A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee.
(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)
Chinamantala is a small village near Budge Budge, about 50 kilometres from Kolkata Airport via Diamond Harbour Road. There are no direct bus or train routes to reach the place, but can be easily accessed by private vehicle.
Today you will hardly find any Chinese families residing there, but the name of the place is still dedicated to them. Remnants of only two ancient Chinese settlements have survived the ravages of time – a traditional Chinese temple and the grave of India’s first Chinese forefather Tong Acheew. The silent hamlet gets back its life during the Chinese New Year week when plenty of Indian Chinese inhabitants visit the place, pay tribute to the great man, tune to the beats of ethnic drums and perform dragon dancing in typical Chinese carnival style.
Though the distance from Kolkata is very less, yet due to extreme conditions of Diamond Harbour Road and then Budge Budge Trunk Road, it took us almost two and half hours to reach the place. GPS guided quite well till Budge Budge but thereafter asking locales served as the easiest pathfinder.
Crossing Budge Budge BDO Office, we drove straight till Pujali (around 5 kilometres). Took a tea break at Shivtala which looked more like a local marketplace. We asked the directions for Chinamantala from the old Muslim tea vendor who guided us with confidence to our destination. He asked to take left from the next Y-junction popularly known as Boro Battala. From there, the Chinese temple was on right within a kilometre’s drive through the village road.
We were very disappointed to find the temple closed after reaching there. The massive green painted entry porch seemed to have been built in recent times and appeared quite well maintained. There were some Chinese inscriptions on the marble plaque along with English engravings. The temple belongs to the God and Goddess of Earth and is maintained by Kolkata’s Gee Hing Church and Club.
Our watch showed, it was 12.30pm. Unfortunately, we could not locate a single person around to ask about the temple timings. Little hesitantly, we parked our car opposite to the main gate and peeped in through the grills. Nothing much could be seen except a green lawn and a red coloured insignificant construction at the right-hand corner of the ground.
There was a rustic shop just beside the temple, which too was closed. Highly disappointed, as we were about to leave the place, a mid-aged lady smiled at us. From her attire, she looked like a local villager. With lots of courage, we too smiled back. This created an immediate air of confidence on both the sides and sparked a conversation. She was a primary school teacher and by our luck came out to be a very learned lady. She took us back to the rich history of the place through her narrative.
1718 AD, a young courageous Chinese tea trader named Tong Acheew had landed at the shores of Bay of Bengal, near Budge Budge with the hope of conducting trade with English East India Company. It took him years of struggle to establish a trading relationship with the Company. During late 1770s, after being successful in persuading Warren Hastings, the then Governor General of British India, Tong Acheew was permitted to start the first Chinese owned sugar mill of the country. That opened doors to the influx of hordes of Chinese workers from the Hakka and Cantonese communities, who settled in the villages in and around the sugar mill.
Since the locality was just beside the mighty Hooghly River (an indigenous name of Ganga), the land was very fertile here which flickered another bizarre idea in the trader’s mind. Within a year, Tong Acheew took on lease a huge agricultural land from the Britishers for cultivating sugarcane, which in turn would serve the purpose of sugar supply for his mill.
To support the entire supply chain, there was huge demand of cheap labour. Soon, the workers’ families too were immigrated from China and the small village flourished to a full-grown Chinese community. The native hamlet was renamed to Acheewpur in his honour and the exact location of the sugar mill got its name changed to Chinamantala. With the passage of time, Acheewpur has become modified to Achipur, the name by which it is known today.
Thrilled by the golden past of the place, we also asked her about the history of this Chinese temple. She said, as popularly known amongst the locales, Tong Acheew was a religious man and deeply worshipped aboriginal tutelary Chinese divinities named Tudi-Gong (God & Goddess of Earth). During his first visit to Calcutta in 1718, he carried two small idols of these deities which he established in the form of a small shrine. Later, the sugar mill was constructed just beside it. Natives, majority of whom were Hindus & Muslims, when revolted against the institutionalization of foreign deities in their homeland, Tong Acheew renamed the deities with an Indianized appeal – Khoda and Khodi. He also exhibited extreme liberality by creating a temple for Lord Shiva beside the Chinese shrine. However, no Shivalinga was allowed to be held within the premises. With time, it came to be known as Chinese temple, unlike by the name of the deities housed inside. Even today, a single priest offers daily prayers to both the deities with equal esteem and belief, making it a one of its kind. Hardly in the world there would be a second instance of such generous religiosity.
From the lady’s emotional attachment with the place, it was clear that the temple does hold a very special corner in the hearts of all the villagers. She felt very happy to see our curiosity about Acheewpur and thus guided us to the shrines through a backside exit gate. That gate was mostly used by the priest and strictly restricted for visitors. Nevertheless, standing at the gate itself, we could see the temple woodworks, Chinese pillar calligraphy, the shrines and the offerings. The red coloured insignificant construction at the right-hand corner of the ground which we saw from the main entrance was actually the original temple shrine. The ceiling height was so low that we had to literally crawl inside. It was such an unusual experience indeed. Regrettably, photography was restricted inside.
Upon asking about the tomb of Tong Acheew, she advised us to park our car near the temple and walk half a kilometre along the tapering muddy road towards the river. Then, giving a second’s pause, she herself offered to accompany us to the place as it would be difficult for us to locate it as outsiders. Such an open helping attitude from a native touched our heart with contentment.
For the next fifteen minutes, she kept narrating Tong Acheew’s life story and his sad demise. Within few years of the settlement, the sugar plantations and factory both were running with heavy returns. Even the Britishers were happy with the huge profits. But luck was not his side. Tong Acheew was fatally diagnosed with an ailment and he succumbed to death very fast. Soon after he passed away, the Britishers took control of his sugar mill and started cultivating indigo on the same land, ushering nightmare for the Chinese labourers. The poor workers started worshipping Tong Acheew as a divine self. They also constructed a grave in his memory just beside the Hooghly River with the hope of protection from the clutches of inhumane indigo planters of East India Company.
Within a span of just two years, thousands of Chinese nationals who had settled along the banks of Budge Budge, started migrating towards the mainland of Calcutta in search of peaceful work environment. Most of them landed near Tiretta Bazar, now popularly known as China Town and Acheewpur looks deserted since then. On a different note, if we flip through the pages of history, Acheewpur marked the beginning of Chinese settlements in India.
After walking for a while, she pointed us to take a shorter route through a brick factory as it was about to dusk. As time sailed through 250 years, the Hooghly River changed its courses several times. Years ago, the original graveyard constructed by the Chinese residents got engulfed into the depths of the river. However, to commemorate the memory of Tong Acheew, a U-shaped red coloured grave has been newly constructed near the present-day Budge Budge Ferry Ghat and is often used as a Hindu cremation ground.
The view of the setting sun on Hooghly River from the holy site was a mesmerizing treat to our tired eyes. We thanked the lady for her time and valuable insights about the rich past of Chinamantala. If we did not happen to come across her, our trip would have been certainly incomplete. With the Chinese New Year knocking the door this weekend, why don’t you plan a day trip to this awesome getaway?