Small towns, storied pasts
Even at 6am, traffic on the Grand Trunk Road is chaotic. It is hard to believe that this narrow road is an old and important highway that connects central and southern Asia. I’m on the section of the highway in West Bengal that saunters past the business district of Howrah, through the old settlements of Bally, Uttarpara and Konnagar. On my right, I glimpse the grey expanse of the Hooghly between the old mansions of wealthy Bengali families who settled here during the British Raj.
I’m out on a day trip from Kolkata to visit even older towns along the river that served as trading posts for European seafarers long before the British came. Many still hold traces of that time.
The Danish den
Listless Serampore belies its past as a 19th century centre of education and publishing. The Danish East India Company’s colony here, from 1755-1845, was named Fredericksnagore after King Frederick V. The historic town square housed the Governor’s House and other neo-classical buildings. A relative whose family has lived here for generations told me
they were elegant white mansions with expansive porticoes and windows with green Venetian blinds. Most were demolished by the British when the Danes handed over the town in 1845 for just Rs1.2 million.
Concrete structures dotting the once elegant riverside promenade are eyesores that even the calm river, lit by the mellow morning sunlight, cannot soothe. Till I round a corner, and a majestic colonnaded edifice looms ahead. Serampore College was founded in 1818 by Christian Baptist missionaries William Carey, William Ward and Joshua Marshman, famous as the Serampore Trio. It is India’s second oldest college, created under a Royal Danish Charter granted by King Frederick VI. Nearby, St Olav’s Church is the town’s most visible landmark. The Danish Lutheran Church with a double-columned portico and bell tower was constructed in 1805 with donations from Kolkata and Copenhagen.
I continue north past Chandannagar, where I plan to stop on the way back, to Chinsurah. It was also a Dutch trading post for nearly two centuries, dealing in saltpetre, spices, cotton and indigo. In his book The Dutch East India Company In India, Dutch historian Bauke van der Pol wrote of mansions with pleasure gardens and ornate steps leading to the river. Not much remains of these, or of the once-imposing Fort Gustavus. There is only an artillery wall that is now part of the 19th century Hooghly Madrasah. Four Dutch cannons serve as resilient reminders of a bygone time.
A deserted alley in town leads to the verdant Dutch cemetery, in use till the mid-19th century, when the Dutch ceded Chinsurah to the British. I spot the Dutch coat of arms with its Masonic compasses on some of the older tombstones.
Driving past Ghorir More, a 19th century Gothic tower imported from England and erected here by the British in memory of King Edward VI, I journey through chaotic narrow lanes to Baro Seal Bari (Seal’s House). Anindya Seal, the present owner, shows me around the 250-year-old mansion built in 1763 by his ancestor Nilambar Seal, an influential merchant. Imposing Ionic columns hold up semi-circular balconies, and thin fluted pillars with Corinthian capitals support the arches of the thakurdalan, or corridor of worship.
The best example of such architectural fusion is at my next stop, just outside Chinsurah. Topped by a dome with a steeple, it is the beautiful mausoleum of Susanna Anna Maria, the woman who inspired Ruskin Bond’s short story Susanna’s Seven Husbands. Though she is believed to have had seven husbands, historical records vouch only for two—a Dutch director of Chinsurah and a wealthy Englishman.
About a century after Vasco da Gama opened the sea route to India in 1498, the Portuguese established a flourishing pepper trade on the country’s eastern shores. One of their largest settlements was at Bandel, where a friary was built in 1599. Destroyed and rebuilt many times, including by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1632, it is an uninspiring modern structure today. Yet the presence of the Portuguese can be felt in the chiming of the church bell, calling the faithful to prayer. Another legacy is Bandel cheese, a crumbly delicious cheese that is now produced in nearby Tarakeshwar. Available at Old J Johnson in New Market, it is a favourite with Kolkata’s connoisseurs.
The French liaison
On the way back, I stop at Chandernagore, as the French outpost of Chandannagar was known from 1673-1950. Quaint neighbourhoods that attracted rich Calcutta residents with the finest French cuisine and wines have been replaced by a tumult of shops. The riverfront promenade is still lined with pastel French-era buildings. A pavilion resembling the Arc de Triomphe in Paris dominates the view. Oriental motifs cover the arch, while French stucco work covers the columns. It was built in memory of Durgachourone Roquitte (Rokkhit, a Bengali surname, spelt with a French twist), the first Bengali to receive the Legion d’Honneur in 1841.
A museum at the Institut de Chandernagor, the erstwhile French governor’s home, displays French artefacts, maps and the personal collection of one-time occupant Joseph François Dupleix. Opposite it is Patal Bari, or the Underground House, so named because its lowest floor is underwater. The 18th century zamindar’s house has beautiful wooden sunshades and decorative water outlets. Its many distinguished visitors included Rabindranath Tagore, who mentioned it in his writing.
A statue of St Peter guards the entrance of the late 19th century Sacred Heart Church located just off the promenade. Inside, I marvel at the altar lights and the church bell imported from France. Stained-glass windows glow fluorescent in the afternoon sun.
Returning to Kolkata, I wonder if these small towns with storied pasts will hold on to the fragments of their colonial history over the coming years, or shrug them off like unwanted burdens.
The Serampore Initiative, a collaboration between the Danish culture ministry and the West Bengal Heritage Commission, is restoring the Danish Government House of Serampore and recreating the riverside Danish Tavern, which was popular with 18th century traders.
In Chinsurah, a project to conserve and restore the town’s heritage buildings has been initiated.
In Chandannagar, residential buildings that reflect the shared cultural and architectural heritage in their eclectic mix of French facades and Indian courtyards, have been mapped.