The rise of Kolkata as a centre of trade and the capital of the British empire in Asia attracted settlers from around the world, making it a truly cosmopolitan city. From Chinese artisans and craftsmen, to Jewish traders, to Scottish ‘boxwallahs’, people came from far and wide to settle in what was then called the ‘city of palaces’. But while most other communities like the Armenians, Jews and Chinese are remembered and written about, Kolkata’s Greeks are a largely forgotten community.
Bengal’s ancient links with Greece go back more than 2,000 years.
Ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus mentions this region in his text Bibliotheca Historica written around the 1st century BC. He writes that after Alexander the Great defeated the Indian King Porus in 326 BCE, he asked a certain Phegeus what lay beyond the boundaries of Porus’s kingdom.
Phegeus replied that Alexander would have to cross a desert, after which there was a river called Ganges, 32 stadia wide and the deepest in India. Beyond this lay a kingdom called ‘Gangaridai’, whose people were ferocious warriors and whose king, ‘Xandrames’ had an immense army which contained, among other things, 4,000 war elephants.
This description, and the fact that there was a mutiny in his army which was exhausted from years of campaigning, halted Alexander’s conquests at the Beas river. The Gangaridai kingdom is believed to have existed in the modern-day Bengal region, and finds mention in the works of Greek writers like Diodorus and Megasthenes.
The Greco-Roman world also had flourishing trade relations with Bengal through the port of Tamralipti, known to Greeks and Romans as ‘Tamalites’. However, centuries of political changes in Europe as well as India fractured this relationship. Following the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 CE, almost the entire Greek speaking world came under the rule of the Ottoman empire. It was only much later, in the 18th century, that Greeks began to arrive and settle in Kolkata in search of a fortune.
Traces of the earliest Greeks settled in colonial Calcutta can be found in the tombstones of the city’s historic graveyards.
The earliest Greek tombstone in Kolkata, now unfortunately lost, was dated 1713, indicating that there may have been Greeks living in Kolkata in the early 18th or even late 17th centuries.
British historian, Paul Byron Norris, in his book Ulysses In The Raj, considered the most comprehensive work on Kolkata’s European cemeteries, mentions a tombstone of a certain Georgjos Ioannis Draskoglou Philipoupolis, who died in 1728, found inside Kolkata’s Portuguese Church in 1999.
As with the Chinese, Greek migration to Kolkata came in waves. Prof Dimitrios Vassiliadis of the University of Athens and President of the Indo-Hellenic Society for Culture & Development, has studied Greek settlements in India extensively. He believes that a significant number of Greeks came from the rich trading cities of Adrianoupolis and Phillippoupolis when their properties were laid waste in the Turko-Russian war of 1774.
More Greeks migrated from the Ionian islands, the Aegean islands as well as Greek cities in Cappadocia. By the beginning of the 19th century, there were around 120 Greek families settled in Kolkata. Sadly, there is precious little left in terms of built heritage, of the Greek presence in the city.
Whenever a community moves to a new land, it requires two things – a place of worship and a place to dispose of their dead. The Greeks were orthodox Christians and, therefore for them, this meant a church and a cemetery.
The first Greek church in Kolkata was constructed in an area now known as Amratollah.
There is an interesting anecdote about how this church came to be built.
In 1770, Greek trader Panagiotes Alexandros Argyres of Philipoupolis, accompanied by a certain Captain Thornhill, who was acting as his interpreter, was on a ship headed to India when it was caught in a severe storm. When the ship was on the verge of sinking, Argyres prayed that if he was saved and reached Kolkata, he would build a church there. His prayers were answered and the ship reached safely.
Argyres approached the then Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings, with a petition signed by all Greek merchants in the city, seeking permission to build the church. Work on the church commenced and progressed despite his death in Dhaka in 1777.
With 30,000 rupees from Argyres’s estate and further contributions from the Greek and British merchants of Kolkata, the church, dedicated to The Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor, was completed in 1780. Eight years earlier, the first Greek Priest, Reverend Nikiforos from Sinai, had already arrived in India and occasionally performed the Greek liturgy in Greek homes. With the completion of the church, he began officiating there and maintaining the birth, death, marriage and other records of the Greek community.
