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Town of the crescent moon
Chandernagore, an erstwhile French enclave, is older than nearby Kolkata and renowned for its revolutionaries, litterateurs and sweets.
The Grand Trunk Road strides right up to the Liberty Gate in Chandernagore with the impetuousness of a conqueror, carving a way through a smattering of shops. In the clamour of cycles and pedestrians today, it's hard to imagine that British soldiers once 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 English eventually razed the town's Fort d'Orleans in 1757 as Chandernagore's trading dreams were eclipsed by the emergence of British Calcutta.
Yet, the Libertê Egalitê Fraternitê that adorns the 1937 gate beckoned us with the promise of all things French. But Chandernagore was no Pondicherry. Bold imprints of Bengali culture had edged the French influence to the background. Still, colonial mansions stood out like fairside attractions. Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir is a good example. A fusion of native and colonial styles where Corinthian columns co-exist alongside ornate Hindu motifs, it was built in 1860 by Sri Harihar Sett and 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 Nundybari, which now served as the Ruplal Nundy Memorial Cancer Research Centre. Locally known as Gala-Kuthi (from the time it was a Portuguese warehouse of gala or 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, 37 km 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 other enterprising folk.
Prominent among the local businessmen was Indranarayan Chowdhury, appointed by the French Compagnie as Diwan. He 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.
We were led by Kalyan Chakravarty, a passionate gentleman so proud of his town's heritage that 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. We strode into St Joseph's Convent, built in 1861, and after a brief stop at the Sacred Heart Church we reached the town's piece de rêsistance - The Strand.
Reminiscent of Pondicherry's Promenade, the one km-long paved avenue was lined by historic buildings with the horseshoe shaped town divided into the French Villê Blanche (White Quarter) and a native Villê Noire (Black Quarter) that lay inland. At its peak, on the northern end of the avenue stood the 19th-century Hotel de Paris (now a sub-divisional court) and the Thai Shola hotel (presently Chandannagar College). On the south end was Underground House (Patal Bari), its lowest level jutting into the river. Originally a rest house of the French navy, it later hosted social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and the poet Rabindranath Tagore, who even integrated Patal Bari into his stories.
Also lining the Strand were Rabindra Bhavan, the gendarmerie (police station), an 1845 clock tower and Dupleix Palace. A former naval godown and residence of French governor Francois Dupleix, it was converted into Institut de Chandernagor, an Indo-French Cultural Centre housing one of the oldest museums in the region.
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, as the town is also called, derives from the trade in chandan (sandalwood) or Chandi'rnagar after its presiding deity, Boraichandi. But Kalyan exhorted, "The town is not famous for the Ganga or the French, but for revolutionaries!"
We turned to head back, but Kalyan 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 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. As we wound our way back to Kolkata along GT Road with the taste of that jolbhora still on our tongue, Chandernagore seemed like a whiff of French perfume escaping from old love letters in an unlocked casket.
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