Chandannagar For A Quick Break From Kolkata

Get a flavour of the French past through old names, museum, church, colleges, and some old homesteads, most of which are grouped along The Strand
Institut de Chandernagore   Photo Sudipto Mukherjee
Institut de Chandernagore Photo Sudipto Mukherjee

Once a French colony in India, Chandannagar (also Chandannagore) lies to the north of Kolkata, about an hour&rsquos drive away. Located on the bank of the Ganga, it is one of the landmarks on the river route (between Kolkata and Murshidabad), which is popularly known as the &lsquoLittle Europe on the Ganges&rsquo.

With Chandannagar evolving into a ubiquitous Indian town since it joined the Union in 1952, do not expect to find a French Quarter here. You will get a flavour of the past through old names, museum, church, colleges, and some old homesteads, most of which are grouped along The Strand. However, studying the French language is still a serious pursuit.

Apart from its French connection, Chandannagar is famous for its Jagaddhatri Puja (an avatar of Goddess Durga), usually held in November. The town is also known for its craftsmen who are masters of illumination &ndash able to create anything with tiny bulbs and fairy lights on wired frames run by a rudimentary motor. The &lsquolighting&rsquo of Chandannagar is now popular across the globe.

The French rule in Chandannagar lasted for almost 250 years. The French obtained permission from Ibrahim Khan, the Nawab of Bengal, to set up a French factory on the right bank of the Hooghly (as the river Ganga is known as in these parts), in 1673. Three localities called Khalisani, Boro Kishanganj and Gondalpara were brought under French rule, which later became known as Chandernagore, a name that still survives as part of the English name of the local municipal corporation. A letter dated 1696 from the Director of the French East India Company mentions the place as Chanennagore.

The French built the Fort D'orleans in 1696 between Lal Dighi and the river. The local people referred to Chandernagore as Farashdanga (the land of the French). The British captured Chandannagore in 1757 and 1816 but restored the city to the French both times. Bu the French were not allowed to maintain any fortification. The golden period of Chandannagar was during the 10 year tenure (1731-41) of Governor Joseph Francois Dupleix who turned the place into a flourishing commercial zone. Chandannagar played a key role India&rsquos fight for independence from British rule.

After Independence, the local residents voted to join India. Chandernagore was transferred de-jure to the Union of India on June 9, 1952. After the completion of a lengthy official procedure, the town became a part of West Bengal on October 2, 1954.

Things to see and do

Chandannagar Gate

If you are entering from the southern end of the town, watch out for the remains of an old gate, square pillars topped by a pair of urns. Raised in memory of the fall of the Bastille prison, the words &lsquoLiberte, Egalite and Fratarnite&rsquo are carved on them. The gate on the northern end has disappeared.

The Strand

Located on the bank of the Ganga, the Strand is distinguished by an ornate pavilion from where a flight of stairs lead to the river. The cleanliness around the pavilion leaves much to be desired. A plaque says the pavilion and the adjoining rooms were built in the memory of Durgacharan Rakshit and dedicated to the public in 1921. Located along the strand are some of the popular attractions, including the Institut de Chandernagor, Sacred Heart Church, an old Clock Tower, etc. On festive days and Sunday evenings, vendors set up stalls along the Strand selling snacks and fast food. The latest addition to the river bank is the Joloshree Boat Restaurant serving Bengali cuisine.

Institut de Chandernagor

Located along The Strand, the Institut de Chandernagore houses an Indo-French cultural centre and a museum. The European style building, with its front towards the river bank, was the residence of Governor Dupleix. It is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India while the running of the Institute is administered by the state government. The museum, through models and text displays, covers a variety of topics, including aspects of French commerce in the region, from various types of ships and boats to looms, to merchandise produced here, etc.

Entry Open between 11am and 5.30pm from Sunday to Wednesday and Friday (closed on Thursday and Saturday and government holidays). Photography inside museum not allowed.

Patal Bari

Located on the Strand, this is a private residential quarter whose lowest floor gets inundated by the Ganga on whose bank it stands. The house is of historical importance as many luminaries of Bengal Renaissance, including Rabindranath Tagore, visited it.

Sacred Heart Church

Just round the corner from the Institut de Chandernagor is the two-storied Sacred Heart Church overlooking a small garden that houses a statue of Jesus Christ. The original church was established in 1691. Probably the church was destroyed when the British attacked Chandannagar. According to a plaque written in French, the foundation of the present church was dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus on January 27, 1884, by Dr. Paul Goethals S J, in the presence of Rev. Pere Corbet, Prefect Apostolic of the French establishments in India. The church has an arched roof with two towers on either side. Inside, there are some magnificent stained glass windows depicting the life of Jesus Christ.

Entry Mass timings are 7am and 5pm on Sundays and 5pm on Fridays. Photography inside is not allowed.

Chandannagar College

Retrace your steps from the Church to The Strand, and walk north. You will come across Chandannagar College with its vintage European architecture. It was founded in 1862 as St. Mary&rsquos Institution by a French Catholic Missionary, Rev. Magloire Barthet in 1862 and was affiliated to the University of Calcutta in 1891. Renamed as College Dupleix in 1901, it soon became a hotbed of politics influenced by India&rsquos struggle for independence so much so that the college remained shut between 1908 and June 1931. After reopening, it was the recognised by the French Education Directorate in June 1938. To separate the school from the college, the latter was renamed as College de Bussy, in 1945. It was renamed as Chandernagore College in May 1948. Now it is affiliated to the University of Burdwan.

Nandadulal Temple

A representative of Bengal&rsquos &lsquodo-chala&rsquo or the double roofed style of architecture, the temple dedicated to Krishna. Said to be built in 1740, it is bereft of any decorations save for some ornamental colouring. The temple remains closed in the afternoon.

Jagaddhatri Puja

Although Jagadhhatri Puja is a much later addition to the festive calendar of Bengal, it is held with much fanfare in two places in West Bengal &ndash Chandannagar in Hooghly district and Krishnagar in Nadia district &ndash with both places claiming to be the place of origin. While Krishnagar celebrates it for one day (on the day of Navami), Chandannagar celebrates it like Durga Puja, for three days, from Saptami to Navami. The immersion takes place on the tenth day (Dashami) at both places. The community celebrations at Chandannagar have to be seen to be believed. Huge clay idols of the four-armed goddess sitting on a lion are placed inside ornamental marquees. The entire town is virtually enveloped in illuminations, with each organisation trying to outdo the other. People stream along the roads night and day to see the idols. Special trains run between Howrah and Chandannagar.

Information&nbspChandannagar is 37km by road from Kolkata, the nearest airport, and connected to it by road and rail. However, for travellers, it is better to avoid the shorter but terribly crowded Grand Trunk Road and take the slightly longer (about 54km) NH19. There are many local trains that connect Howrah with Chandannagar on the Eastern Railway route with a journey time of approximately 45 minutes. 

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