Among the priests who served at the church was a certain Father Constantinos Parthenios of Corfu. He would later serve as the model for Christ in Johann Zoffany’s famous painting of the Last Supper, that is still seen hanging on the walls of St John’s Church of England in Kolkata.
Greek families in Bengal, many of whom had been here for two centuries, had not forgotten their homeland. Ever since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Greece had been under Ottoman rule. In the early 19th century, as Greece prepared to revolt, prosperous Greek merchants from Kolkata funded the underground Greek resistance movement – Filiki Eteria or the Society of Friends – which played an important role in the Greek War of Independence. In 1802, on the second day of Easter, they gathered in the Greek Church and, according to the church records, made a solemn vow to use all their spare money and riches for the resurrection of Greece.
Among all the Greek businesses in Kolkata, the most famous is that of the Ralli Brothers. Five brothers from Chios – Zannis, Augustus, Pandia, Toumazis and Eustratios – founded the company in 1815 in Greece, initially dealing in corn, timber and hemp. In 1851, Pandia decided to expand into India, with offices in Mumbai and Kolkata.
Trading primarily in jute, the company made millions until the 1929 Wall Street crash ruined the business. The company was reborn in a partitioned and independent India under George Euthymopoulo, and diversified into tractors, fertilizers and pesticides. The Tatas took over the business in 1961 and the company continues today as a Tata Enterprise.
Old-timers in Kolkata still recall advertisements for Ralli’s ceiling fans. The company’s office in Kolkata, with its magnificent stone-clad façade, can still be seen on Hare Street near Kolkata’s central business district of Dalhousie Square, and today serves as the office of the Life Insurance Corporation of India.
By 1920, the Greek community in Kolkata decided to sell the old church and its adjacent land, which was being used as a cemetery. With the proceeds from the sale, land was purchased in the Kalighat neighbourhood and a new church was built, which stands to this day.
The cemetery was moved to a spot that was then outside the city, but as Kolkata has rapidly grown, it is now part of the northern neighbourhood of Phoolbagan. Tombstones from the old cemetery were moved to the new one, including Argyres’s. The cemetery continues to exist and, efforts were made recently to spruce it up.
Perhaps the most neglected Greek monument of all is the Panioty Fountain. The modest but beautiful fountain is so neglected that even most Kolkatans are not aware of its existence. Panioty is the Anglicised version of Panagiotes. Demetrius Panioty, great-great-great grandson of Panagiotes Alexandros Argyres. Panioty started his career as a humble ‘writer’ in the Bengal Secretariat, rising eventually to become Assistant Private Secretary to Governor-General Lord Ripon. His wife, Perrine, served as interpreter to the Vicerene, Lady Dufferin. He was awarded the C.I.E. (Companion of the Indian Empire) and went on to serve several viceroys after Lord Ripon, until his death in Simla in 1895.
Three years after he died, Lord Curzon had a drinking water fountain erected in his memory at the crossing of Old Court House Street and Esplanade Row East. The elegant monument, crafted out of Jaipur marble in Indo-Saracenic style, is in a sorry state and covered in weeds and bushes. It stands in the northwest corner of what is now Surendra Nath Banerjee Park. Carved into the marble and still visible is the line from Proverbs 22:1, “A good name is more desirable than great riches”, which aptly sums up Demetrius Panioty’s life. Bengalis would perhaps remember this fountain making a brief appearance in the 1958 film Paras Pathar by legendary Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
With 1947 came Indian independence and Partition. European settlers including the Greeks began returning to their respective homelands.
The Greek Orthodox Church of Kalighat was left without a congregation and shut down in 1972.
It was reopened in 1991 at the behest of the Greek embassy, which sent a Greek Orthodox nun, Sister Nectaria Paridisi, from South Korea, who has remained in the city ever since.
Sunday Mass is still conducted in the church, although in Bengali, and is largely attended by Bengali Christians. Sister Nectaria is now the only Greek in Kolkata, although after more than 20 years in the city, she said in an interview to a national newspaper, “I am half Indian”.
Deepanjan Ghosh is a broadcast professional from Kolkata, India. A history buff, a landscape and architecture photographer and blogger, he has has been writing about Kolkata since 2013 and hopes to release a book on Kolkata's history soon.