Chef Rachit Kirteeman explores Chhatra Bazar and Mal Godown—markets which have close ties—and finds that even though much has changed over the years, some old connections remain.
Located in the city of Cuttack, Chhatra Bazar—a market named after a massive 12-pillar chhat (roof)—is the largest wholesale market in Odisha. Cuttack is an ancient city with a recorded history of over a thousand years. You can hardly see the remnants of the old chhat house now, which was originally built by the British for vendors. But you can still find traces of the British era in old shops and buildings that were inspired by the art-deco movement. (You’ll find more about the12-pillar chhat in John Beames’ Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian.) Many of the old fruit and vegetable godowns here are around 60 to 80-year-old structures with art-deco inspired facades, so keep a lookout.
Like any market, this one is best explored on foot too, especially if you’re interested in seeing the old shops and storehouses that have sold local and seasonal produce such as kosala saag (green amaranth), ouu (elephant apple) and kakharu phula (pumpkin flowers) for several decades now.
Divided by the Taladanda canal that originates from the river Mahanadi, Chhatra Bazar is the first stop for many of the trucks carrying goods into the state from neighbouring states. This was the old supply route, and it was through this very canal that vegetables and goods came by boats. These were then unloaded at the local godowns (many of which exist today) to be sold.
I was lucky to be able to chat with a few vendors at the bazar, which has served as a kind of lifeline for communities in Cuttack, supplying fresh produce, grains and pulses to important markets in the city. Ganesh, a banana-seller, told me, “One thing that I would like the administration to do for the market is to make it more open, like it used to be decades ago when I visited with my father. Back then, the fruits used to come on boats into the market. Our shop is exactly where it was then. As children, we used to fish and swim in this canal with its clear water flowing from the Mahanadi river, but now with the overcrowding, it’s not the same. The illegal encroachments have made the market very congested.”
“As children, we used to fish and swim in this canal with its clear water flowing from the Mahanadi river, but now with the overcrowding, it’s not the same.”
In most ways, Chhatra Bazar functions like a very traditional subzi mandi (vegetable market). There are godown owners who stock produce, both fresh and dry (the dry is stored in the Mal Godown area); beparis (wholesale vendors) who procure it from these godowns and supply it to sellers across the city; utha beparis (temporary vendors) with no shops who take on credit produce from godown owners and sell it for a profit around the market area; and bula beparis (vendors on cycles and mopeds) who take a mix of produce from wholesalers, and go into the winding lanes of Cuttack to sell the products.
Although the market is predominantly male-dominated, there are many women vendors who are also part of this thriving community, many of whom usually deal with small quantities of produce grown or foraged from local farms and backyard kitchen patches.
The unique thing about Chhatra Bazar as a vegetable market is its proximity to Mal Godown—a central wholesale warehouse for non-perishable foods—which has been operational for close to 150 years. A maze of British-era buildings, it is located strategically near the Cuttack Junction railway station, and a range of items can be found here, from various pulses and spices to jaggery and oil.
A maze of British-era buildings, it is located strategically near the Cuttack Junction railway station, and a range of items can be found here, from various pulses and spices to jaggery and oil.
Ankit Gupta, a godown owner said, “My great grandfather came from Bikaner decades ago in search of better opportunities and started dealing with various forms of rice and pulses. He took this very same godown on lease from the Indian railways and set shop here. Eighty years down the lane, as a 3rd generation godown owner, I continue the family business. We have now expanded into manufacturing and processing atta and rice under our brand.”
If, like me, you like the atmosphere and controlled chaos of traditional markets, you must make a visit here. At Chhatra Bazar, I always look forward to the smell of fresh turmeric leaves and the varied hawking calls of the vendors which have such an infectious energy.
Strike a conversation with any one of the vendors, and you are bound to discover stories and facts that lie behind these old buildings that are a living testament to this city’s history.
Rachit Kirteeman is a consultant chef and visual storyteller by profession, and an avid traveller. A culture geek, he operates at the fascinating intersection of history, heritage and food. He loves collecting coffee, books, LPs and Hotwheels. When not cooking or helping people cook, he can be found travelling in search of delectable cuisines, related stories and cultures that drive those very dishes. Follow him on Instagram here.
Markets carry the pulse of the communities that they serve, and act as a window to diverse cultures. Market Archives aims to document as many markets from around India as possible—small, sprawling, vanishing, noisy, up a hill, tucked away in a corner of the city—every one of them. Join us as we speak to different sellers, see what’s in season across varied geographies, taste the familiar and unfamiliar, and soak in the sounds and scents that define each market.