For the last 152 years, what has remained common in Natun Bazar in Kolkata is the sight of meetha and the aroma of Sandesh!
The markets in Kolkata, maintaining their traditions, are always decked up to offer various sweet essentials to its residents and while all other markets have geared up to offer the same, Natun Bazar in Kolkata continues to satiate another major craving of the city - Sandesh, like it has been doing for the last 152 years in Kolkata.
Meetha has been Kolkata’s favourite since time immemorial and so are the sweets to Natun Bazaar in the ‘city of joy’. The narrow messy lanes and roads describe the view of the market with the old and many dilapidated buildings existing here for the ages with many balustraded balconies from where generations have seen this market. A visit to the market, thus, cannot be completed without glancing at this architecture that narrates many forgotten stories to date.
Emerging within wealthiest
According to various documented reports, the market was first established by Raja Rajendra Mullick, one of the biggest and wealthiest businessmen in Kolkata, in the year 1871. It is believed that since then, the market has been a pioneer in selling Sandesh. However, this sweet is not limited to just one variety, and the reason is the wide variety of Sandesh available in various shapes and types. Reportedly, from marble-sized Sandesh to tan-colored ones shaped like conches, coffee-brown squares, and yellow spheres, the market takes pride in offering a diverse range.
Delving into the historical phases of Natun Bazar's establishment, Raja Mullick traced the bazaar to Chitpore Road (formerly known as Rabindra Sarani). During this period, markets were emerging as centers of growth, attracting many seeking their livelihoods. This location was ideal at the time, as the streets were surrounded by several of Kolkata's wealthiest families. Reports also suggest that Tagore Castle, built by the Tagores of Pathuriaghata in the 1820s, was located just a few streets away from the newly developed Natun Bazar.
The birth of ‘meethas’
Gradually, the place attracted moiras, the professional confectioners, who saw this market as a great opportunity to earn a livelihood. They had been coming to the place before the market was established, selling a sweet called 'monda' or lumps of sweetened cottage cheese through their temporary stalls. However, with the establishment of the market, they began to consider shifting here permanently. Reports claim that this marked the beginning of a tradition of dedicating sweetness to this city.
As the reports suggest, mondas transformed into Sandesh over time, and a few proprietors began experimenting with flavors, introducing chocolate-flavored Sandesh, even back in the 1900s. In fact, a proprietor named Bhoot Nath Das, whose family was renowned for making Sandesh, was approached by a scion who asked Das to use the cocoa powder he had brought from England. Although Das was initially hesitant, he experimented with it and created the brown texture that complemented the traditional milky white Sandesh, becoming an instant hit. It is believed that, in the past, the primary ingredients for these sweets were coconut, lentils, and khoya (reduced milk).
As time passed by, the market saw the arrival of various brass and bronze utensil shops along with a few doctors’ offices and pharmacies settling down in the area. These were accompanied by bookstores, printing presses, grocery stores, and even warehouses — all of which also turned out to be a driving force for the artisans and craftsmen to settle down too. And that is how the market, gradually became a bustling affair in the heart of the city.
The arena now
While time may have brought in various traders and people to this market and its surroundings, what Natun Bazar proudly preserves is the remnants of a bygone era. The houses, known as barrack bari, that were constructed to accommodate the sellers and confectioners of the 19th century still stand, enduring the test of time. Facing each other, the most popular sweet shops, Nalin Chandra Das & Sons and Makahnlal Das & Sons, serve as evidence of how Natun Bazaar evolved into a sweet hub. Currently, both brands have multiple stores located across the city. Reports suggest that these stores have meticulously maintained their antique shelves, dusty walls, and even old photographs.
The commonality between these two stores and other similar sweet shops in the market is the absence of the usual glass showcases for the sweets. The tradition here involves displaying the sweets on brass platters and Barkosh or wooden salvers. In fact, until a few years ago, it was easy to find Sandesh priced at much more affordable rates, as low as one or two rupees. Furthermore, the market boasts a significant presence of wholesale markets that are still dedicated primarily to Khoya, which is sourced from various parts of West Bengal, including Bardhaman, Birbhum, Murshidabad, and more. However, there are various shops like Shambhunath Haldar’s Kheer shop that do not source it from external suppliers but instead make their own using milk procured from markets like Jorasanko, whose existence dates back more than a century.
Besides this, the current scene at the market includes a variety of stalls selling fruits, vegetables, medicines, and even clothing. Several shops have also opened in the market, which must be explored within its cluttered lanes. While navigating through these lanes can be troublesome, what sets it apart is the former charm and the sweet transformation that Kolkata has experienced through Natun Bazar.