Mousumi Das, Kolkata: Asia’s largest red-light district ‘Sonagachi’ is located in North Kolkata near the intersection of CR Avenue and Shobhabazar (Sutanuti) with Beadon Street. Thin lanes stretch like veins in a 300-year-old district. The curious Kolkatans, who ain’t the customers often dare to it’s lane and frequently wonder about the ‘naamkarann’ or why the name given as ‘Sonagachi’. This is why I have come up with a tale that reveals how and where it’s name come from.
‘Sonagachi’ the name means ‘tree of gold’, the enthralling story of its name is traced by Kolkata’s historian PT Nair in his book“A History of Calcutta’s streets”.
Earlier, folklore has it that it was christened after a muslim saint, Sanaullah Ghazi, entombed close to the Shiva temple in the colony.But a recent report by Deepanjan Ghosh & The Indian Express have come up with the actual story traced by the ‘barefoot historian’of Kolkata PT Nair in his book “A History of Calcutta’s streets”reveals – During the early days of the city, the area was the den of a notorious Muslim dacoit by the name of Sanaullah, who lived here with his mother. On his death, the grieving woman is said to have heard a voice coming from their hut, saying, “Mother, don’t cry. I have become a Gazi”, and so the legend of “Sona Gazi” began. People flocked to the hut by the thousands to be cured of various ailments or with prayers for a better life. Sanaullah’s mother, writes Nair, built a large and beautiful mosque in memory of her son, which came to be known as the mosque of Sona Gazi. Unfortunately, after her death, the mosque fell into disuse and eventually disappeared altogether. This mosque gave the neighbouring Masjid Bari Street its name, while Sanaullah Gazi turned into Sonagachi.
The Arabic word gazi or ghazi, originally, simply meant warrior. But after the birth of the Prophet and the spread of Islam, it was used especially to denote a religious warrior who helped in the spread of Islam. In Volume II of History of Bengal edited by Sir Jadunath Sirkar, are accounts of these warrior saints to whom poor Muslim families would appeal, usually against a zamindar or a local chief who was persecuting them. The gazi would then invade the territory of the offending chieftain, and in case of victory, either force him to convert to Islam or get him to guarantee that his Muslim subjects would not be persecuted. In the case of Sanaullah Ghazi, the transformation of a dacoit into a warrior saint may seem strange, but it is certainly not unique. Many of Bengal’s Hindu dacoits are known to have been worshippers of the Goddess Kali, and several such “Dakatey Kali” temples still survive, even within Kolkata. Many of the dacoits are also said to have been Robin Hood-like figures and were popular with the masses.
Unfortunately, the early history of Sonagachi isn’t well-documented. There is no definite way to tell how or exactly when it turned into a red-light district. Journalist Gautam Basu Mullick, who has been researching and writing about the city for more than three decades, points to a set of circumstances that always lead to a rise in prostitution. Sonagachi stands on the old pilgrim road, which is now Rabindra Sarani.
The brothels of Sonagachi, at one point, were said to be owned by prominent Bengali families. Today, women stare out from the balconies of decrepit mansions with suggestive names like “Prem Kutir”.Few fabled buildings that lent their names to old movies. The dargah of Sanaullah Ghazi still survives, although like many other mosques and temples in the city, it has undergone arbitrary “renovation”.
South Asia’s largest sex worker colony, the narrow, rat-infested lanes of Sonagachi are now home to some roughly 18,000 sex workers. 7,000 four-storey brothels. As afternoon dulls, the paths are choked with women and brokers. Saris sparkle and guile populates finer quarters, whereas lower cadres are in scanty garb in deeper areas. Doors are left ajar to reveal seedy scenes to lure customers; decibel levels of negotiations rise by the second. It’s their daily cycle of life. And from all that the eyes and ears captured, this little city was not joyless.