On a Heritage Trail in Serampore

On a Heritage Trail in Serampore

We are standing outside the Serampore Rajbaari, the house of the Goswami family who had once offered to buy the Danish business in Bengal for 11,000 taka. Behind the cast iron gates, an elderly man sits on a rickety chair in the covered porch. He is reading the newspaper. With his brows furrowed and his glasses perched on his sharp nose, he looks so intimidating we don’t ask if we can get a peek inside the mansion, parts of which have been repainted a happy sunflower yellow; the rest— decorative arches over louvred windows, ornate brackets and friezes, Corinthian pillars— stands derelict, the blush of the bricks having been scorched by hundreds of years of the unforgiving Bengal sun. There is a primary school in the southern wing now; we wonder if the children are ever told about the building’s history or shown its impressive architecture. Next to the driveway, a signboard hung on the old cast iron railings says “Serampore Child Guidance Centre”. A part of the building is rented out for weddings and other social functions. A man in a white vest and cotton shorts is stacking cauldrons near the entrance. We amble around taking photos and musing.

Serampore Rajbaari

The Bengali hit, Bhoot’er Bhobishyat, was shot in this rajbaari. In the film, you can see Kadalibala, the spirit of a woman betrayed, gliding down the chequered marble corridors that run around the inner courtyard singing tumi je ele na phire... In another scene, the ghosts convene in the thakurdalan which features scalloped arches and clustered columns. During the Goswami family’s heydays, Durga Puja was celebrated with much pomp in the same thakurdalan. Over 500 people were fed bhog in the naatmandir, a covered courtyard featuring 24 Corinthian columns!

Kishorilal’s Rajbaari

Few metres away, overlooking the Ganges, is a palatial building. Built by Kishorilal Goswami, one of the heirs of the Goswami family, this building is in far better shape than the original rajbaari. Today, Kishorilal’s Rajbaari serves as the local Vivekananda Nidhi centre. Painted a stately red with white trimmings, the building stands in an unkempt garden from where once perhaps the river breeze would fan the delicate perfume of the kamini through the large, green windows. On the river bank stands a forsaken chhatri-like structure. Below it, on a dilapidated ghat, a Bengal monitor lizard is sunning itself. Hearing our footsteps, it dives into the bushes and suddenly a host of mongooses emerge as if woken rudely from deep slumber. We stop here and there, pointing at the decorative elements of old houses. On the way to Seal Mansion, a three-storied building painted in colonial shades of iron oxide, green, and yellow ochre, we pass a crumbling two-storey house with intricate carvings over the windows and the pillars. A three-tiered rath stands leaning on its damp-darkened walls. A purple saari hanging from a clothesline blocks a part of the jutting balcony from view.

A residential house in the old town
Seal Mansion

Once Bengal’s only Danish settlement, Serampore today is a part of Bengal’s industrial belt. Pre-partition, the jute processing industry was the backbone of the local economy. With most of the jute fields falling in Bangladesh, the industry quickly fell into a stupor and hundreds were rendered jobless. Along the river, defunct brick-bare chimneys of jute mills still rear their tall heads. Frankly speaking, there isn’t much to see here unless you are into history and architecture– in Serampore stand monuments like Henry Martin’s forgotten pagoda and the Aldeen House which nature has reclaimed as her own– or, religious. Bengal’s oldest RathYatra, the Rath Yatra of Mahesh, is held here annually and thousands gather to participate in the procession. The Radha Ballab Jiu Temple dating back to 1886 and the recently restored St. Olav’s Church are also in Serampore.

Outside the restored Danish Tavern

Over coffee at Denmark Tavern, we overhear a film crew discussing the day’s shot over fluffy, white luchis. Since the tavern was reopened in September, film crews, photographers, and heritage enthusiasts have been flocking to it and for good reason. The building had lost most of its roof, the floor was a forest, and the walls were festering with all kinds of life when Manish Chakraborti and his team came to its rescue. The café reminds me of Coffee House. Is it the rectangular opening in the ceiling or the period furniture, I wonder as I cut into my mushroom and chicken cheese toast. Our server, Munazir, apologizes when we request a tour of the second floor but invites us for drinks when the tavern opens at the end of December. His name reminds me of Muntazir, the fictional town where Myshkin Rozario lives in wait of his mother to return in Anuradha Roy’s All the lives we never lived. Like the book, this building ferries you to the colonial era, to Frederiksnagore as Serampore was known back then. Around you, young Danish soldiers and traders engage in conversations with their European and Indian counterparts. Women, decked in tulle, arrive with their parasols and order drinks to cool themselves. Their shoes go tap-tap-tap on the stone flooring. Puffs of tobacco smoke linger in the riverine air. Tired travellers arrive on boats from the city of Calcutta. In the mellow glow of oil lamps and gas lights, a khichuri of languages and dialects fills the room. Oblivious to servers running from dining room to kitchen and weary travellers impatiently enquiring about lodging, someone plays a violin.

