Ghantaghar – The Lost Church of Chinsurah
It was in 1781 CE that the famous British artist William Hodges painted the town of Chinsurah (a Dutch settlement), while on a tour of Bengal. In both his paintings, one finds a church towering above the other Dutch buildings. All that remains is a plaque to remind us of its existence.
Just like its namesake in Delhi, the ghantaghar, (bell tower or clock tower) of Chinsurah, fell prey to the forces of nature and man, resulting in its obliteration from maps and memory, alike. Unarguably the most well-known of the lost colonial-era structures in Chinsurah, the story of the old Dutch church has stayed largely in the dark.
Chinsurah, located 40 km north of Kolkata, was founded by the Dutch in the 17th century CE. The town was part of a large network of settlements in the vicinity acquired by the Portuguese, British, French, Danes and other European traders. This unique area settled by European communities earned it the sobriquet ‘Little Europe’.
The Dutch set up a factory, or a trading house, in Chinsurah after receiving a firman from Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58). Soon after, they constructed mansions, pleasure gardens, the majestic Fort Gustavus and a church. The steeple of the church was first built with a chime clock, by Dutch Governor, J A Sichterman in 1742 CE. However, as he died before the church was completed, his successor Sir George Vernet stepped finished the task in 1767 CE.
According to George Toynbee, the Magistrate & Collector of Hooghly who wrote a detailed account of the administration in the Hooghly District from 1795 to 1854 called ‘A Sketch of the administration in the Hooghly District’ notes that the church stood “at the entrance of the town from the south”. Apart from Toynbee, the church was mentioned by a number of travellers who passed through the Dutch town. The octagonal church had an altar at the northern end, and a porch facing the river on the east. The spire was around 40 feet high. Owing to the sound of the steeple bell, which replaced the clock at some point of time, the church came to be locally known as ghantaghar (which literally translates as ‘bell house’ or bell tower), and the adjoining bathing ghat, built in 1725, thus became the ‘Ghantaghat’. The church was likely well known, as is evident from a Bengali saying which goes:
কে বলে রে জটাইবুড়ি গিয়েছিল বৃন্দাবন ঘন্টাঘটের গির্জে দেখে বলে গিরি গোবর্ধন ।
(The saying roughly translates to the idea that an old lady mistook the high steeple of the church to be the Govardhan Hill near Vrindavan).
According to Toynbee, the Dutch were indifferent towards religious matters, and so in their initial years, the Dutch Protestant church had no clergyman. Prayer services were conducted by a zekentrooster (comforter of the sick, not from a holy order) or a paid priest from Calcutta. In 1821, a group of missionaries, including Rev Francis Lacroix from the Netherlands Missionary Society, visited Chinsurah. In his biography too, there is a brief mention of the ‘religious infidelity’ of the people here along with a brief description of the church:
“The church, an antiquated building, of no definite style of architecture, stood… on the bank of the river. Its tower alone was built first to bear the settlement clock; the part adapted for worship being added twenty-five years after…”
In 1825, at the end of the Napoleonic wars, a number of Dutch possessions were exchanged with the British for the Island of Sumatra. The settlement of Chinsurah was among them. Thus, the church saw a change of ownership to the English regional head, i.e. the Bishop of Calcutta. This was a painful transition for the Dutch residents and missionaries because this building had been the centre of religious and missionary activities. Rev Lacroix’s memorial states:
“The station having passed to the English Government; the church was handed over to the Established Church of England. The missionaries, who had gratuitously supplied religious instruction within its walls for twenty years, ceased their ministrations; and the Dutch inhabitants, and others, were compelled to leave a building which they regarded as their own…”
Even though the Dutch fort of Gustavus was demolished by the British, the old Dutch church continued serving the residents of the now British town.
On 5th October 1864, the church steeple collapsed during a cyclone and the ghantaghar fell silent forever. The church was repaired without the steeple. But since Christians in Chinsurah now preferred using a new ‘Free Church’, ghantaghar was eventually abandoned. Despite the odds and sans its steeple, the church kept standing for the next 100 years as a relic from a bygone era.
In 1950, the Indian Church (now the Church of North India) sold the church premises to the government, as it was “no longer required”.
– The government renovated the structure, and it was used as a biology laboratory for the adjacent Mohsin College. The ‘renovation’ meant a blemished cementing and whitewashing of the structure, which destroyed its sense of history and made its inscriptions illegible.
In the 1970s, as students’ unrest began in Bengal, the building was neglected and its gardens became overgrown. Over time, iron beams, stained glasses and many other artefacts were stolen from the premises.
The future of the church seemed bleak when the government decided to demolish it to make way for the Law Department of Mohsin College. This led to a legal battle in the Calcutta High Court in 1980, filed by Hriday Ranjan Halder, an evangelist from Chinsurah. He went to great lengths to obtain an injunction and attempted to garner support from “all bishops in the country” and the Christian residents of the town.
However, being an elderly gentleman and a lone crusader, with not enough money or support for this legal battle, the tide turned against him. In spite of its historical significance, the West Bengal government stated in court that the church couldn’t be regarded as an ancient monument. The court set aside the injunction and the structure was razed.
– The Chinsurah residents had no idea that a precious piece of history had been standing in their midst. Most of them were not even aware of the legal battle that had taken place concerning this building.
Even though the Dutch embassy representatives had shown interest in renovating the church, the vandalism continued. By 1988, the building was completely razed by the West Bengal Public Works Department. According to a newspaper clipping of 1988, the First Secretary of the Netherlands Embassy had come to Chinsurah with a specific task from the authorities to inquire into the church's state as they were interested in supporting with funds if necessary. He came to Chinsurah and to his shock saw the demolition proceeding rapidly, with only a few walls still standing.
Yet the site remained vacant will as recently as 2009, when a Circuit House was built on it. Even stranger, the land was never used to construct the college’s Law Department.
Also, what happened to the artefacts in the church that weren’t stolen? Many of them were fortunately rescued and are in Amsterdam. The Dutch church at one time housed 14 memorial hatchments of the various Dutch governors. These were donated by the Bishop of Calcutta to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1949. Many records mention that the church housed chandeliers and several oil paintings of the Dutch sahibs and their wives. These were probably taken back by the Dutch after India gained Independence.
However, not all objects met such a fate. The crowning glory of the church, the steeple bell, had been lying next to the church ever since the tower collapsed in 1864. It is said that the demolishing contractor paid a sum of Rs 70,000 to the authorities to dismantle and acquire the right to sell the debris of the building, along with the bell. What happened to the bell remains a mystery.
In 2017, it was decided that a commemorative church would be built at a site nearby. This proposal was considered by the Dutch embassy representatives as well as the local authorities. Four years later and there is no sign that things have moved forward.
The sad tale of this church is a testament to the persisting apathy and neglect faced by several heritage structures in Chinsurah. Today, Ghantaghat retains its name, a reminder of its glorious past. It stands in solitude, sandwiched between the walls of the relatively new Circuit House and Mohsin College. Shrouded in shrubbery, it begs to be revived and avoid a terrible fate.