ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY explore an erstwhile French enclave and trading town older than Calcutta, renowned for its revolutionaries, littérateurs, philanthropists and sweets
The Grand Trunk Road strode up to the Liberty gate of Chandernagore with the impetuousness of a conqueror, bludgeoning its way through the smattering of shops. In the clamour of cycles and rickshaws and pedestrians holding bright umbrellas, it was hard to imagine that a few centuries ago British soldiers had to request permission from the French to enter the town. With no love lost between the two adversaries, it wasn’t surprising that the Brits eventually razed the Fort d’Orleans and much of the French outpost in 1757 as Chandernagore’s trading dreams were eclipsed by the emergence of British Calcutta.
The République Française motto Liberté Egalité Fraternité adorning the 1937 gate beckoned us with the promise of all things French, yet Chandernagore was no Pondicherry. There were bold imprints of Bengali culture that had edged the French influence to the background. Amid the cluster of modern tenements, colonial mansions stood out like fairside attractions.
Kanhai Seth’er Bari, home to the Nandys, was a lovely edifice with ornamental urns marking the gatepost. Further down the road Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir was a fusion of native and colonial styles where Corinthian columns co-existed alongside ornate Hindu motifs. Built in 1860 by Sri Harihar Sett it was donated to the people of Chandernagore as a theatre hall and library.
A brief chat with locals at a chai shop led us on our heritage trail past Hospital more (turn) to Nundy-bari, home of a rich Zamindar that now served the Ruplal Nundy Memorial Cancer Research Centre. His great grandson Shashank Shekhar Nandy was kind enough to share more about the historic building. Locally known as Gala-Kuthi from the time it was a Portuguese warehouse of gala (shellac), it went on to host dignitaries like Maharaja Krishnachandra of Krishnanagar and Bengali poet Bharatchandra Ray.
Long before Calcutta was carved out of the villages of Sutanati, Kalikata and Gobindapur and the establishment of Fort William in 1698, Chandernagore 37km upstream on the Hooghly was a key trade centre. Boats docked here for rice, wax, saltpeter, indigo, jute, even slaves, as the town became home to seths, zamindars, Muslim traders, Armenians and enterprising men – Louis Bonnaud, the first European to commercially cultivate indigo in India, Batakrishna Ghosh, first Bengali founder of a cloth mill, Dinanath Chandra who ran the first European tincture factory in the area and Indrakumar Chattopadhyay, first publisher of a wall map on Bengal.
Prominent among the local businessmen was Indranarayan Chowdhury, appointed by the French Compagnie as Diwan in 1730. He received a gold medal from Louis XV, the King of France and constructed a rest house and the temple of Sri Nandadulal in 1740. We gazed at the squat shrine, its walls shorn of the rich carvings so typical of terracotta temples in Bengal. The exterior bore marks of cannon fire as Colonel Robert Clive and Admiral Charles Watson of the British army pounded Chandernagore in March 1757.
We were led by Kalyan Chakravarty, a passionate gentleman so proud of his town’s heritage he had abandoned his shop Kumar & Co mid-transaction to guide us around the key sights. “Called Granary of the East, the Lakshmiganj Market was once India’s largest rice mart. Urdi bajar was named after the vardi or khaki uniform of soldiers who stayed here during colonial times.
In those days this area was known as Farasdanga (land of the French)” he explained. Like Clive and Watson we strode into St Joseph’s Convent, built in 1861, to the little chapel and stood at the 1720 door through which the British generals had marched into Chandernagore. A brief stop at the Sacred Heart Church and we reached the town’s pièce de résistance – The Strand.
Reminiscent of Pondy’s Promenade, the 1km long 7m wide paved avenue was lined by historic buildings with the horseshoe shaped town divided into the French Villé Blanche (White Quarter) and a native Villé Noire (Black Quarter) that lay inland. Midstream between Murshidabad and Calcutta, Chandernagore overlooked the river and not the sea, but was easily the most decorated ghat on the 2500km stretch of the Ganga. At its peak, on the northern end of the avenue stood the 1878 built Hotel de Paris (now Sub-divisional court) and Thai Shola hotel built in 1887 (presently Chandannagar college).
On the south end was Patal Bari (Underground House), its lowest level jutting into the river. Originally a rest house of the French navy, it later hosted social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Nobel laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore, who even integrated Patal Bari into his stories. Also lining the Strand were Rabindra Bhavan, the Gendarmerie (police station), an 1845 Clocktower dedicated to Joseph Daumain S’Pourcain and Dupleix Palace.
A former naval godown and residence of Governor Francois Dupleix, it was converted into Institut de Chandernagor, an Indo-French Cultural Centre housing one of the oldest museums in the region. Its stunning collection included French exhibits like cannons used in the Anglo-French war, 18th century furniture, rare paintings, Shola craft of Bengal and memorabilia related to Dupleix and Tagore.
We walked to Joraghat or Chandni, a decorated pavilion at the ferry point with a plaque dedicated to Dourgachorone Roquitte. Courtier of the French Government, Durgacharan Rakshit was the first Indian to be conferred with the Chevalier de legion d’Honour in 1896. From here, the scenic curve of the river was clearly visible, curved like a crescent moon (chandra) after which the town was named. Some contend Chandannagar derives from the trade in chandan (sandalwood) or Chandi’r nagar after its presiding deity Boraichandi. Yet Kalyan da exhorted “The town is not famous for the Ganga or the French, but for revolutionaries!”
The French enclave was a natural sanctuary for freedom fighters escaping the British Empire. Rashbehari Bose, founder of Azad Hind Fauj, revolutionary leader Kanailal Dutta and social reformer Sri Harihar Seth were based here. In 1910 Sri Aurobindo followed an adesa or divine command and sailed from Calcutta to Chandernagore where he stayed in the house of Motilal Roy before heading to Pondicherry after a 39-day stopover. Roy went on to establish the Prabartak Sangha and launched an incendiary Bengali literary magazine in 1915.
We turned to head back, but Kalyan da paused and whispered ‘You are yet to meet Chandernagore’s most famous ambassador’, his gaze fixed on the confectionery shop Surjya Kumar Modak. Legend has it that nearly a century ago the local zamindar asked Shri Modak to craft a unique sweet for the new bridegroom and he came up with the jolbhora – a sandesh with a delicious rosewater filling that doesn’t dry up for days!
His creation (besides the Motichur sandesh) became a rage as even the most austere gentlemen from Tagore to Jansangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee found it irresistible. Today, it was also available in chocolate flavour with a gooey filling. We wound our way back to Calcutta along GT Road with the taste of Jolbhora still on our tongue… And Chandernagore seemed like a whiff of French perfume escaping from old love letters in an unlocked casket.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 20 July 2013 in the last edition of Times Crest.