Historical foothold

French remnants

Historical foothold

Monideepa Sahu acquaints us with the city of Chandannnagar in West Bengal, along the banks of River Ganga, which bears the evanescent French influence

Chandannagar in West Bengal offers a whiff of French culture on the banks of the mighty Ganga. Broad, clean streets and elegant French-style buildings, a picturesque riverbank promenade, lovely old Hindu temples and French churches and a museum with unusual relics from a French colonial past; Chandannagar, earlier known as Chandernagore, has all this and more.

Chandannagar was already an established French settlement before the British took over a huddle of villages further down the Ganga, laying the foundation of modern-day Kolkata. In the 17th century, when the writ of the Moghul empire ruled over our subcontinent, Europeans made tentative forays to establish trading posts. In 1673, during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, the French established a trading outpost on the banks of the Hooghly river (Ganga) in West Bengal. They acquired legal ownership of the area from the Moghuls in 1688 and built Chandannagar around three villages — Borkishonpur, Khalisani and Gondalpara.  

It was only later in 1690 that Job Charnock established a British presence in the village of Sutanuti, heralding a new age of British dominance in Bengal. Joseph Francois Dupleix was appointed governor of Chandernagore in 1730, and the town expanded considerably. The river offered a clear route to the sea, and trade flourished.

Days of business

In its heyday, Chandannagar was the primary hub of European commerce in Bengal. Bengalis called it Farashdanga (Farash = French) in those days, and associated it with a classy and luxurious lifestyle. Delicately woven Farashdanga dhotis were preferred by the Bengali elite. Louis Bonnaud was one of the first Europeans to introduce indigo cultivation here. 

The Bengalis of Chandannagar were highly enterprising as well. Batakrishna Ghosh was among the first natives to found a cloth mill. Dinanath Chandra was one of the earliest manufacturers of European and traditional Indian medicines. Another local merchant, Indranarayan Chowdhury, was appointed a courtier of the French East India Company in 1730. He was later honoured with a gold medal from the king of France. He was a patron of local Bengali folk culture and constructed the lovely Nandadulal Temple.

Chandannagar was also a centre for culture and education. Le Petit Bengali, the town’s first French newspaper, was published here from 1879. Educational institutions founded by the French continue to enlighten students to this day. The Sacred Heart Church of Chandannagar is a charming example of French architecture. The imposing French Governor’s Palace has now been converted into a museum. It showcases a rare collection of antique French furniture — cannons used in the Anglo-French wars and artefacts from local Bengali culture. The palace also houses the Institut de Chandernagor, which continues to conduct French classes.

French architecture

There are several examples of aesthetic and unusual buildings constructed by the Bengalis. The Nandadulal Temple, the Nabaratna Mandir and the temples on the banks of Goswamighat are lovely examples of Bengali temple architecture. The Patal Bari (underground house), built by the zamindars of Bansberia, has an underground floor which is submerged by the Ganga. Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and Rabindranath Tagore were among the eminent guests who stayed here. Rabindranath appreciated the unusual beauty of this building. He mentioned it in several of his stories.

French and Bengali influences gave Chandannagar its own unique culture. Antony Firingi was a famous example of such multicultural influences. Antony was the son of a Portuguese gentleman who had settled in Chandannagar in the 18th century. (The Portuguese had their own settlement on the banks of Ganga, in neighbouring Chinsurah) Antony fell in love with a Bengali Brahmin lady and eloped with her.

He wore a dhoti, learnt Bengali and associated with Bengali Hindus. He founded a group of kabis or poets and started composing his own songs in Bengali, to recite and sing in kobir larai contests. Antony’s poems in Bengali are appreciated to this day.Chandannagar suffered through several wars between the French and the British.

In 1757, Robert Clive of the British East India Company and Admiral Watson of the British navy captured Chandannagar. They bombarded and destroyed the town’s fortifications and buildings. The French regained control in 1763, but warfare continued and the city repeatedly changed hands. As a result of such instability, Chandannagar’s supremacy as a hub of commerce and culture gradually waned.

Neighbouring Calcutta prospered from uninterrupted British rule and soon eclipsed Chandannagar in importance. The French ruled without further interruptions from the beginning of the 19th century. When India became independent in 1947, the French handed over charge to the people of Chandannagar. In a referendum in1949, nearly 99 per cent of the city’s people opted for merger with India. Chandannagar officially became a part of India in 1950.

Strolling down the picturesque Chandannagar Strand, one can enjoy the gentle breeze from the Ganga and dream of glorious days gone by. Tree-lined lanes branch off from the Strand into the old European quarter of the city, offering vistas of gracious buildings and sunlit spaces. European-style old buildings dot the rest of Chandannagar, which is a typical Indian urban sprawl. The tropical climate and time are taking their toll. These once-lovely buildings are often scarred with moss and lichens and overgrown with weeds; a reminder that the old must fade away, making way for the new.

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