Chandannagore’s French Connection

The City of Liberty

Jagadhatri Puja in Chandannagore. Ph. Anunoy Samanta
Jagadhatri Puja in Chandannagore. Ph. Anunoy Samanta
4 JUN 2015
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The picturesque city of Chandannagore located at a distance of a mere 30 Kms. from the City of Joy, Kolkata, is a fabulous off beat tourist destination of Bengal. It is popularly referred to as the “City of Liberty”. In complete contrast to the rest of India that was governed by the then East India Company for more than 200 years, Chandannagore was the bastion of the French. The nostalgia of the French rule still lingers on in this one-of-its-kind city of India, which is ideally located on the banks of River Ganges. A visit to this incredible city reveals a distinct characteristic, which is predominantly French and in spite of the onslaught of modernity, Chandannagore has been able to preserve its French heritage and there are numerous French architectural edifices that bears ample testimony to its rich virile past.

I was fortunate to visit this incredible city in the year 2006 while working for a Kolkata based tour operator. A French cultural troupe had landed in Kolkata and were scheduled to perform at Chandannagore, courtesy the Alliance Francaise Kolkata and I was given the responsibility of a tour guide.

At first glance, the city appeared like any other Bengal town – laidback and unpretentious. But as we spent more time, Chandannagore began to unfurl its beauty like a veil slipping out from the head of a beautiful woman. Chandannagore has been an enigma to the historians and still fascinates the crème de la crème of society. There is one school of thought who are of the opinion that a French tourist by the name of Bernuer was the first Frenchman to have visited Chandannagore way back in the 17th century and the first official mention of Chandannagore was in the form of a document wherein the erstwhile French monarch Louis XIV acknowledged the city of Chandannagore during the creation of the French East India Company on the 26th of May, 1644.

Although it is a small city by Indian standards with just 19 Sq. Kms. area, this 300 year old city has an inimitable culture and heritage of its own, which is unmatched by any other Indian city. Apart from the French connection, we were told by an elderly gentleman of the locality that the city of Chandannagore is famous the world over for the annual Jagadhatri Puja, which is usually held in the month of October – November and it is carnival time out here with majestically decorated puja pandals, neon lights and foot tapping music that enthralls one and all.

If Pondicherry down south was the administrative headquarters of the French East India Company, Chandannagore was the commercial hub. In the year 1691, French administrators Mr. Aumonier and Dutchetz began construction works at Chandannagore with a view to serve as a key trading post for the French East India Company and by early 1700s, French merchant vessels like Danae, Saint Joseph, Bazares and Syrenna began routine waterways operations linking Chandanagore with France.

According to Col. S. Bhattacharjee, a long time resident of Chandannagore, the city owes a lot to Joseph Francois Dupleix, the then Chief Administrator of Chandannagore who was a connoisseur of arts and music and during his time Chandannagore witnessed rapid growth and expansion by way of superb French architectural marvels like the Hotel de Paris, which has now been converted into a Civil Court and the magnificent edifice of Chandannagore College as well.

The history of Chandannagore is fascinating indeed and in the days of yore the economic and political rights of the residents of Chandannagore were safeguarded by the "Comite Republican Radical de Chandannagore", which was established by the renowned Indian statesman Ashutosh Mukherjee in the year 1907. According to Col. Bhattacharjee, in complete contrast to the rest of India, the people of Chandannagore took part in the World War I in support of the French and not the British as was the case with the rest of India.

What is even more intriguing is that once India attained independence from the colonial British rule in the year 1947, Chandannagore still continued to be ruled by the French and later on in the year 1948, a referendum was conducted in which a vast majority of the residents of Chandannagore (97%) voted in favor of merging with India. The French, known for their politeness and civility handed over Chandannagore to the Indian Republic in the year 1950 and after the De Jure transfer was approved by the then French Republican Society on the 11th of April, 1952, Chandannagore became an integral part of the Indian Republic.

Old timers go nostalgic at the very mention of their French rulers and there are many who have carefully preserved whatever little they could pertaining to the French era by way of newspaper reports and other knickknacks. A courtesy visit to Col. Bhattacharjee’s elegant house on the riverfront revealed well-preserved copies of newspapers like Le Petit Bengali, Viva La Republique, Le Matribhumi and Chandannagore Prakash, etc…

When it comes to exploring the most enduring tourist landmarks of Chandannagore, the majestic Strand can be an ideal start off point. This gorgeous riverside promenade is every bit French with stately trees and well positioned streetlights. The Strand extends for almost a kilometer and the best option is to walk your way along this exquisitely beautiful promenade that has numerous historical French edifices dotting the landscape. We spent a good 1.5 hours sitting by the riverside at the Strand and the distant views of the country made boats sailing smoothly along the shimmering Ganges river with the untiring oarsmen plying their oars and steering the boat to their onward destination made for a truly kaleidoscopic vignette. For those in search of a quiet place would do well to visit the famous Vivekananda Mandir located along the Strand for some quiet introspection.

