India has had a history of being a colonised country for nearly 200 years; our land has been invaded by the Portuguese, French, Danish as well as the British. During these 2 centuries, Indians were the victims of a number of atrocities such as oppression and exploitation, but on the flipside, India’s colonial background does have a positive aspect to it, in that, after the exit of the colonisers, they left behind a rich legacy, the vestiges of which still remain. This legacy is all the more prominent and visible in certain cities and towns where these colonisers had a strong presence. One such town is Chandannagar, located approximately 35 kilometres north of Kolkata, which used to be a French colony.
According to historians, Chandannagar came into existence during the colonial era, as no records of the town are to be found in medieval Bengali literature. It is believed that the French created it by bringing together a cluster of localities in the area. In 1730, Joseph François Dupleix was appointed as the Governor of the city, during whose administration more than two thousand brick houses were erected and a considerable maritime trade system was institutionalized. Gradually, the town prospered as a French colony. The population expanded, as a number of people from other areas migrated and settled here. During that time, Calcutta was relatively underdeveloped. From 1730 to 1756, Chandannagar was the hub for European commerce in Bengal. The city had thriving centres of trade involving opium, indigo, silk, rice, sugar, textiles etc, and a number of these products were even exported to Europe. In 1756, war broke out between France and Great Britain, and the town was attacked and captured by the British on 23 March 1757, and many buildings were demolished.
Thereafter, its importance as a commercial centre was soon eclipsed by that of Calcutta, which became the capital of British India in 1772. By 1900, the town had lost its former commercial importance, and was reduced to being a quiet suburb of Calcutta. However, it is still well known for its clean and wide thoroughfares, the elegant residence buildings along the riverbank and a number of historical sites. In fact, there are quite a few of these historical sites that make for popular tourist attractions in this town.
The Northern and Southern extremes of the town were earlier marked by Gates that served as entry and exit points. Only the Southern Gate remains now, which is called the Chandannagar gate, or the Barashad Gate. Its symbolic relevance is significant, given that it was inaugurated in July 1937, to commemorate the fall of the Bastille, which sparked the historical French Revolution in 1789. The Revolution marked the beginning of the Modern Era in the Western world and gave to the world the three principles to abide by in modern societies: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The Gate has this slogan inscribed on it.
Chandannagar Strand and Patal Bari
The Chandannagar Strand is a serene and beautiful promenade along banks of the river Hooghly. A popular tourist spot, the boulevard is studded with lights and surrounded by lush green trees. It is a favourite among both locals and tourists alike, and is an ideal place for a stroll on early mornings and evenings, or even an ‘adda’ session, complemented by the street food from makeshift stalls that line the pavement in the evenings. This place can be termed as the focal point of the town as many buildings of historical importance are located nearby. The tranquil surroundings and a panoramic view, supplemented by small boats dotting the river, add to the picturesque beauty of this settlement.
At the far end of the strand is a unique and elegant structure known as Patal Bari, which translates to Underground House. It is so called because its lowest floor is submerged in the river. This building is associated with eminent personalities like the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and the social reformer Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. Although Patal Bari, is private property and is closed to tourists, the building is visible from outside.
Durgacharan Rakshit Ghat
The Chandannagar Strand is overlooked by the Durgacharan Rakshit Ghat. It was built in the 1920s to honour Durgacharan Rakshit, the recipient of the French award, Legion d’honneur. The remarkable pavilion casts an indelible imprint of the mind and is characterised by slender columns decorated with stucco elements. These are adorned with an elephant’s head and intricate floral designs.
Chandannagar Museum and Institute
Along the periphery of the river lies Dupleix’s mansion, now the esteemed Chandannagar Museum. It boasts of a collection of French antiques, such as the cannons used in Anglo-French war, wooden furniture of the 18th century, etc. which are one of their kind, and difficult to find anywhere else in the world. It also houses the personal collections of Duplex, the French Governor of Chandannagar. The institute still teaches French through regular classes.
Nandadulal Temple, Sacred Heart Church and French Cemetery
Constructed on a rectangular foundation of 52 feet by 21 feet, this temple is the largest do-chala (double sloped roof) temple in Bengal. Unfortunately today, apart from a few lotus motifs it has been stripped off its initial terracotta work, which is the trademark of Hooghly Temples.
The Sacred Heart Church is a prime narrative of the excellence of French architecture. The two-storeyed church with its twin towers, was designed by the French architect, Jacques Duchartz. A beautiful statue of Jesus Christ welcomes the visitors to the Church. The interior is mystic, with stained forming patterns and bronze statues adding a holy element to the ambience. Long corridors and confession boxes add a sense of elegance. Unfortunately, the church is not well maintained with the plaster peeling off at several places.
The cemetery situated on the Grand Trunk road is the last resting home to several eminent Frenchmen, including the founding father of French Chandannagar, Duplessis, and of the pioneering meteorologist, Henry ‘Storm’ Piddington.
Chandannagar in the present
Chandannagar had undoubtedly lost its economic prominence when Calcutta took over as the centre for European trade. However, time has healed little for this place which hasn’t regained the economic status it once boasted of at some point in history. The silk and jute industries that were once at the helm of driving this economy, along with the handicrafts that were an indigenous speciality, all receded to nothingness after persisting for some time, when the foreigners arrived. The following centuries witnessed no substantial growth of commerce or industry, with even the Independence of India failing to divert attention to this town.
Having said that, Chandannagar remains an unforgettable part of the legacy of European imperialism. In fact, in the contemporary times, it is this colonial heritage that remains strongly attached to this place. The impressions of the vivid architectural patterns that remain add a mystic appearance to this quaint town. The civilian buildings have mostly been converted to government offices. Of the more heritage-bound buildings like the St. Paul’s Church or the Museum, most of them serve the tourism industry and are popular attractions. They are also crucial components of the treaty existing between the Indian and the French governments that allows the latter certain cultural preservation rights in Chandannagar.
A connect with France is prevalent in the locals here, who could be seen enthusiastically supporting the country during the last FIFA World Cup, with French flags flying across the town. While Chandannagar has certainly moved ahead with time, a French nostalgia soothes the air in the town.
**Our Kolkata Team visited Chandannagar and shot a video a few weeks ago. The Strand area was a common favourite, with a beautiful pavement and a soothing wind that was emanating from the Hooghly river. We were very fortunate to have interacted with Mrs. Neline Mondal, a French UNESCO scientist who has played and continues to play a major role in restoring the French remnants in the town, along with the UNESCO local officer who is now her husband. **
Contributed by Swati and Mallika
Picture Credits- deccanherald.com