Chandanagore literally means the “city of the moon” or “fragrant sandalwood city”. To this very charming name add a generous dash of French panache and you have a lovely riverine small town filled with incredibly delicate colonial buildings, tree shaded avenues and exquisite stain glass decorated churches. Time moves slowly in Chandanagore and the laidback river Hooghly spans broad and flat in front of it. Boats ply from there busily continuing thousands of years of Hooghly river trading tradition and the placid, charming town hides secrets of a tumultous past in its gentile breast.
A pretty erstwhile French colony nestling on the banks of the River Hooghly (Ganges as it is known in the vast alluvial plains of West Bengal), Chandanagore is located around 30 kilometers north of Calcutta/Kolkata and exists in its own identity bubble. It is nowhere like my bustling dusty home town of Kolkata and its prettiness is quite an ego buster for the state capital city (Kolkatal) residents like yours truly. For all its quirks, fame and history, Chandanagore is indeed like no other city in West Bengal (and India except for Pondicherry) and it’s carefully cultivated distinction puzzled me for a long time.
For example when all parts and people of West Bengal unite to joyously celebrate Durga Puja, the biggest annual state festival, the snooty ex French colony not only refuses to whole heartedly appreciate it but also maintain their annual festival as Jagadhatri Puja. They marvelously compete in its celebratory grandeur with Calcutta’s Durga Puja festivities and do it in a more grander, more beautiful and better organized way. All this and more made me (and the rest of West Bengal) have a love hate relationship with Chandanagore and I finally decided to experience its much hyped distinction personally. So on an early summer day, a friend and I boarded a local (intercity) train from Howrah station and headed towards the haughty French beauty.
It was a lovely sunny morning, with open cloudless blue sky and balmy breeze which gave just a hint of summer. Palash bloomed riotously, dappling the sky with its large blood red flowers and budding mango orchards hummed with bees. Cuckoos went mad from happiness and sang from blackberry groves along the train tracks. Local trains in India (during off time) are extremely entertaining and give a clear picture of the picturesque exotic paradox of the subcontinent. Vendors selling fruits, munchies, safetypins, rat poison, magical remedies and self help books guarenting miraculous changes, hop in and out of the coaches and stations pass away in a whirl of selling, buying, bargaining, singing, knitting, gossiping, eyeing and begging.
Our train ride too passed away with heaps of fresh groundnuts getting reduced to shells and gossiping with our co passengers. By the time we reached Chandanagore we knew all about the eldest daughter’s marital maladies of the man sitting next to us, got advised on best mangoes by the lady on my left and received invitation for lunch from the elderly couple seated across. It was a whole lot of fun and the perfect West Bengal start of the day.
Chandanagore station was laughably small and it did not take us much effort to hire a tricycle rickshaw for the town tour. Tricycle rickshaws are an integral part of Indian mode of transportation and the best possible way to navigate narrow winding alleys at an unhurried pace. Our rickshaw puller, Jagu was a man whose generations had been born and bred in Chandanagore and his old father belonged to the era when the town was called Farashdanga by most of its residents. Jagu was a friendly chatty man and upon sensing our interest in his town took us home to meet his father. His father was almost 97, hard of hearing, sported foggy thick glasses and had the memory of an elephant. He was a potter by profession and over cups of tea told us tales of Farashdanga. Imediately time stood still and Farashdanga came alive over the spinning potter’s wheel.
The French arrived at Chandanagore in 1673 when the Nawab (ruler) of West Bengal Ibrahim Khan gave them the permission to setup a trading post on the right bank of the Hooghly river. Entire Bengal until then was ruled by the Mughals but by 1688 Chandanagore morphed into a full fledged French colony. In 1730, under the governance of Joseph François Dupleix, Chandanagore went through a major face lift when he ordered construction of nearly 2000 French style houses in the town. The riverine trade garnered lots of profits for the French and Chandanagore soon became the hub of European trade in Bengal.
The 1756 war between the French and the British however saw destruction of most of its fortifications and houses and Chandanagore slowly lost her economic importance as trading hub to neighbouring Calcutta. The riverine town was returned to France by the English in 1816 and was under political control of the French governor general in Pondicherry. Chandanagore remained a part of French India (post India’s independence in 1947) until 1950, when it was finally integrated with the rest of the free country.
The town’s name is believed to have been derived from the Bengali word “chand” meaning moon and “nagar” literally translating as city. This was probably due to the half moon shape of the river bank on which it lies. Many people however believe that the town’s flourishing sandalwood trade rendered Chandanagore its poetic name. The town was home to many famous personalities who left incredible impact on Indian history and many famous artists, revolutionaries and social reformers hailed from Chandanagore. In spite of being endowed with so much of cultural and political richness, we found it difficult to trace out Chandanagore’s beauty. Sadly most of its erstwhile Mediterranean prettiness was lost amidst overzealous haphazard modern construction, congested choking traffic and stifling pollution.
Pockets of intrepid beauty however did exist and glimpses of them took our breaths away. They were like peaceful oases in the middle of a busy ocean and we stared at glimpses of pretty pastel coloured homes dotting narrow winding alleys, gardens bursting with brilliantly coloured hibiscus and ornamental European architectural styles decorating coloumned porticos. Rakshit estate was one such oasis and we discovered it only because of Jagu’s local insight. He stopped outside the quaint gates of Rakshit estate and only a simple marbled name plate declared the owner’s name.
