EUROPEAN HAUNTS ON THE HOOGHLY RIVER: Former European trading posts

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.

Tram number 28

Tram

 

We had only been in Lisbon (Lisboa) for about three hours when we boarded the picturesque old-fashioned tram on the number 28 route, which winds its way uphill to the old Alfama quarter of the city.

The tram was quite crowded and I stood in the small entrance hallway at the rear of the vehicle. I looked up and noticed a sign in three languages (including English) that advised passengers to be wary of pickpocket thieves. I was just about to take a photograph of this sign when the tram reached the stop we wanted.  Getting off the tram was somewhat difficult becauses three men tried to disembark at the very same moment as me. 

When I reached the pavement, I noticed that my overfilled wallet had gone missing. I had been pickpocketed. The thieves got a good haul: several credit cards, my driving licence, and a large sum of cash. I was stunned for a moment. Then, we used our mobile telephones to cancel our cards. Our enthusiasm for Lisbon fell to an all-time low.

We were directed to the local police station, where we began relating our sad story. Before we had managed to say a very few words, one of the policemen said:

“Tram number 28?”

We were then asked to visit the Tourist Police in the centre of Lisbon. We walked there feeling very downhearted and wishing that we had never come to Portugal. The Tourist Police could not have been nicer. Between them, they spoke every language you could think of. They helped us contact various banks and assured us that whoever had stolen from my pocket could not possibly have been Portuguese. After spending about an hour with the sympathetic Tourist, we left feeling much better about Portugal despite our recent loss.

With my driving licence stolen, the rented car that I had hired from the UK was no longer feasible. To our great surprise, the car hire company, learning of our disaster, cancelled our booking without charging us anything – we paid nothing for the car we were not able to use.

Without the car, we had to change our travel plans within Portugal. One of the places we visited, which we would not have seen had we had the car, was the university city of Coimbra. We spent several days in that delightful city during the period that the academic year begn. The city was full of groups of cheerful students wearing archaic black capes. Had it not been for our ill-fated trip on the 28, we might well have missed this. As they say, ‘every cloud has a silver lining’.

Espresso in Ealing

Until a couple of years ago, I considered that the very best coffee served in London could only be found in a few coffee bars, all of which were Italian (e.g. Bar Italia, Lina Stores, and The Algerian Coffee House in Soho; the Portobello Garden Café in Portobello Road), Portuguese (e.g. Lisboa Café in Golborne Road and Madeira Star in Lambeth), or Spanish (e.g. Brindisa near Borough Market). I still consider all of these as good choices for excellent coffee, but need to add another to my list.

A Polish born receptionist working at the dental practice where I used to practise dentistry, suggested that a restaurant in Ealing called ‘Sowa’ (means ‘owl’ in Polish) served good Polish food. We visited this place, but were not impressed by the food. Much better Polish food can be obtained at Café Maja in POSK, the Polish Centre in King Street, Hammersmith.

The well-appointed restaurant at Sowa adjoins a café, which is part of the same establishment. Unlike the restaurant that fails to shine, the café is magnificent. The coffee served here in all forms (espresso, cappuccino, latte, etc.) is at least as good as that we have drunk in the best of the Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish coffee houses in London. Having visited Sowa too many times to remember, I can safely say that the high quality of its coffee never wavers. 

Sowa’s café also offers a mouth-watering range of highly tempting pastries and cakes. It seems in general that the Polish have a magical touch when it comes to making these delightful accompaniments to coffee.

So, if you are in Ealing, ignore every other café, and head for Sowa.

PS: Next door to Sowa, there is a lovely Polish delicatessen that offers a wide range of salamis, hams, and other cooked meats, as well as other Polish food items.

Sowa: 33 High St, London W5 5DB

NB: I have no interest financial or otherwise in Sowa. I am simply a content customer!

 

The Old year in flames

The ending of the old year and beginning of the new one is celebrated all over the world in a variety of ways and at different times of the modern calendar. For example, the Chinese, the Gujaratis, the Parsis, the Jewish people, and the Russian Orthodox all celebrate the start of a new year on different dates. People, whatever their personal beliefs, also celebrate the end of the year on the 31st of December.

Cochin, which is a historic port in the southern Indian state of Kerala, was a Portuguese colony for a while in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Papaanji (spelling varies!) is named after a Portuguese word meaning ‘old man’.

Every year, a giant Papaanji is erected in a centrally located open space in historic Fort Cochin. During the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, the Papaanji is stuffed full of dry straw and fireworks. The roads around the open space are closed to motorised traffic. Despite this, a few youths on motor bikes manage to enter illegally.

After sunset and during the evening of the 31st of December, the area around the Papaanji fills with vendors and ever increasing numbers of people. Some of these merrymakers wear masks and others wear glowing red devil’s horns.

During the few minutes before midnight on the 31st, unbelievable numbers of people gather. The strong tide of people resembles a powerful surge of water such as you might expect if a large dam has just been breached. The crowd adds much noise to the cacophony of sound being relayed over various loudspeakers. Several times, I was almost knocked over by this human tsunami.

At midnight, the crowd became even noisier when flames began leaping from the ignited Papaanji. First, I could only see billowing clouds of smoke. Soon, frightening flames became visible. Then, bursts of stars appeared as the fireworks exploded.

Within minutes, the conflagration and fireworks ended. The old year, represented by the Papaanji, had been burnt out to make way for the new one. The crowds began to thin out a little, but despite that, it was quite hazardous trying to leave the area.

For an hour or two after midnight, boisterous revellers created much noise in the streets. The whole affair seemed to be generally good natured.

I am glad that I have seen the Papaanji aflame, but once in a lifetime is enough for me.