How Kolkata Chinese Revive Memory Of Atchew, Their First Ancestor

Atchew or Tong Achew was the first Chinese to settle down in Calcutta in 18th century. Every year after the Lunar New Year, the Chinese community of Kolkata visit his grave in Achipur to pay tributes
A woman prays at the temple of Tong Achew in Achipur, West Bengal
A woman prays at the temple of Tong Achew in Achipur, West Bengal

It was the most drool-worthy sight. Tea, coke and exotic wines, fruits, cakes, biscuits, wafers, dumplings, dressed chickens—an array of foodstuff was neatly laid on a long table. A thin veil of aromatic smoke hung over the place as scores of incense sticks burnt in decorative red holders.

As more pilgrims arrived, the food pile got bigger and the smoke more intense. And through the haze, the idols of Khuda-Khudi looked on benevolently at the arriving pilgrims and their offerings. It was awesome to watch the unfolding of a day-long festival, the only one of its kind in the world, at Achipur, lying to the south-west of Kolkata.

Narrow roads, traffic jams, a bustle of residential houses, shops, schools and markets—at first glance, there is little to distinguish Achipur from its neighbours. Every year after the Lunar New Year, members of the Chinese community of Kolkata head to Tong Achew's grave to pay homage.

The entrance to the Temple of the Earth God and Goddess in Achipur
The entrance to the Temple of the Earth God and Goddess in Achipur

The Legend Of The First Chinese In Calcutta

According to reports, Atchew or Tong Achew was the first Chinese to settle down in Calcutta (the old name of Kolkata) in the late 18th century. An entry in the Bengal District Gazetteer 24 Parganas says that Tong Achew was given a grant of land by East India Company's Governor General Warren Hastings where he set up a sugar manufacturing plant.

In 1781, according to the Gazetteer entry, Atchew submitted a memorial to Governor General Hastings and members of the Supreme Council, saying that his Chinese labourers were being lured away by Chinese deserters from the ships to Calcutta.

A notice was issued saying that Atchew was under the protection of the Government and the Board wished to grant every encouragement to the colony of Chinese under his direction. They were determined to offer him every support and assistance in detecting and bringing to condign punishment any ill-disposed persons who inveigled away the Chinese labourers, who were under indentures to him.

New Chapter Begins In Calcutta

Tansen Sen, director of Centre for Global Asia in New York University, Shanghai, said that Hastings had offered the parcel of land to Chinese trader Atchew (whose original name was Yang Dazhao) as he was pleased with his consignment of tea.

Subsequently, Kolkata became home to a large number of Chinese people, who not only engaged in various occupations but also added a new chapter to the evolution of Chinese cuisine. Even though the number of Chinese have gone down in the past couple of decades, not only the people residing in Kolkata but also those who have migrated to distant cities, arrive to pay their respect to Tong Achew.

The first stop is the Temple of the Earth God and Goddess located in the middle of Achipur town, about 30 kms by road from Kolkata, and near the town of Budge Budge.

The table for food offerings in the temple
The table for food offerings in the temple

The Twin Guardian Dieties

The temple complex is easily identifiable by the decorative gate with the name of the temple inscribed on it. The low-roofed temple sits at one side of a field. It consists of the sanctum sanctorum housing the idols and is fronted by a quadrangle with a roof. Around the quadrangle are a couple of prayer halls and a long corridor. Chinese calligraphy adorn the walls. The table for food offerings and the elaborate incense stick holders are laid in front of the sanctum in the quadrangle.

Although little is known about the temple and the twin idols, it is believed that the idols were brought by Achew as guardian deities. With our eyes watering from the smoke, we could just about make out the two small idols in their typical Chinese hats, popularly known as 'Khuda Khudi' or the Earth God and Goddess.

Prayers, burning incense sticks and candles, and laying out the food offering are the main rituals by the pilgrims. Some were beating a drum hanging in front of the sanctum. Many pilgrims were folding envelopes with Chinese calligraphy on them. Later, these envelopes are consecrated to a flame burning in a corner carrying the inscribed prayers to the deceased family elders, explained one of the pilgrims.

There is also a small shrine behind the main temple, apparently dedicated to some Hindu god.

The Rituals And Family Feast

The food on the table is later collected by those who had offered them and consumed with families and friends. While the senior members conversed or got busy preparing the food in electric cookers, many youngsters went out in the field, and burst firecrackers.

Tony Achew's horse-shoe-shaped grave is on the banks of the Hooghly river
Tony Achew's horse-shoe-shaped grave is on the banks of the Hooghly river

From the temple, people visit the grave of Tong Achew on the banks of the Hooghly (Ganga) river. The road cuts through a brick kiln, leading to the grave -- a red horse-shoe shaped structure.

Little is known about the strange-looking grave. Here, too, pilgrims follow the same routine of offering prayers, incense sticks and food, albeit on a smaller scale. The scenic river bank trills with the laughter of people as they pose for photos. The Chinese pilgrims are not averse to non-Chinese people visiting the temple or the grave, provided they maintain discipline and not disrupt the rituals.

Getting There

Achipur is around 30 kms from Kolkata by road. One has to take the Budge Budge Trunk Road from Taratala, a suburban neighbourhood, to the south of the city. But, the journey can be a bit tedious with several crowded townships along the way. Carry some snacks and drinking water as the local eateries may not meet the required hygiene standard.

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