Rakshits used to be an extremely influential Indian family who owned substantial amount of property, wealth and clout in Chandanagore. In fact one of the tourist attractions of the town, Rakshit Ghat was named after them and the most famous of them, Durgacharan Rakshit had been profusely bestowed with French decorations (including the prestigious Legion d’honneur). The estate was expansive, with huge gardens, orchards, fish filled ponds and horse carriages. The mansions were painted in pretty Mediterranean shades of lemon, blue and mint green and the impressive scrollwork cast deep exquisite shadows. In spite of its quaint charm, a strange desolation persisted over the estate and it was quite evident that the property had seen better days.
The stone statues and fountains looked forlon and flowers grew wildly around them. We went inside the huge interior and immediately noticed the classic sign of fall of the old moneyed. While the un emptied letter box was cob webbed, huge ceiling to floor crystal chandeliers hung wrapped in expensive muslin. The chandeliers belonged to another era of ball room dancing and huge formal banquets and was perhaps one of the few remnants of the Rakshit’s erstwhile glory. We rested a bit under the Rakshit’s ornamental porch before moving on with the rest of our Chandanagore trail. The picturesque Strand came soon along with the intriguing Patal Bari and we stopped there to explore. Patal Bari means Underground House and it takes its name from the fact that its lowest floor is submerged under the Hooghly River. A hotbed of freedom fighters, writers, artists and thinkers, Patal Bari with its beautiful scroll worked sun shades was very pretty as well. It’s rude estate manager however put us off and we chose to walk down the promenade instead. Shaded with trees and decorated with ornate street lamps, the Strand overlooked the Hooghly and we sat there amidst parasol sporting lovers to watch Chandanagore drawl by.
Wooden country boats heavy with bricks rowed to and fro the river banks and deep red kilns on the other side smoked furiously. A few barges sailed slowly and Chandanagore’s most beautiful buildings stood behind us. The lovely Duplex’s Mansion (now Chandanagore Museum and Institute), the expansive courthouse and churches overlooked the Hooghly and reminded us of the French who called the town home. Durgacharan Rakshit Ghat stood close by and although the decorated and columned pink stucco pavilion is the most iconic of Chandanagore’s sights, we found the green elephant heads popping out from floral wreaths to be very Disneylandish. Lunch happened soon at Jagu’s favourite hole in the wall eatery and although it looked very much avoidable, the food turned out to be absolutely delicious. We had Bengali thalis (set meals) and each came with whopping amount of rice, dal cooked with fish head, spicy cauliflower and big bowls of whole fish. The most surprising part was the dessert which was included with the meal and keeping the French delicacy in mind, it turned out to be a tiny portion of wobbly creme caramel.
Our last stop was the ill kept Sacred Heart Church and we immediately fell in love with its exquisite stained glass interiors, a grand old organ and stunning wooden pulpits. We stopped there for a long time, watched the colourful rainbows bounce off the stained glass windows and listened to an old priest drone about the mystical Farashdanga. Chandanagore was once known as Farashdanga (derived from the word Farashi for French and danga meaning habitat) and this was probably during the time when Father Goethals in 1884 inaugurated the Sacred Heart Church and the entry to the French town was marked by 2 ornamental gates. The southern gate still remains today and bears the slogan of the French Revolution ” Liberte, Egalite and Fratarnite” (Liberty, Equality and Fraternity).
Incidentally the gate was inaugurated on 14th July 1937 to commemorate the fall of Bastille which set off the French Revolution. Farashdanga used to be very famous during those days for its excellent hand loom industry and Farashdanga Dhooti (a traditional Indian garment for men) used to popular throughout the country. Unfortunately hardly anything remains of the textile heritage today just like the prettiness of Farashdanga. The brash new unfeeling Chandanagore was a far cry of the town which the French lovingly built and maintained for so long.
We decided to return back to the station and on the way watched the fading beauty of Chandanagore with a fresh perspective. Beauty still existed in Chandanagore but billboards, mobile phone towers and political banners hid the grace of the crumbling buildings from view. It was very sad and I hated to see the lovely grand old structures decaying into dust. Some of them were completely abandoned and reclaimed by banyan trees while the remaining ones also seemed very unkempt. The desolation and careless destruction of beauty of the erstwhile French colony saddened us and we did not visit the Nandadulal and Buroshivtala terracotta temples. The train journey back to Kolkata was boring and in the cold white light of the compartment, we recollected our Chandanagore day. Dead, beautifully decaying but still proud, the town represented the delightfully French careless joie de vivre with a perfect emulation of C’est la Vie !
TRAVEL TIP – Chandanagore makes an excellent day trip from Kolkata. It is well connected by road, train and ferry services from Kolkata. There is no direct bus and the nearest bus stop is Bally or Belur. From there local minivans shuttle passengers to different further lying destinations including Chandanagore. Taxis are available and it is the most convenient way to visit Chandanagore. Local trains are the cheapest and fastest mode of transport and you can opt for Bandel local, Katwa local, Pandua local etc. These trains leave from Howrah station and the frequency is 1 train every 10 minutes. Ferry services are available between Belur and Chandanagore.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE