The Euro edge

off beaten path

The Euro edge

Kolkata is surely one of the most fascinating places in India, and has a charm like none other. With myriad experiences to offer — from history, art and culture to, of course, food — this city has a little bit of something for every kind of traveller.

The old world charm coexists with the contemporary. You can witness the ancient-looking trams trudging along the crowded roads alongside the metro trains; the ubiquitous yellow taxis alongside the Olas and Ubers, and sadly, even the hand-pulled rickshaws.

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 located on the banks of the river Hooghly, Calcutta was chosen as the capital of British India till 1911, before the same was shifted to Delhi.

The colonial influence pervades the city even to this day, considering the numerous heritage buildings featuring distinct colonial-style architecture that dot the streets. Whether it is the government offices like the Writers’ Building, head post office, the office of LIC of India, or St Paul’s Cathedral and the iconic Victoria Memorial, the remnants of the colonial era are evident.

While the influence of the British is profound, they were not the lone colonisers, and other Europeans had made inroads into parts of the state several hundred years ago. About 40 km from Kolkata lies the historical towns of Chinsurah, Bandel, Chandannagar and Serampore, where you can trace the ‘European trail’ along the Hooghly.

Part of the area under the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA), the towns can be covered comfortably in a day trip. Here are some of the places that will cover the European trail around Kolkata.

Bandel: Portuguese picture

The first Europeans to settle in Bengal were the Portuguese, who formed a colony in Bandel in the 16th century. Synonymous with the bequest of the Portuguese is the imposing Bandel Basilica, founded in 1599 and dedicated to Nossa Senhora do Rosário, Our Lady of the Rosary. The oldest Christian church of the state, this shrine was attacked by the Mughals in 1632. It was rebuilt in the same year. It has been renovated many times since then, resulting in its ‘modern’ appearance. ‘Bandel’ in Portuguese means mast, and the church complex is home to one, a legacy of the Portuguese.

The church, which was gifted by a Portuguese ship captain, was revered by many sea-bound captains who came here to pay obeisance and offer prayers for their safe return. Apart from road, Bandel, which lies about 6 km from Chinsurah, is easily accessible from the Hooghly and Bandel Junction railway stations.

Chandannagar: French Riviera along the Ganges

Chandernagore or Chandannagar, my last stop, is most recent of the colonial towns. It was under the rule of the French till 1951 from early as 1673, when they set foot here. The legacy of the French in this little town is still quite profound in that it’s common to hear a few elderly Bengali folks conversing in French. In the town you can unwind at the Chandannagar Strand, which is a lovely spot, aesthetically done up with a decorated pavement and lined by lush green trees, on the banks of River Ganga.

The road along the strand leads to other buildings of historical importance — like the Chandannagar Museum and Institute (Institut de Chandernagore), which houses French artefacts like furniture and ammunitions of warfare.

The institute conducts French classes. The Sacred Heart Church boasts of French architecture, and is inviting of not only pilgrims, but also historians and tourists.

Chinsurah: Dutch dealings

Also known as Hooghly-Chinsurah, this erstwhile colonial town lies around 35 km from Kolkata, and is on the right bank of the 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 remains as one of the most important Dutch-history sites.

The 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, dating to 1743. The oldest tomb belongs to one Cornelis de Jonge, who died in 1743, while Emma Draper’s tomb has been recorded last, in the year 1887.

Set amid greenery and clear pathways, one can take a walk around in the serene ambience. Standing tall in the centre of the town is the archetypal clock tower that was installed in memory of King Edward VI. Imported by the British in the 19th century, this Gothic cast-iron tower clock works with “clockwork” precision even today!

Serampore: Danish delight

Also known as Serampur, Srirampur and Srirampore, this pre-colonial town occupies the west bank of River Hooghly. Known by the name Frederiknagore, after their king Frederick VI, it was developed by the Danes in the early 18th century for the purpose of exchange of goods. The sprawling campus of one of the oldest colleges, Serampore College, the Danish Cemetery and Henry Martin’s Pagoda are some of the key attractions. The most prominent symbol of the Danes is the church of St Olav, christened after Norway’s national saint of the same name.

The church was originally built by the Danish governor of Serampore, Lt Olav Bie. It was completed in 1806, a year after Bie died. With a combination of architectural styles, the church had a magnificent steeple and housed the royal monogram of the Danish king Christian VII. The church was closed for renovation in 2013. It now stands with splendour, thanks to the collaborative efforts of the National Museum of Denmark and the West Bengal Heritage Commission. With sandstone from Rajasthan, lime mortars and organic pigments on the walls, the church retains the look of original doors, windows and furniture.

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