Inside Danish Tavern
Danish Tavern

Outside, by the river again, we watch ferries parting the still bosom of the river. A man says of the steep and narrow flight of stairs leading to the river, “eta bostibaari’r ghat (this is the ghat of the slums)” and points us to the next one which has broader steps and concrete flanks to seat on. Small shrines have been made into the walls. Behind us, the steeple of St. Olav’s Church shines in the spotless blue sky. Many years back, you could spot the church from this nameless ghat near the Jugol Addhya Ghat from where motor-powered boats ferry passengers to Barrackpore. We notice that a pair of iron rails runs down the middle of the slope, parting the stairs. In olden times when most of the goods were ferried on boats, the rails were used to haul heavy loads up the slope. Men and women bath in the muddy brown waters before offering prayers at the little shrines. A group of tourists arrive with their cameras. Even five years back, you could never spot a westerner in this part of Bengal but the efforts at preserving Serampore’s heritage is bringing in tourist dollars. Soon a group of elderly men gather for a late morning adda. Though we are less than 20 km from Kolkata, life feels slow. In a shop, we spot a man repairing a harmonium. Two kids chase a rooster down the riverbank. We sit in the shade of a banyan tree and talk about what was once regarded as the most beautiful European settlement in this part of the world until an almost naked man, head crowned with soap lather, begins to scratch his crotch so vigorously and for such a prolonged period that we decide to leave him at peace with his ablutions.

River Ghats, Serampore
Boats leaving for Barrackpore

Located at a T-junction in the heart of the old Danish settlement is St. Olav’s, a 211-year old church dedicated to a Norwegian saint who was highly revered in Denmark when Norway and Denmark were under the same crown. A workshop of some kind is happening inside and judging from the number of footwear outside, the church is packed. A monogram of the Danish King, Christian VII, adorns the double-columned portico which is topped by a square bell tower with a clock. Along the side, are a series of louvred windows that have been painted a dark brown. The roof is flat, unlike in churches from that era in Scandinavia, suggesting that it was built in the style of St.Martin-in-the-Fields in London as were most churches built during that time in Calcutta. The bells no longer toll but one of them bears the inscription ‘Frederiksvaerk 1804’. From where we stand, we can see lights twinkling inside and the faithful, hands raised to the Heavens, swaying to hymns. Behind us, in a little enclosure are canons dating back to the 1700s. If Bente Wolff, project head, Serampore Initiative, and consultant architect, Flemming Aalund, has her way, we will soon be standing on a sweeping tree-lined boulevard facing the church with the North Gate of the Government House complex to our right.

St. Olav’s Church

The old Government House, or the catcherie, and the South Gate are also undergoing renovations. We feel dwarfed inside; the ceilings, which have been restored to their original glory, are at least one and a half floors high! Over the rhythmic sound of carpenters smoothing long planks of wood, we are informed that this building is being restored by the Bengal Tourism Department and Denmark’s Ministry of Culture and once complete, it will house three museums and government offices. The exterior is a pale yellow, the same shade as that of the Denmark Tavern, with bright green trimmings. Extensive research went into getting the colour as close as possible to that of the original building’s. In the field facing the grand structure, children have gathered for a game of football. We loiter around the site, pausing to admire the fanning shell designs over the main doors, the tall louvred windows, the Corinthian columns, and the airiness of the whole structure till the afternoon sun becomes overbearing and hungry for food and shade, we enter Vheto for lunch.

The Catcherie grounds

The heritage building in which the eatery is located was once the court canteen. Now renovated, it resembles a plantation bungalow; a wide verandah decorated with white plastic chairs with a woven cane pattern, potted plants, dated lamps, photographs and replicas of paintings from old Serampore gives way to tall glass doors and windows. Seated in a room with high ceilings and polished red floors, we polish off a plate of rosun bhapa bhetki, jhurjhur alubhaja, and shona-mung’er dal with piping hot rice. In the evening, the eatery serves Kolkata cafe items like moghlai porota and dim’er devil. On the way out, the owner informs us that once the catcherie has been renovated, they will move to the rooftop, from where we imagine we will be able to see the river flowing gracefully beyond Serampore’s mushrooming clutch of ugly apartments.

Veto, entrance
The Catcherie

Past the Serampore Girls College with its green Venetian blinds, past the crumbling remains of a mansion, past the rundown jute mill, we reach Serampore College. It’s Sunday and the gates are locked. Fringed by leaves and boughs, the main building, with its dramatic columns and arched windows, stands tall in true neo-Classical style. The silence is only broken by birdcalls and the occasional toto puttering down the road. In front of us, the river flows by sluggishly. The oldest college in India, the Serampore College was established in 1818 by the Serampore trio: William Carey, Joshua Marshman, and William Ward and in 1827, King Frederick VI issued Serampore College its Royal Charter of Incorporation. The prospectus proposed “A College for the instruction of Asiatic Christian and other Youth in Eastern Literature and European Science” and the college was open to all persons irrespective of caste or creed.

