French Riviera on the Hooghly
The town of Chandannagar or Chandernagore (for the French) is Bengal’s hidden gem. Known for its beautiful buildings, it was one of the most important French settlements in Asia in the 18th century.
– Chandannagar was also the scene of fierce battles between the French and the British in their quest for control of India.
Under the French Governor General Joseph François Dupleix (1697-1763), the city far surpassed its rival Calcutta, in terms of wealth and influence. But in the bitter fight for supremacy between the British and the French, the latter lost out in India, and Chandannagar became a symbol of ‘what could have been’ for the French in India.
The beautiful buildings of Chandannagar, are today a reminder of a chapter of Indian history, when this stretch along the Hooghly, from Chinsurah, to Bandel, and Chandannagar to Calcutta, became the mini Europe in India.
A Brief History of the Town
In 1688 the French had paid the Mughal Subedar of the region 40,000 coins for a firman giving them control of the area, on the banks of the river. They established a trading post here, along the Hooghly in 1696 with a fortification named Fort D’Orleans at the centre. In 1756 war, broke out between the French and the British under the command of Robert Clive. The British bombarded and captured the town in 1757 and the Fort D’Orleans was demolished. Some of the town’s buildings still carry the marks of this battle.
– The town was restored to the French in 1765 but was captured again by the British during the Napoleonic wars and finally returned to the French in 1815.
By this time the French had pared their ambitions in the Indian subcontinent substantially. Overtime Chandannagar would become a French backwater. While India became independent from British rule on 15th August 1947, Chandannagar became a part of India only on 2nd February 1951.
Over the centuries of French control, Chandannagar developed a distinct French-Bengali cultural amalgamation that had an impact on cuisine - a Rasmalai which is baked, language - Bengali names with a pronounced French twist and architecture.
The French are long gone now and many elements of French culture are fading away, however what remains is the Indo-French architecture seen in the built fabric of the city. Around a hundred Indo-French buildings have been documented by conservation architect Aishwarya Tipnis with the support of the French government.
Chandannagar is a marvel of town planning with an iron grid layout and a spectacular promenade along the Hooghly. The promenade - the Strand, has some of the town’s most spectacular buildings.
Patal Bari which literally means underground house is one of the most intriguing structures in the town. It is called so because a large section of the building is under the ground level and in fact, below the level of the Hooghly, which it sits right next to, what we see above the ground is just a small part of the building.
This quirky structural system allowed the building to remain cool in the summer season and inundated in the monsoon. The building was used as a resting place and mess kitchen for passing boats and sailors and many greats like social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, visited here.
– In fact the Patal Bari even finds mention in Tagore’s literature.
St. Josephs Convent
This chapel was built in 1860 at the site where an earlier chapel had been erected in 1720. The chapel, which has a domed roof, is Romanesque in design and was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny. Interestingly, the entrance door has the date 1720 (when the first chapel was built here) on its metal framework.
Institut de Chandernagore
The Institut de Chandernagore started life as the home of the French governor Joseph Francois Dupleix, who governed Chandannagar in the 1730s. The building is built along the Strand or the main promenade and enjoys a commanding presence along the river.
It is built in a typical French Colonial Style, and is characterised by its deep verandah with deep timber louvers. Today it is a protected monument under the ASI and functions as a museum and institute.
– It houses many artefacts from its French past like arms from the Anglo-French Wars and furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Chandernagore College, a single-storied colonial structure wilt a deep verandah supported on twin Tuscan columns.
The college was established by Father M. Barthet of the Mission of Freres de Saint Espirit as a school called Ecole de Saint Marie in 1862. In 1887 it came under the Chandernagore administration and was renamed Ecole de Garcons (School for Boys). In 1891 it was upgraded to teach up to the Intermediate level and became affiliated to the Calcutta University. In 1901 it was renamed Dupleix College and later College of Bussy. Presently it is affiliated to Burdwan University.
A highlight of the Strand is the Jora Ghat also called Rakshit Ghat, built in 1921 by Shyamacharan Rakshit in the name of his father, Durgacharan Rakshit. Durgacharan a writer, businessman and an advisor to the French, received the French award of Legion d’Honneur in 1896 for his efforts towards the growth of Chandannagar .
– Interestingly Durgacharan who was the first Indian to receive this French honour spelt his name in a very ‘French’ way - he signed as ‘Dourga Chorone Roquitte’.
This peach canopy here, is a blend of Indian and western aesthetics with slender columns and European Stucco combined with motifs of elephants and flowers.
Clock Tower and Jail
This grand U-shaped colonial building along the Strand was originally a French Police Unit and Jail. It is characterised by a grandiose entrance with a triangular pediment and a two-storied Clock Tower. Today this building functions as the Sub-Divisional Police Officer's Office, Circle Inspectors Office and Chandannagar Police Station.
Court of the Sub Divisional Magistrate (The Hotel De France)
The building was built in 1878 as a hotel. It is a single-storied colonial building and has a prominent location along the Strand. The Building has a broad flight of stairs which leads to a spacious verandah which is supported by Tuscan columns and has deep timber louvered screens topped with a decorative parapet. Today it functions as the Court of the Sub Divisional Magistrate
Besides these some of the other structures which come together to breathe life into this town are:
The Sacred Heart Church
The Sacred Heart Church is one of the most significant structures of the town of Chandannagar . The construction of this Roman Catholic Church was started in 1875 under a Brother Joachim under the initiative of Rev. Father P. Barthet. The construction was financed with the help of the government; money collected through the lottery as well as the contribution of common people.
On completion, the Church was dedicated to the Sacred Heart (the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ) by Dr. Paul Goethals, the Archbishop of Calcutta on the 27th of January 1884. It was the centre of the French social life, in the town.
The church has a Latin Cross Plan a semi circular apse at the western end and identical transepts on either side. The structure includes many elements of gothic architecture like domes, vaults and flying buttresses.
– The original gate, railings and exquisite stain glass windows have survived and can be admired by visitors.
The temple was established in the year 1740 by Indranarayan Choudhary who came here from Jessore (in present day Bangladesh) and built it as his family temple. He worked in trading and shipping and also served as the Diwan of the French Governor of Chandannagar.
The temple is built in the vernacular Bengali idiom. It is among the few building that was caught in the crossfires of the French and British wars and have survived to tell the tale.
– Bullet marks, courtesy Robert Clive and his troops can still be seen on the facade.
The library was built by Zamindar Harihar Sheth in 1860 as a public library for the people. With its delicate ornamentation, massive columns and domes, the building is an excellent example of the amalgamation of local and colonial architecture.
The buildings of Chandannagar may not be monumental, but individually they are lovely. Moreover when seen together, this distinctive ensemble gives this town its distinctive character and identity, also telling the story of those who lived here.
There is a quaint charisma to the town with its French names and Bengali mannerisms. While Chandannagar might have missed out on being the centre of a French Raj , or being as glamorous as its southern cousin Pondicherry, this town has a quiet appeal of its own.
With inputs from Aishwarya Tipnis