A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee
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Chandannagar, renowned as the French Colony of Bengal, is located around 35 kilometers from Kolkata. After a prolonged stay in the city of joy, we thought of spending an afternoon in this French town on the eve of holy Chhat Puja.
The best way to reach the place is to take a local train from Howrah station. It would not take more than 40 minutes to reach Chandannagar. The station remains awfully busy till late night due to the rising population of daily passengers on and off the place. The alternative way is to drive straight through the historical Grand Trunk Road. We decided to go by train, visit the nearby places on foot and then take a bus from the G.T. Road and complete a circular journey. Believe me, we relished more than what we had expected.
This little town is a surprise in disguise. From the very moment we landed at Chandannagar station, it gave us a different feeling altogether. Though with declining eminence, it still holds its own grandeur in a traditional French style. Exploring the architypes of lost glory, we kept walking towards the Ganges, commonly known as Hooghly River in this stretch. We reiterated amongst ourselves a common history about the naming of the place – though earlier it was known as Farashdanga (‘Farash’ meaning French, ‘danga’ meaning Land), due to the half circular shape of the Ganges here (resembling a half moon), it was later renamed to Chandannagar.
Dilapidated house of Anthony Firingee
After a brisk walk of 20 minutes, we reached a very old palatial building, now in uninhabited state with barren bushes arising from every part of it. Few of the windows still exist, trying to yell at the passersby. The utterly dilapidated condition of the house attracted our attention. The house was pretty close to the Ganges at one corner of the road.
There were few roadside tea stalls opposite to it. Little tired, we thought of taking a quick break with more of an intention to dig out information about this demolishing mansion. The guy sitting in the shop was a young chap and did not seem to show much interest on us other than our ordered cups of tea. However an old clumsy man, smoking inside, looked at us as we inquired more about that house. He almost voluntarily offered to share a gripping story about it.
The house belonged to a Portuguese gentleman named Hensman Anthony. In those days, it was known as Farashdanga. He was so involved with the Bengali folk tunes, that he started learning the language and then eventually participated in numerous literary face-offs (Kavi gaan) with the then popular native performers. Some of his notable compositions include a number of devotional songs dedicated to Goddess Kali and Durga. His works started gaining him visibility and soon he came to be popularly known as Anthony Firingee (foreigner of European origin).
In those days, widow remarriage was looked upon as a social crime in the Hindu society. He went against the existing social norms and married a young Hindu Brahmin widow named Saudamini which subdued his popularity to a great extent. Over a year’s time, Saudamini committed suicide under pressure from the villagers. Unable to bear the shock, Anthony started slowly absconding from his literary circle, thus living a lonely life. After his death in 1836, the house caught fire and had gradually ruined with time.
The old man’s wet voice had taken us to those days of history. The whistle of a pressure cooker from the adjacent hotel brought us back to reality. Thanking him off, we started walking again. Silence prevailed till we reached the Ganges – locally known as Rani Ghat. The river is quite superfluous here. Been there on the day of Chhat Puja (a rigorous Bihari ritual offering prayers to Sun God), countless horde of human heads had flooded the ferry ghat.
Chhat Puja celebrations at Rani Ghat
Along the banks, there were couple of over decorated tempos standing with lots of people surrounding them. Out of curiosity when we peeped in, experienced a surprising scene. In one of them there was a cow with five legs and in the other there was a goat with four horns and a tongue coming out of its head. The gathered mob were offering money to the owners, believing the unusual animals to have Godly powers.
Five legged cow and Four horned Goat
Right from Rani Ghat, the historically famous Strand begins. It’s a tree shaded stretch of around one kilometer along the river – considered as the most beautiful promenade of the Ganges. Both the sides of Strand house a number of prominent buildings of historical importance. It is also a very romantic spot – perfect for a fine dating or a casual afternoon stroll along the boulevard enjoying the soft Gangetic breeze. Even today it is well decorated with French lampshades and ornamental iron railings of typical old European style.
A refreshing rest on the wooden benches of The Strand
Another important ferry ghat of Strand is the Durgacharan Rakshit Ghat. It still boasts off the elegance of its ornate works on the pillars. We rested for about an hour beside the Ganges and looked around. Just opposite to it, on the other side of the road, stands the famous Governor (Duplex) Palace. It has been recently turned to a museum which houses a wonderful display of his antique French collections. Little ahead is the French Fort, now turned to a local court cum correctional home.
Ornate pillar works and French lampshades at Durgacharan Rakshit Ghat
Savouring a refreshing stopover at one of the old benches of magnificent Strand, we jerked off. Walked for another five minutes to reach the end of it. Who knew such an architectural splendor was awaiting us! An underwater house (locally known as ‘Patal Bari’) – truly subaquatic in every aspect. It belonged to the aesthetic group of Bansberia zamindary during early 19th Century. A double storied lavish mansion whose lowest floor is submerged inside the Ganges, almost deep down up to the riverbed. Its gorgeous European style wooden sunshades, well maintained garden canopy, open terrace with a private bathing ghat and embellished water outlets are spectacular even today.
Historic Patal Bari (Subaquatic House)
Ever since its creation, the house boasts of a long list of eminent guests including Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore & social reformer Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. Though not open for general public round the year, various movies and short films have been shot here in recent times. Giving a glance from the main gate, we read some informative facts about the house from the commemoration erected near the house. It was a splendid experience indeed – an amazing existence of Bengal’s architectural cum artistic marvel.
Off the Strand, lies the French architect Jacques Duchatz’s piece of excellence – the Sacred Heart Church. The gate remains open for public during the prayer time in the afternoon. We felt lucky to have reached the place right during the prayer time and were even luckier to have personally been greeted by honourable Father. It was such a warm experience. The church’s prayer hall is well decorated by stained Belgium glasses, spectacular frescoes and painted relics of ancient beautifications. At the entrance there is an equally amiable statue of Jesus Christ heartily welcoming all the incoming visitors. Moved by the overall eternity of the place, we spent some silent moments there, rejuvenating our day’s experience. However, any kind of photography was strictly prohibited within the premises.
Overwhelmed with an awesome day out, we walked towards the G.T. Road and boarded a public bus for our return journey.