month of Muharram, the Shias participate in big public processions, where they carry the replica of Husayn’s tomb, chant elegies, beat their chest and perform occasional self-flagellation.
Dargahs are Sufi shrines where the Sufi master stays and preaches with a collective of recitation of Sufi lyrics and singing.
Mazars are also Sufi establishments which hold the grave of the Sufi pir who remains the centre of devotion.
Nauhas are lyrical expositions, chanted to commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn in the battle of Karbala.
Taziyehs are the replica of Husayn’s mausoleum that are carrying in the Ashura procession.
Khadem, literally meaning the servant of Allah, signifies the custodian of any Sufi dargah or mazar.
Chadar signifies a rectangular embellished piece of cloth to be offered to the grave of Sufi saint at the mazar as an act of veneration.
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 I am informed by Susanne Rau’s reading of Michel de Certeau’s idea of ‘parcours’ (the traveller through the streets) that she exposes in her three-part essay (2020) titled “Walking through the Streets of Calicut.” Similarly, colonial writings —traveller’s accounts, memoirs and journals — can be important sources to understand the processes of urbanisation. For a city like Kolkata, such readings are overdue when we talk about neighbourhoods beyond the Empire’s quarters.