Did you know that a college set up in suburban Bengal by English Baptist Missionaries enjoyed the same rights as the Danish universities in Copenhagen and Kiel? What sounds like a riddle today is actually a key chapter in the history of Serampore (Srirampur in Bengali), a town about 30km north of Kolkata and across the Hooghly River.
Between 1755 and 1845, Serampore was under Danish rule, when it was known as Frederiksnagore after King Frederik V of Denmark. According to some reports, the Danes had arrived in Bengal much earlier, sometime in 1698. But it was in 1755 that they carved out a settlement armed with a royal order from Nawab of Bengal, Alivardi Khan, who ruled from Murshidabad, granting them free trading rights. What began as a factory with a mud fence and a straw roof under the Danish East India Company gradually developed into a well-planned town under Governor Colonel Ole Bie, after Serampore came under the Danish Crown in 1777.
Although much of the Danish legacy has been erased, renewed interest in its history has helped in restoration of some of the old buildings. Today, with its mixed legacy of Danish, British and Bengali history and culture, Serampore is a pleasant day-long or overnight getaway from Kolkata.
Start with the Serampore College, which was set up by the English Baptist missionaries in 1818. These missionaries denied permission to settle down in Bengal ruled by the then British government were welcomed to Serampore by the Danish government. Missionaries William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward were keen to introduce Christianity among the masses but also believed in the spread of education and natural sciences. Even before the college was founded, Carey not only began translating the Bible but also wrote grammar books and dictionaries in several Indian languages. They published newspapers and periodicals. A printing press was also set up to facilitate publication. A Royal Charter was issued by the court in Denmark in 1827, which not only recognised the college but also allowed it similar rights to confer degrees in all subjects as enjoyed by the Danish universities in Copenhagen and Kiel. According to reports, the treaty signed between the Danes and the British during the handing over process included clauses ensuring that the College continued to enjoy the rights and immunities granted to it the Danish Royal Charter. Even today, the College remains one of the premier educational institutions of West Bengal.
Standing off the river bank, the façade of the main college building consists of a well-designed portico surmounted by a pediment and supported by Ionic columns. Apart from the College Library founded in 1800, it also houses the Carey Library and Research Centre (open on all college working days, 11am to 5pm). Do not miss the Carey Museum housed within the latter, which displays rare manuscripts, books, and artefacts belonging to Carey.
A short walk from the College will take you to the Serampore Johnnagar Baptist Church founded in 1800 in the house that served as the first residence of Carey, Marshman and Ward. Services are held every Sunday (Bengali services in the morning and English in the evening).
About a kilometre away is the St Olav’s Church (locally known as the Danish Church), built between 1800 and 1826. Restored to its former state under the guidance of Manish Chakraborti, chief conservation architect of the project (funded by the Danish government and others), it won the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2016. The façade still bears the monogram of King Christian VII of Denmark-Norway. The flat roofed church is fronted by a portico with double columns. Above the portico is a small bell tower with a clock. Unfortunately, a triangular park in front of the Church hinders visitors from enjoying a wide view of the façade. There are some old cannons lying in the park.
Less than five minutes’ walk from here is the over 230 years old Denmark Tavern, which has practically catapulted Serempore into a dining destination. Although little is known about the founding of the tavern, a March 1786 advertisement in the Calcutta Gazette says that a Mr. Parr, formerly owner of London Tavern, has opened the Denmark Tavern and Hotel near the flagstaff in Serampore. Being located on the riverfront, right opposite the British cantonment of Barrackpore, the advertisement said that ‘Gentlemen passing up and down the river may be accommodated with breakfast, dinner, supper, and lodging, and may depend on the charges being very reasonable’. However, like many other buildings, this too fell under disrepair. The restoration team virtually recreated the tavern from rubble. Operated by The Park Hotels, there is a restaurant and bakery on the ground floor and rooms for staying on the first floor. The restaurant is open from noon to 9.30pm; contact: (033)26524736.
Apart from its Danish legacy, Serampore also has some fine though mostly derelict mansions belonging to wealthy Bengali merchants. One of them is the Goswami Rajbari, probably built in 1800 by Raghuram Goswami. It is said that when the Danes decided to hand over Serampore to the British, he had offered to buy out the town but the British declined. The Rajbari and other related mansions reflect a mix of European and Indian architecture. The northern complex of the Rajbari contains a huge courtyard with fluted columns. There is a temple dedicated to Radhamadhav Jew. The familys annual Durga Puja is also held here. You have to take permission from any of the family members to visit this place. If you have time, you may also visit Unique Lodge, the 130-year old family home of the Bhattacharya family. An example of European architecture blending with Indian perspective, the house is full of collectibles, clocks and other curios, added over the years, especially by the current owner Pradipta Bhattacharya (contact him on 09830071787 for a pre-arranged tour of the property).
Those who want to delve further into history, there are two cemeteries in Serampore – the Mission Cemetery where lies buried Carey, Marshman and Ward, and the Danish Cemetery.
Mahesh, a neighbourhood of Serampore, is an old town and known for its annual Jagananth Rathayatra (Chariot Festival of Lord Jagannath, to be held on July 4 this year).
Getting there: Serampore (Srirampur) is about 30km from Kolkata, the nearest airport. From Kolkata, one can either travel by train (local trains from Howrah) or car directly to Serampore. Or, you may travel to Barrackpore by train and then catch the local ferry to Serampore, which is situated on the opposite bank across the Hooghly river. Avoid peak summer.