I had heard about Chandernagore near Kolkata in bits and pieces from one of my Bengali friends. The place is one of the first outposts of the colonial rulers and is another French colony in the country apart from the popular Pondicherry. We had hired a taxi for the day which took us from Kolkata to this forgotten town.
I informed the driver about our destination and he gave me a blank look and added on further saying that there is nothing there to see and advised us to head elsewhere. My parents were getting all set to change the plans but I took my stand and stood firm.
As we approached the town, it looked like any other small town in the country which was filled with people jaywalking on the roads, cars zooming past and advertisements which were brought out by banks and mobile networks. Like Pondy, I expected this place to have a French Quarter with old buildings and French cuisine.
The Unusual French Colony
When we enquired with the localites, all we were told was to just go straight which eventually lead us to the Hooghly river. The riverside had a promenade which was named Strand; we walked along and looked for the Indo French Museum and Cultural Centre.
PC: Aryan paswan
The museum which also has a French school is housed in a duplex house which was a cream-coloured building unlike the ones in Pondicherry which are painted in yellow. The duplex house was once home to the French Governor. We were the only visitors at the museum and we went through the diverse collection of maps, furniture, models and household items.
With patience and a fairly good eyesight, I started to read the maps which had different stories to narrate of the town's eventful past. The French, Dutch, Danish, Portuguese, Germans and English, all of them had their colonies in the prime lands on the banks of the Hooghly.
The French built the Fort d'Orleans here after receiving a grant from Emperor Aurangzeb in the year 1688. The colony passed hands to the British and back again until it became part of the Indian Republic in 1952. Looking at the museum, it seems like no one really cares much about its current state.
An old four-poster bed, the run down sofas, the beautiful crockery and the odd statues and lithographs were found to be scattered around the rooms without any proper order. At the backyard of the museum is a garden which finds its beauty in the unkempt way; at some point of time the Governor might have held an evening gathering here.
PC: Aryan paswan
We left the museum and took a stroll across the Strand which took us to a structure which has vague resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe of Paris. The arch of the structure has a combination of eastern influences which can be seem in the form of elephants and flowers along with the columns and European stucco work.
A marble slab can be seen high up on the facade and an inscription in French which says that the structure is a gift to the city and was constructed by Shamachorone Roquitte in memory of his father Dourgachourone Roquitte. Further down the promenade is a white structure, the Sacred Heart Church.
The Parish Priest
PC: Rangan Datta
The walls in the front had worn out with bits of plaster sticking on like a scab in this thriving place. The interior has a tall ceiling with some ornate stained glass windows. The parish priest was an excellent guide here.
He showed us a restored grave and brought to our notice that the lights in the altar had been brought from France along with the bell which still rings three time a day. The church was built some time in the late 19th century by the French traders.
PC: Biswarup Ganguly
Unlike Pondicherry, we could not find any French cafe, instead my father made a discovery of a small tea stall from where we decided to sip some tea and enjoy the light rain. Chandernagore has well moved away, dusting away its history.
Yet it has a very unique past which makes the town special and gives it a charm and identity which is quite different from any other town in West Bengal. Hoping that whatever is left back in the town would be preserved for the future we bid adieu to the French colony.