Located along the banks of the Hooghly river (roughly between Kolkata and Murshidabad) are remains of former European settlements such as Serampore or Srirampur (Danes), Chandannagar (French), Bandel (Portuguese) and Chinsurah (Dutch), and Murshidabad. Although the settlements are now part of history, you may still enjoy a glimpse into the past through surviving buildings and cultures. These heritage trails are underpinned and characterised by histories and narratives dating back centuries, and highlight architectural jewels of the past.
About 49 km north of Kolkata, Bandel was a Portuguese and Dutch outpost. The brown-and-white Bandel Basilica was built between 1599-62, years after the Portuguese first colonised Hooghly by Portuguese captain Pedro Tavares, but it was burnt down by the Moors in 1632. You can see the past more strongly in the Victorian Imambara built in 1863 by Haji Mohammed Mohsin. It wears its age with grace with a thousand arches surrounding the old courtyard, like empty eyes looking down. Steps lead up to the prayer hall. The inside is lined with marble and inscriptions from the Quran. There is a neglected garden by the river, from where you can look up to see the Haji’s will engraved in English and Urdu high on the walls behind the Imambara, in a decorative frieze. The Hanseshwari Temple is weird yet a wonderful melange of Russian and local architectural styles with a dome that looks distinctly Kremlin-like. Bandel Church was destroyed by the Mughals and rebuilt in the17th century. It was beatified into its present state in 1988.
Bandel has a famous cheese named after the town. Introduced by the Portuguese, the small discs of Bandel cheese are crumbly, smoky and quite salty. Though it is no longer produced here (some families in Arambagh make it now), the cheese was in the news recently as chefs like Ranveer Brar started a petition to get it a GI tag.
The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Ostindische Companie, VOC) arrived in Bengal around 1615, for trading in salt, muslin, spices, etc. It was 1635 onwards that a settlement developed in Chinsurah, based on Fort Gustavus. At war several times with the British, the Dutch finally exchanged Chinsurah for Java Island (Indonesia). All of Chinsurah goes round and round the Gharir Mor, a clock tower and a bust. Chinsurah houses the second oldest church in Bengal,the Armenian Church. At the Dutch cemetery, there are graves belonging to Europeans. Among these is one of a Dutch sea captain born in 1698 who died in 1766, and a 19th century grave extolling the virtues of a lady who was plain of speech and compliant of nature. The Court here is the longest building in Bengal, a yellow-washed two-storey strip built by the English.
The French landed here in 1673, and you will find traces of a French past in Chandannagar in the strangest of things - like the four-poster bed that governor Joseph Franois Dupleix left behind. When you take a stroll down the Strand, you will find it the riverfront studded with colonial buildings. The Chandannagar Museum and Indo-French Institute, which used to be Dupleix’s mansion, houses an interesting collection of French artefacts and a French language school. In front of the museum is an elegant mansion called the Patal Bari (underground house), named so because a part of the house lies under the river. Chandannagar is also known as the city of lights because of the artisans who create the illuminated panels on the streets of Kolkata during Durga Puja. They stitch thousands of multi-coloured bulbs on wire frames, creating a tableau of images, from moving vehicles to fire-spitting dragons. They have been invited to display their art at the Thames Festival in London (2003), where the talk of the city was a giant, brilliantly lit, peacock-shaped boat that was made by Chandannagar artisans with over 120,000 micro bulbs. The local people may be able to guide you to any remaining bakery that still makes breads in the old-fashioned French way. Chandernagore is very 'français' down the Strand, a beautiful riverfront street lined with colonial buildings. The ghat gates carry the motto “Libertie, Egalitie, Fraternitie”. The Church, just off the Strand, is graceful and European.
Serampore (also called Shrirampur) was once called Fredric Nagar after King Fredric VI of Denmark. The no-nonsense Danish Church commemorates that piece of history. The Danes started a colony in 1616, but the East India Company took it over. Serampore became the centre for English missionaries. The first botanical garden was set up here and the Baptist leader William Carey set up the first printing press in Bengal here in 1800. It serviced the entire South and South-East Asian print market as well as those outside Europe in the 19th century. The Carey Library and Research Centre located inside the college is a repository of the early print and publishing history of India as well as many rare books. Recently, two of the iconic structures of Danish Serampore, the 210-year old Olav Church and the even older Denmark Tavern, have been painstakingly restored. The church still sports the royal monogram of Christian VII, King of Denmark, during whose reign the church was consecrated, among other things. The tavern will soon have a cafeteria and lodgings for visitors. The Serampore College (established in 1818) is said to be the first missionary college in India. The grand colonnaded façade is an example of the classical Ionic architecture. If you have time, do pay a visit to the cemetery where rests English missionaries Carey, Ward and Marshman, who were responsible for the establishment of the college and made other contributions towards the spread of education and printing in Bengal.
The former kingdom of Murshidabad (now a town and district of West Bengal) on the Bhagirathi was a key trading post and saw the Armenians, the Dutch, and of course the British, settle here at different times. In Baharampur town, the Krishnanath College (founded in 1853) is a classic example of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, a favourite with the European architects for designing public buildings in India. The 18th and 19th century graves in the Babulbona Residency Cemetery have lost most of their decorative headstones and the writings on the plaques barely visible. The Dutch and the British cemeteries in neighbouring Cossimbazar are no better though they are protected monuments. The Armenians had settled in Saidabad near Murshidabad town. Khoja Petros Arathoon built the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Saidabad in 1758. However, the church closed down in 1860. In 2006, the church was re-consecrated after a major renovation initiated in 2005. But walk-in tourists are not allowed inside.
Pro Tip: A car is the best way to see most of the places. Carry your own food. There are trains to the places from Kolkata. Ferry services are available too.