“PLEASE TAKE TIME TO READ INDIGO SEXY”, so announces a sweet female voice over the public address system in the passenger cabins of aeroplanes flown by Indigo Airlines. Actually, this voice is encouraging flyers to read Indigo’s in house magazine “Indigo 6E”. The November 2029 issue of this well produced monthly had an article about places that I have long wanted to visit: the places on the banks of the River Hooghly that were once occupied as trading posts by Europeans from various parts of that continent.
I knew that, apart from Britain, at various times the following nations had had tiny colonies on the banks of the River Hooghly (north of Calcutta): Holland, France and Denmark. Until I read an article in “Indigo 6E”, I was only barely aware that Portugal also claimed a parcel of land. That was at Bandel.
One day, we rented a car with driver to explore the former haunts of the nations listed above. We commenced at Bandel. To reach this place we drive pat endless numbers of heavy trucks north along the National Highway that links Calcutta with Delhi until we reached a road to Bandel.
To our grumpy driver’s indignation the road to the centre of Bandel was amazingly congested with cycles, tricycle rickshaws, autorickshaws, pedestrians, a variety of motorised three wheelers, dogs, trucks, buses, and so on.
Eventually, we reached the imposing church of the Miracle of Our Lady of Bandel that is separated from the Hooghly by a large garden. The church, which was built on a piece of land gifted to the Portuguese in exchange for military assistance given to a local ruler, was built at the very end of the 16th century.
The original church, one of the oldest in Bengal, still stands but has been heavily restored. It has been buried beneath shiny tiling, both outside and inside. The only original feature visible is an altar piece that looks as if it was created many centuries ago. The church was part of an Augustinian monastery, and is now part of a Salesian institution. The cloisters, like the church, are lined with tiling.
We drove south, following the Hooghly, to Chinsura, which the Dutch had occupied from 1656 to 1825. Apparently, there are several Dutch buildings in the town, but we did not find them. Instead, we managed to see the exterior of the town’s Armenian church, which is the second oldest church on Bengal. It is surrounded by a high wall surmounted by fierce looking spikes. A local informed us it wasonly opened up once a year, and we were not in Chinsura on that day! Later, we learnt that it is open for masses one Sunday in three.
Between Bandel and Chinsura, we came across an elegant house standing next to but high above the Hooghly. It was the place that Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-94) lived for several years. Some say it was the place where he composed the patriotic poem “Vande Mataram” in the 1870s. It was set to music by Rabindranath Tagore. The British imperialist authorities made it a punishable offence to sing in the esrly part of the 20th century.
We drove south along congested roads that more or less followed the Hooghly until we arrived at Chandernagore, which was a French enclave until 1947.
The Institut de Chandanagor, a fine colonial building that could do with a little restoration, was once Dupleix House the former residence of the French governor. It now houses a museum that has many exhibits that recall the history of European trading settlements along the Hooghly. It stands in gardens, where once stood a fortress built by the French. The museum faces a lovely riverside promenade that includes a late 19th century pavilion built with French funding. This edifice is adorned with sculptures depicting elephant heads. At the southern end of the promenade, there stands a house, which Rabindranath Tagore has mentioned several times in his writings. When the river rises, its lower storey fills with water, by design.
The church of Sacre Coeur stands about 100 metres back from the promenade. It was built in the late 19th century, but was first established in 1691. Its interior has recently been redecorated with garish colour paint.
It was a long drive to Serampore on the Hooghly. We drove there along through narrow winding lanes and a stretch of the Grand Trunk Road. The Grand Trunk runs from Chittagong, now in Bangladesh, to Kabul in Afghanistan, passing through Calcutta and Delhi. It has existed for at least 2500 years and is one of the longest roads in Asia (almost 3000 miles).
Between 1755 and 1845, Serampore was under Danish control. The Danes knew it as Frederiknagore. We visited the church of St Olave, whose design resembles that of St Martins in the Fields in London. The internal walls of it plain but elegant interior bear memorials to several Danes who worked either for the Danes or for the British, who inherited Serampore from the Danes, or fir both. Serampore is also the home of Serampore College, which was founded in 1818 by Joshua Marsham and William Carey (1761-1834). Carey was born in Paulerspury in Northamptonshire. This village is the home of friends of ours. It was following a visit to them that we were first alerted to the existence of the former Danish colony on the Hooghly.
Before returning to Calcutta, we had coffee at the recently restored Denmark Tavern that overlooks a lovely stretch of the Hooghly. The tavern was first opened in 1786 and appears in a painting by Peter Anker dated 1790. The original building has been beautifully restored and is still serving its original purpose.
Although we only saw a few of the haunts of the former non-British European settlements on the bank of the Hooghly, our visit has made us want to revisit them in the future.