35 kms north of Kolkata, on the Howrah Burdwan railway line is the town of Chandannagar.
It’s small but busy railway station does not look much different from the ones that one passes on the short train journey from Howrah to Chandannagar. A quick trot to the rickshaw stand. Still nothing remarkable. Narrow, wayward streets cramped with unplanned construction on either sides, unruly pedestrian and vehicular traffic and a web of electric cables running overhead. Standing here, one would never be able to guess that this unremarkable suburban town of Kolkata was once a flourishing French settlement and an important center of European commerce in Bengal.
Established as a French trading post in 1673, Chandannagar (then known as Chandanagore) was governed as part of French India, until it’s integration with the Indian state of West Bengal in 1950. The French buildings and boulevards are now all lost but for the beautifully restored riverside promenade; also known as the Strand; holding on to the last vestiges of its French past.
In the several trips made to a close family friend’s place in Chandannagar since childhood, I have always found the quaint beauty of its riverside to be a welcome change from the hustle bustle of everyday life. However, it was only on a recent trip that I had the good fortune of capturing it in pictures.
The tree lined Strand is a favourite among locals and tourists. Standing there one can spend hours observing the river and the boats and barges sailing past against the backdrop of the chimneys and landing ghats of the now defunct jute mills on the opposite bank.
At one end of the Strand road is Patalbari which literally translates as Underground House in English. This house is so called, as only it’s top floor is at level with the road while the lower floors go right down to the waters. Outside, marble plaque proudly declares that Patalbari had once hosted Nobel Laureate Ravindranath Tagore and well known Bengali writer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.
Further down the road is Dupleix House, the former residence of French Governor, now a museum that houses personal belongings of Dupleix and other dusty memorabilia. However, the elegant building with it’s wide verandas, high pillars and wooden screens is intriguing to wander around in.
A short walk ahead is Chandannagar Court, which apparently was the Fort at the time of the French.
On a leafy lane next to the court lies the Sacred Heart Church built in 1884. While the exterior of the church seems to have been recently painted in a hasty attempt to beautify it, the interiors show tell-tale signs of neglect. Noteworthy though are the beautiful stained glass windows and panels on the walls.
But it will be grossly inadequate to think of present day Chandannagar as just a shadow of its French past. Come November and the whole town starts brimming with excitement of the annual Jagadhatri (an incarnation of Godess Durga) Puja festival with idols reaching a couple of storeys in height.
The ten day festival sees the entire town decked up with intricate lighting displays and elaborate pandals rivaling the famous Durga Puja pandals of Kolkata. People from the neighboring towns pour into the streets of Chandannagar to revel in the festivities and feast on street food all night.
When to Go:
Chandannagar can be visited any time of the year but probably the best time to visit would be in November during the Jagadhatri Puja.
Getting there and around:
By Road: Take the GT Road from Kolkata
By rail: You can catch any local train plying on Howrah Burdwan Eastern Railway main line. Frequency is about 10 to 12 minutes and travel time is a maximum of 50 – 55 minutes.
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