Given the enthusiasm of my French guests, some of whom went berserk seeing so many French edifices at one place and in one remote corner of the globe, I took the wise decision to guide them to the fabulous Institute De Chandannagore, which in fact is a museum with one of the finest collections of French artifacts like Cannons used in war, antique furniture and other miscellaneous objet d'art and historical relics.

Our next stop was the elegant Chandanagore Church, which symbolizes everything grand and majestic about the renowned French architectural grandeur. In close proximity to Chandannagore Church there is also the beautiful church of St.Louis, which is somewhat dwarfed by the presence of the former, but nonetheless very interesting on the whole. We were completely awestruck by the ingenuity of the architects who designed the blueprint of the famous “Patal Bari”, easily one of the most popular tourist sites of Chandannagore. The ground floor of Patal Bari is submerged under the Ganges River and according to the caretaker, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore had visited this place on numerous occasions and some of his most famous poems and novels were composed here.

On the temple trail, we visited the 1740s-built Nandadulal Temple as well as the Nritya Gopal Temple. The later serves as a theatre hall (Jatra) and there is also a well-stocked library for the avid booklovers. No visit to Chandannagore is ever complete without indulging in the traditional sweets of the city. The most popular sweets are the Jalbhara Sandesh and the Motichur. The former in particular is made of ‘Chana’ and sugar while rosewater is added on to it thereby making it a truly outstanding sweet. Some of the famous sweet shops like Surya Kumar Modak Grandsons, Hari Gopal Nandy Grandsons, Mrityunjoy Sweets and Baba Panchanan Mistanna Bhandar are the most sought after sweet shops of Chandannagore. While Mrityunjoy Sweets prides itself for Lord Chomchom, Sarpuria, Rasamadhuri, Abarkhabo and Babu Sandesh, Baba Panchanan is renowned for its delectable Khasta Gaja, Rossogollas and Ladykenies. In fact the last two are even exported outside Bengal. On our way back to Kolkata, we took the Grand Trunk Road and made a brief stopover at Bandel, which is located at a distance of 20 Kms. from Chandannagore. Bandel is renowned for the magnificent Portuguese church, popularly referred to as the Church of Our Lady of Bandel. The pastor of Bandel Church was very accommodative and seeing such a large group of tourists from France, he without any hesitation took us on a tour of the church’s premises.

This magnificent church we were told was completely destroyed by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the year 1640 only to be restored to its former glory in the year 1660 by the Portuguese. The church is dedicated to the everlasting memory of Nosa Senhora di Rozario and was declared a basilica in the year 1988. We were mesmerized by the church’s intricate Doric architectural pattern and the site of high quality paintings portraying episodes from the life of Jesus Christ was absolutely first rate.

All said and done, Chandannagore being one of India’s most prominent French enclaves is well worth a visit. Bon Voyage!!!

Traveler’s Fact File:

Air:
By air, the nearest airport is at Kolkata and the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International airport is conveniently linked with the rest of the India through routine flights operated by various domestic airlines. Kingfisher-Air Deccan operates regular flights connecting Kolkata with other Indian cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, etc…
Rail / Road:
The two-mega railway stations – Howrah and Sealdah are conveniently linked with the rest of India. From Howrah/Sealdah, hired taxis are easily available and the journey from Kolkata by road to Chandannagore is a mere 37 Kms. and can be reached in 1.5 hours.
Water Transport:
The Government of West Bengal operates regular river services across the Ganges river conveniently linking Chandannagore to Calcutta and vice versa.

Trivia Box: 1

In order to secure the well being of the people of Chandannagore, the French East India Company decided to establish the “Comite de Bienfaisance” in the year 1832 and in the year1862, the all important “Ecole de Saint Mare” was set up, which in its present avatar is the Kanailal Vidyamandir, one of the most excellent educational institution of Chandannagore.

Trivia Box: 2

During India’s Independence struggle against the British, the firebrand revolutionaries of erstwhile Chattagram, which presently is a part of Bangladesh, shared a cordial relationship with the people of Chandannagore. Often those dreaded revolutionaries would seek refugee in the French governed territory of Chandannagore to escape the wrath and brutality of the mighty British rulers. The British administration under the supervision of Charles Teggart in a crack commando operation at the stroke of midnight on 1st September 1930 attacked the den of the revolutionaries and forced them to surrender after a bitter-armed struggle. However, the people of Chandannagore were not the ones to be cowed down by the show of British army’s military might and the very next day the people of Chandannagore came out in the streets under the leadership of Charu Roy. Sensing the volatile situation the British administration had to ultimately shift Charles Teggart elsewhere to escape the retribution.

Trivia Box: 3

In the year 1871 the French East India Company set up a hospital in Chandannagore with the active co-operation of Doctor Margon, who was a name to be reckoned with in the field of medical services in those days and subsequently in the year 1896, Durga Charan Rakshit who worked as a courtier of the French administration became the first son-of-the-soil to achieve the rare distinction of being the first Indian to be honored with the prestigious “Chevalier de Legion d'Honour”.