Serampore College

Near the house of the Dey family, another of Serampore’s well-known heritage structures that looks like it will collapse any day, Bollywood music and loud chatter spills out from a banquet hall and threatens to shatter the sweet solitude of the afternoon. We have been talking about the house of the Rakshit family of Chandannagore, which, says Aninda, contained four ponds within the compound. The rooms were decorated with original paintings by Indian and European painters, antique furniture, chandeliers, and more till a family feud dissolved it all. We hardly visit them anymore, he trails off pointing at the decorative friezes of the house in front of us. It looks like a series of haphazardly arranged Lego blocks in varying shades and states of disrepair but in reality, the house, which runs along the entire length of the road we are standing on, has been sectioned off and each owner has renovated their part as per their ability. Where there were heavy wooden doors with exquisite carvings, now there are gaping holes. We hear that there’s a grand thakurdalan inside with wide corridors running along three sides of it. With its rounded windows, grand Corinthian columns, ornate iron railings, and wooden Venetian blinds, the mansion is a study in opulence.

Dey Mansion

The pond across the street is a lurid shade of green. Algae bloom with abandon on the surface. On the edges are fecund clusters of hyacinths. Where the water is free of vegetation, the surface appears like a sheet of black glass. Not a breath of wind. We continue west on Dey Street, past Unique Lodge, a restored heritage house and one of few lodgings in Serampore, and down Serampore’s main drag before slipping into a side street in search of the Danish Cemetery. To our dismay, it is locked. The lack of maintenance is evident from the profusion of weeds and the crumbling appearance of the graves. A chhatri-like structure has been erected right across from the main gate. White with golden trimmings, it appears eerily out of place as if the living had arrived to claim a stake in the kingdom of the dead.

Serampore’s architecture, like that of Kolkata’s downstream, is a mélange of European and Indian styles. Most of the mansions and monuments have bitten the dust but those that are surviving or are struggling to survive are being given a fresh lease of life by the Danish Ministry of Culture in association with the Government of India. Visionaries like Bente Wolff, Manish Chakraborti, and others are labouring to preserve what remains of this historic town but what we found the most interesting and heartening was that the residents were appreciating their efforts. From the man in charge of restoration work at the catcherie to the men who beckoned us inside the church so that we could appreciate the work that has been done to the proprietor of Vheto, everybody seemed proud to see these grand structures being resurrected in their hometown. Now, all we need to do is to cultivate is a mightier love for our public spaces, for the built heritage that is everywhere around us, that we fail to see and forget to admire.

Restoration Work at the Catcherie

28 thoughts on “On a Heritage Trail in Serampore”

  • First, I want to say, you are an excellent writer. I felt like I was reading something out of National Geographic and not a travel blog. Well done! Second, the area you describe sounds fascinating. I have always wanted to visit Kolkata and have not had a chance to do so yet. When I do, I will definitely use your article as my guide for the Danish Quarter.

  • I have to admit I don’t know much about India (especially about Bengal state) and reading this post was very informative and eye-opening. I do agree with a previous comment that it felt like reading National Geographic, and I truly enjoyed it! Hope to visit one day!

  • I love your photos! It is so interesting how you said that five years ago, you would never see a westerner with a camera but how you see how they are bringing in tourists to visit. The ever-changing travel trends! 😂

  • Oh my goodness these photos are beautiful!!! I was just in the north of India this past summer and I fell in love – I’m already trying to plan another trip back! I think the South needs to be visited because WOW this heritage trail is so beautiful and comprehensive.

  • Such great story telling accompanied by lovely photos you had me hooked the entire time! The Heritage Trail in Serampore seems to cover a lot of history and grand architecture. It seems to be a fairly calm place with a lot of surrounding nature, which is a contrast to many other metro areas in India. The Serampore Rajbaari is so unique. I would love to visit this area someday!

  • I love old towns and their history, it’s always such interesting places! You wrote a very beautiful and detailled post, it felt like the photos were coming to life reading! 🙂 I didn’t know anything about Serampore before, so very interesting read, thanks for sharing.

  • Honestly, I had never heard of of this picturesque trail before. Anyway it looks really really stunning and all your pics are just amazingly beautiful. That trail must be a small paradise for a travel photographer. Thanks for sharing this wonderful pearl!

  • What amazing architecture! And it looks so magical surrounded by such lush greenery. I would love to visit the Heritage Trail Serampore one day!

  • Love your writing style, it’s so rich. Also love the photograph, the details in the architecture are beautiful. It’s an area I would love to visit for myself one day.

  • I loved reading this, you can really tell your passion for writing through your words. You certainly know how to transport your readers to the place. And your photos are incredible too

  • Wow, such a detailed post. You have great writing skills and explained each place so well that transported to Serampore. I have saved your post and would love to see these places.

  • I enjoyed reading this post immensely. I have a deep fascination for colonial architecture and I really liked your descriptions along with the photos. I knew nothing about the Danish in India and this sounds so interesting to me. Interesting to see that there’s something left like a church! Thank you also for the book recommendation, I have now added “All the lives we never lived” to my list of future books to read!

  • The architecture is amazing! Discovering the history of a city through its architecture is always so interesting. A great detailled post, thanks for sharing!

  • Known glimpse yet unknown slices of history – such is the magic of one’s own land. No matter how far I am, I will remain a quintessential bong. You are a prolific story teller. I enjoyed reading your words.

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