In the backdrop of the ongoing majoritarian nationalistic fad of finding traces of old temples within medieval Mughal structures, one such monument has been unearthed in Kolkata. Not under a mosque, but in the fictional adventures of Tintin.
On May 22, fans of the iconic fictional character celebrated his creator, Belgian cartoonist Georges Prosper Remi or Hergé’s 115th birthday on social media. As an avid fan of Tintin, I, too, joined the bandwagon digging out more interesting information and fascinating facts about the series featuring the young and intrepid journalist. While on this journey, I discovered Tintin’s–and Hergé’s–association with the Parasnath Jain Temple in Kolkata.
Incidentally, it all started while revisiting the photographs I had clicked of the personal belongings of Hergé at the eponymous Musée Hergé in the obscure and tiny Belgian town, Ottignies-Louvain-la-Neuve, on the outskirts of capital Brussels three years ago.
Tintin’s tryst with India
I came across a black and white photograph of an ornamented edifice that I remember seeing in one of the Tintin stories that saw him visiting India. As a Tintinophile, I knew very well that only three stories in the series – Cigars of the Pharaoh, The Blue Lotus and Tintin in Tibet – brought the precocious pressman with his trademark quiff to India.
Incidentally, The Blue Lotus, which saw Tintin and his Wire Fox Terrier canine companion, Snowy (Milou in original French), bust an international gang of opium smugglers in Japanese-invaded China, began with the reporter’s prolonged stay in India. This visit came after Tintin’s dramatic arrival in our country at the end of his extraordinary adventures in Cigars of the Pharaoh.
I flipped through the pages of these books and located a similar-looking illustration of an ornamented structure on the opening page of The Blue Lotus.
The first panel on the first page with illustrations of The Blue Lotus features a building similar to a photograph I had stumbled upon as part of Hergé’s personal collection. The illustration came after a short introduction in the opening panel. “Tintin and Snowy are in India, guests of the Maharaja of Gaipajama, enjoying a well-earned rest.” It was followed by a panel of an image of India with the grand edifice comprising archetypal arches and conical towers of an Indian architectural marvel. The structure resembled a temple with a water reservoir or a fountain on its forecourt.
Making sense of the Blue Lotus edifice
After some elementary research and scanning through eminent Tintin researcher and writer Patrick Mérand’s French-language book, Les Arts et Les Sciences Dans L’œuvre d’Hergé (The Arts and Sciences in the Work of Hergé), I spotted a reference to the Parasnath Jain Temple of Calcutta (now Kolkata). I vaguely remembered that as a schoolboy, I did visit a Jain temple in Kolkata’s Gouribari locality in Maniktala many decades ago. A quick Google search fetched me the photograph of the Parasnath Jain Temple. When I tried to match an old picture of the Kolkata Jain Temple with the 1867-built temple photo at Musée Hergé, it was indeed a eureka moment for me.
Connecting Tintin and Kolkata
The regal edifice shown at the palace compound of the Maharaja of Gaipajama in The Blue Lotus is indeed an illustration of the Jain Temple of a city that has embraced Tintin in its cultural sphere after poet Nirendranath Chakraborty ‘Bengali-cised’ the whole series with his immaculate and lively translation in the 1970s.
Hergé’s personal collections at Musée Hergé, ranging from cult records of Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Beatles and Pink Floyd to old photographs of imperialist China, magazine articles on African tribes and animals, books on Tibet and artefacts from Latin America, highlighted how the world-famous cartoonist used many of these items as reference for his illustrations of Tintin stories.
The Parasnath Temple of Kolkata, bankrolled by then-influential Jain jeweller Rai Badridas Bahadoor Mookim in 1867, was no exception as it made its way into a Tintin adventure to establish a fictitious palace premise. A Kolkata connection with Tintin was thus established with the uncaptioned photograph at the museum on 26 Labrador Street (Rue du Labrador), commemorating Tintin’s fictional abode.
An unparalleled Tintin-mania through the ages
It was significant considering the enormous popularity of Hergé’s prime protagonist across generations in Kolkata and the rest of Bengal. Incidentally, Bengali was the first Indian and South Asian language in which the famous French-language series was translated, starting in the 1970s. Since then, Tintin has remained one of the most beloved fictional characters in the state.
Herge, in an interview with Anand Bazar Patrika’s group head, Aveek Sarkar, had mentioned that even though he had once made a stopover in Delhi while en route Australia, he had never set foot on the soil of Kolkata. That enviable meeting between Tintin’s creator and Sarkar in Brussels in the 70s paved the way for Tintin’s entry into the modern Bengali imagination.
In another quote I saw at the Musee Herge, the Belgian cartoonist mentioned, “I receive a lot of mail from India. Here, in the office, are two letters from Calcutta. Now, what can there be in common between a boy in Calcutta and myself?”
Memes and tributes in Kolkata
In recent times, thanks to a few Tintinophile Bengali artists, several eye-catching illustrations of dhoti-clad Tintin and his various imaginary adventures set in Kolkata and other parts of Bengal such as Darjeeling, have gone viral on social media. But the fact that Hergé featured a Jain temple from their beloved city, once described by the moniker ‘City of Palaces’ by the British, in one of his most popular Tintin adventures remained rather inconspicuous in Kolkata and the rest of Bengal even four decades after the creator’s death in 1983.
Moreover, it’s highly unlikely that Hergé knew about the location or identity of the temple he drew in The Blue Lotus since it was part of a set of random photographs he collected from different sources. But now, at least, the Tintinophiles of Bengal can reclaim the Parasnath Jain Temple in their own metaverse without digging deeper or dragging it to court.
Suvam Pal is an independent media professional, author & documentary filmmaker. He tweets @suvvz. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)