It is not entirely incorrect to say that the East Indian city of Kolkata is one of the most fascinating places to visit in India and has a charm like none other. With myriad experiences to offer ranging from history, art, culture and of course food, this delightful city has a little bit of something for every kind of traveler.
The most alluring aspect for me, as a first time visitor to the city was its history. Formerly known as Calcutta, this port city was first developed by the British East India Company and then by the British as a colonial city. Given that it was strategically located on the banks of the Hooghly, Calcutta was the capital of British India till 1911 before the same was shifted to Delhi.
While the influence of the British is profound in the capital city, they were not the lone colonizers and Europeans had made inroads into parts of the state several hundred years ago before the English. About 40 kms from Kolkata lies the historical towns of Chinsurah, Bandel, Chandannagar and Serampore where you can trace the distinct ‘European trail’ along the Hooghly. Part of the area under the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA), these towns can be covered comfortably in a day trip.
Chinsurah: Remnants of the Dutch
Also known as Hooghly-Chinsura, this erstwhile colonial town lies around 35km from Kolkata and on the right bank of river Bhagirathi-Hooghly. A flourishing Dutch port in the 17th century, Chinsurah was an important trading hub. While the present Chinsurah court was once the residence of the Dutch governor, the Dutch cemetery is one of the most important sites pertaining to Dutch history in this little town. This heritage site houses close to 45 graves and is under the aegis of the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India).
Some of the tombs are rather large and date between 1743 and 1887. Set amidst greenery with clear pathways, one can take a walk around the serene ambience within the cemetery making it a perfect spot to delve into the town’s historical past. Standing tall in the centre of town is the archetypal clock tower installed in memory of King Edward VI.
Bandel: a slice of Portuguese
The first Europeans to settle in Bengal were the Portuguese who formed a colony in Bandel way back in the 16th century. Synonymous with the bequest of the Portuguese is the imposing Bandel Basilica that was founded first in 1599 and dedicated to Nossa Senhora do Rosário, Our Lady of the Rosary.
‘Bandel’ in Portuguese translates into mast and the church complex houses a mast, one of the last remaining legacies of the Portuguese in the town. Known to be gifted by a Portuguese ship captain, this church was considered highly revered where many a sea bound captain came here to pay obeisance and offer prayers for safe return.
Apart from road, Bandel which lies about 6 km from Chinsurah is easily accessible from the Hooghly and Bandel Junction railway stations.
Serampore: Danish delight
Also known as Serampur, Srirampur and Srirampore, this pre colonial town is located on the west bank of the Hooghly. A very old town, Serampore was a prominent part of the Danish colonial empire and was known by the name Frederiknagore, after their king Frederick the Sixth. A vibrant trading hub, the town was developed by the Danes in the early 18th century for the purpose of exchange of goods and commodities. The sprawling campus of the one of the oldest colleges, Serampore College, the Danish Cemetery and Henry Martin’s Pagoda are some of the key attractions of this quaint town. The most prominent symbol of the Danes is the church of St Olav.
Christened after St. Olav, Norway’s national saint, the church was originally built by the Danish governor of Serampore, Lt. Olav Bie. With mixed influences and a combination of architectural styles, the church had a magnificent steeple and housed the royal monogram of Danish king Christian VII. The church was closed for repairs and renovation in 2013 due to its deteriorating condition. The church has currently been restored to its former glory and splendor thanks to the collaborative efforts from the National Museum of Denmark and the West Bengal Heritage Commission. We were lucky to witness this colonial gem the day it was inaugurated i.e on 16-Apr-16.
Chandernagore: the French connection
As they say reserve the best for the last, our final stop for the day was the charming town of Chandernagore or Chandannagar . This is the most recent of the colonial towns and was under the rule of the French till 1951 after they had set foot here as early as 1673. While in the town you can relax and unwind at the Chandannagore Strand which is a lovely spot on the banks of the river Ganga. Aesthetically done up with a decorated pavement and lined by lush green trees, it is a great place to relax on the benches while watching the sun go down on the river.
The road along the strand leads to other buildings of historical importance, one of them being the Chandannagore Museum and Institute (Institut de Chandernagore). This is a museum that offers many insights and houses French artifacts like furniture and also some equipment used in the war. The Sacred heart church in the town is an example of fine French architecture and worth a visit by not only pilgrims but also historians and tourists.
Chandannagar truly presents a slice of the French Riviera along the Ganges. With an ambience that has a slight semblance to Puducherry (the prominent French colonial town in South India), this pleasantly old-fashioned town had me floored. For more information on this colonial town read my post here.
This article was originally published in Sunday Herald which is the Sunday supplement of Deccan Herald. Click here to read the article.
This post was also featured s as one of the most popular posts on IndiVine, and was on the homepage of IndiBlogger.