Located within easy reach of Kolkata, the Hooghly district is dotted with places that can be explored on a day trip any winter’s day. By travelling a mere 60 to 70 kilometres (one way), you can take a trip down the cultural past of Bengal, taking a look through attractions as diverse as the Bandel Church, the Hooghly Imambara and the Bansberia temples.
While some claim that the name Bandel is a corruption of the word ‘bandar’ meaning port, others claim it is the Portuguese word for a ship’s mast. But whatever may be the origin, it is in the town of Bandel, about 60km north of Kolkata, that you will find what is probably the only tangible reminder of the Portuguese enclave that flourished on the banks of the Hooghly River in Bengal prior to the arrival of the English East India Company.
Now considered a minor Basilica, the Bandel Church stands pretty on the bank of the river. The original church built in 1599 was destroyed by the army of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. It was rebuilt in 1640 when the Portuguese were allowed to return and rebuild the church after some miraculous incidents. In front of the church is an old mast. It was presented by the captain of a passing Portuguese ship after they were delivered from a deadly storm in the Bay of Bengal.
In a niche at the top of the church facade is the statue of Our Lady of Happy Voyages, whose miraculous return when the church was being rebuilt is an oft repeated tale. A network of stairs lead to the upper balcony.
The church has been refurbished over the years and now includes several altars, grotto, statues, paintings, etc. The church is dedicated to Nossa Senhora do Rosário, Our Lady of the Rosary, whose statue can be seen in the main altar inside the church. The church is open round the year but may be closed for general visitors on select festive days.
A couple of kilometres from the church is the Hooghly Imambara, a congregational hall for the Shia sect, especially for observing Muharram. Although the complex looks somewhat run down, the architecture is bound to impress at first sight. The two storied building, with arched corridors running along the sides, is built around an open air rectangular courtyard. In the centre of the courtyard is a water tank and a few fountains, which had definitely seen better days. Two towers, each over 85 feet high, rise on either side of the entrance and are connected with each other via the clock tower. With permission, it is possible to reach the top of these towers (separate entrance for men and women). The prayer hall, with walls decorated with Islamic inscriptions, contains some old chandeliers and lamps. Built with donations from Bengali philanthropist Haji Mohammad Mohsin, the Imambara was completed between 1841 and 1861. There is a nominal entry fee. It remains open between 8 am and 5pm daily except during religious functions.
You may go boating on the Hooghly River, which lies to one side of the Imambara.
About four km north of Bandel is Bansberia, home of the Hangseshwari Temple. Sometimes likened to an English castle, sometimes to the Russian Orthodox Church, its unique spires have been designed based on the tenets of Hindu Tantric philosophy. Built between 1801 and 1814, the five storied temple is topped by 13 towers, each designed like a lotus bud. Inside the sanctum sanctorum is the wooden idol of Hangseshwari, an incarnation of goddess Kali. The idol is placed on a lotus stalk arising from the navel of a supine Shiva. The temple remains closed between 12pm and 4pm daily.
Next to this temple is an older terracotta temple. Built in 1679, the Ananta Vasudeva Temple is topped by an octagonal spire. The temple’s façade is covered with intricately carved terracotta tiles showing stories from the epics, the life of Krishna as well as scenes from then contemporary life, including that of royal courts, hunting, boat journeys, etc.
Enjoy a cup of tea at any of the kiosks down the lane from the temple complex before turning homeward.
Getting there: You may start from any of the three points. From Kolkata, Bandel is about 60km by road while Hangseshwari Temple is around 70km. There are no authorised parking lots. So confirm the parking hours and rates at the private parking areas to avoid trouble later on. Both Bandel and Bansberia are connected by rail with Howrah station. You may carry a picnic lunch with you as restaurants are few and far between. Toilet facilities are available at petrol pumps and railway stations.