Behind Kolkata’s Clay Cups: The Bhar Wallahs of Kalighat

Kolkata’s streets are paved with bhar. Fragments of the handmade clay cups crunch underfoot on sidewalks, collect monsoon rain in blocked gutters and brighten dull gray train tracks with their dusky orange glow. Bengal’s dairy delicacies, lassi and mishti doi, are stored and served in bhar, but the earthenware shards littering the roads are most often remnants of piping hot cups of chai.


Years ago, bhar was the standard vessel for chai around the country. After slurping down the last sips of their brew, customers would ceremoniously smash their bhar against the ground, returning the clay to the earth from which it was made. It was the perfect model of sustainable consumption. But with the introduction of plastic, chai wallahs around the country abandoned bhar in favor of cups made of the cheaper and supposedly more hygienic material. Former Railways Minister Lalu Prasad attempted to revive the tradition in 2004 by mandating that chai be served in bhar in railway stations and on trains, but his effort largely failed. Today, the chai wallahs who walk the aisles of India’s trains sounding their trademark nasal call of “Chai! Garam chai!” carry plastic.

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Bakra Eid Biryani: An Old Chai Wallah’s Recipe

Goat's last moments

Bakra Eid is a time to spend with family, in prayer and, as the name would suggest, with goats. The Muslim holiday honors the prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail in obedience to Allah’s command. Jews and Christians may remember the punch line from Sunday School: at the last minute, Ismail was replaced with a lamb, and father and son were left to feast on delicious kebabs together in the desert. Known as Eid al-Adha in Arabic, or Feast of the Sacrifice, South Asians call the holiday Bakra Eid – bakra means goat in Hindi and Urdu.

We were fortunate enough to celebrate Bakra Eid with our friends the Hussains in a Muslim neighborhood in Kolkata. The first item on the day’s agenda after the morning namaz was slaughtering four goats in honor of each of the household’s women. After the kurbaan (sacrifice) was performed on the Hussains’ terrace with the blessings of the local mosque’s imam and the help of a neighborhood butcher, we settled down to a hearty breakfast of goat brain curry, chicken stew, potatoes, and paranthas drenched in ghee. To aid digestion, we sipped sugary tea and listened to the sounds of the street – goats bleating before the inevitable, crows cawing as they contemplated how to get a piece of the action, and kids screaming with joy like the ones we witnessed sitting on a cow to hold it down for the butcher’s blade.

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Durga Puja in Kolkata: The World’s Greatest Street Party

Elephant at pandal

Durga Puja may be the world’s greatest street party. For five days, Kolkata completely shuts down to honor the Mother Goddess Durga and celebrate her victory over the evil buffalo demon Mahishashura.

Throughout the city, thousands of elaborate structures known as pandals are constructed to house larger-than-life idols of Durga slaying Mahishashura, flanked by her children Ganesh, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Karthik. Many artists spend all year coming up with themes for these pandals, which provide audiences with far more than a temporary temple – they transport visitors to other worlds with their captivating designs, from a typical Bengali village to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.

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Adapting to the Times: An Urban Herder’s Story

For the better part of the twentieth century, IBM made its name selling commercial scales and punch card tabulators, and later, mainframe computers and calculators. But disruptive times called for the company to change business models and it adapted to become a leader in IT and consulting services.


Call Shivnat Rai Jadav the IBM of Central Kolkata. For the first 50 years of his professional life, Shivnat delivered milk to homes and businesses in and around Bara Bazaar, a vibrant patchwork of narrow bylanes and back alleys where over 50,000 merchants make a living right on top of each other. “We had cows and buffaloes here,” he waves his arm at the surrounding area. But ten years ago, Kolkata Police enforced a ban on urban grazing and Shivnat was forced to move his herd across the Hooghly River to the suburb of Belur seven kilometers north. 

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Heartbreak and Happiness

Ana Stern

Former Education Manager at The Akanksha Foundation in Pune, Maharashtra.

Not all chai stories have a happy ending. Like many street vendors in India, chai wallahs often lead a precarious existence. Their stands can be shut down by police or the local mafia demanding a bribe, or by the government when it needs to clear space for development.

Ana Stern lived in Pune for nearly three years and became close to her favorite chai wallah, who faced eviction and an uncertain future:

Unfortunately my favorite chaiwala disappeared when the government decided to clean up the streets. One day they just started knocking down roadside stalls. I wanted to cry. My chaiwala’s partner was walking away with a slab of sheet metal, said that was all that was left, and bye. Later in June I ran into my chaiwala trying to find employment at a mall. It was heartbreaking to listen to his story. He really did have the best chai ever.

Ana also shared a more uplifting story about Yatin, her friend and chai guru.

On a happier chai note, my friend used to come to my house and teach me how to make chai properly. I would lay out all of the ingredients when he said he was close by and then get called a good student. For fun we would namaste and bow when he walked in and I would greet him with a, “hello chaiguru!” We would then proceed to the kitchen where he would call me a great student for laying out the ingredients. It was always amazing. Occasionally I would make the chai before he came over and it was never quite as good. Just once I got a “bahut acha” from him and it made my day (that and the great chai). When one of my best girlfriends came over she would tell me that the way I made it is all wrong. Although I listened to her for all other cooking advice, I will only follow my chaiguru, Yatin, for chai.

Ana Stern with kids at The Akanksha Foundation where she worked as education manager

Ana Stern with kids at The Akanksha Foundation where she worked as education manager

Monsoon Chai: A Respite from the Rain

Here’s a haiku for the season.

Don’t have umbrella.
Stuck in Kolkata monsoon.
We’re drenched. Dripping. Wet.

Walking through the city of Rabindranath Tagore, it’s hard not to feel poetically inspired. But when you’re walking in a torrential downpour, it’s hard to feel any other way than wet.

The heaviest monsoon rains are supposed to pass Kolkata by the end of September. But due to low pressure hovering over the Bay of Bengal, the City of Joy has been hammered by thunderstorms threatening to dampen Durga Puja festivities.

Victoria Memorial monsoon

We made two rookie mistakes resulting in the complete soaking of our clothes and belongings. First, we failed to realize that Calcuttans are quite sympathetic to the fact that it no one really gets anywhere in the rain. Ignorant and rushing make an appointment on time, we descended the steps of the Victoria Memorial, where we had spent the afternoon, into the deluge. Second, we did not bring an umbrella.

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On the Campaign Trail: Where a Cup Can Make or Break an Election

Bonnie Mann campaigns at a Jat Sikh village in Karnal District

Barjinder “Bonnie” Mann campaigns at a Jat Sikh village in Karnal District, Haryana

The Bible mentions breaking bread with others as the ultimate culinary conveyance of fellowship. In India, it’s taking tea. Nowhere is this more evident than on the campaign trail where a quick cup with voters can make or break an election.

We tagged along with Barjinder “Bonnie” Mann, a candidate for Haryana state legislature, as he visited villages in Karnal district, about 100 miles north and a world away from the hustle and bustle of Delhi.

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