‘Tis the season again, the season of joy, the season of blessings, the season of gifts, the season of peace, the season of love and the season of merrymaking. It is Christmas, and here comes my warmest greeting for the season. Today I am in Chandannagar to share with you the story of this quaint city and its Christmas celebration.
My readers must be wondering where on Earth is this place called Chandannagar, or must be thinking it is somewhere near (as many states and localities have their own Chandannagar, as my home is Pune has one nearby). Whichever be the thought on my reader’s mind this is definite that they must be thinking, what is so special about Christmas in Chandannagar? The answer lies in the history of its French colonial past.
It is very well known that Kolkata (read more about the city of joy) and it’s linguistic and ethnic inhabitants are fond of celebrating every festival of all religion and community with great fervour in their own way. Christmas better known as ‘Borodin’ here, has been an integral part of Bengali culture since the colonial era. With passing years it became more and more Bengali and every part of West Bengal has its own celebration on this day. (Read more about Christmas in Kolkata.)
Chandannagar, located on the western bank of the Hooghly River at a distance of around 49 km from Kolkata, used to be the French Colony of India. The French East India Company first established business here by purchasing some land from the Mughal Subedar in 1688. Du Plessis was the first Frenchman to purchase a huge amount of land here, which was followed by the gradual formation of a French colony by the bank of the river.
Fort d’Orleans was constructed and the French colony and trade flourished. In the year 1730 Joseph François Dupleix became the superintendent of French affairs in Chandernagore (as it was known at that time) and late in 1742, he became the Governor-general of all French establishments in India. It was during this period when Chandannagar became the centre of French trade in Bengal.
Business thrived, so did the city and its residents, it became the trade centre for opium, indigo, silk, rice, jute, sugar and other items. The Dupleix House was constructed and it became the governor’s residence. Several other buildings were also constructed during this period. Years of glory was followed by the first French and British war in the year 1756. In the consecutive battle of Chandannagar, the city was heavily bombarded by the British Royal Navy.
During this phase of the battle, Fort d’Orleans along with many other buildings and the fortification were demolished by the British forces. Chandannagar came under the British East Indian Company, again to be returned back to the French rule. With such passing of administration between French and the British for multiple times, Chandannagar lost its commercial importance and became one of the French-occupied colonies in India under Pondicherry to be finally merged to the Republic of India in the year 1950.
The riverbank of Hooghly was a gold mine for the European traders in India. The nearby places were thus the centre of several European traders – Bandel was the centre of Portuguese trade, Chinchura and Serampore were that of the Danes and the Dutch and Kolkata was the centre of the British. Every settlement left their indelible mark on the places, some blended in the culture while some in the remnants of the buildings.
You can find many ancient buildings all around the streets of Chandannagar, but the maximum concentration of colonial buildings are found around the ‘Strand’ near the river bank. The Durgacharan Rakshit ghat was thus a beautiful amalgamation of European and Indian architecture. It was a memorial built son Shyamacharan Rakshit in the honour of his father who was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1841. The ghat provides the beautiful view of the River Hooghly, which has become narrower with time and also the half-moon shaped bank after which the city was named as Chandernagore (town of the moon).
The nearby colonial structures are the Governor’s house (also known as Dupleix House) which is now a museum, the court, French Cemetery, Chandannagar Gate and the Sacred Heart Church. The design of the church was planned by the French architect Jacques Duchatz and the construction was completed in 1884 followed by the inauguration by Rev. Dr Paul Goethals S. J. in the presence of Rev. Pere Corbet, Prefect Apostolic of the French establishments in India. The Sacred Heart Church is a parish in the archdiocese of Kolkata.
The church was initially started by the Augustinian monks in the year 1688, later it was designed and dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The stained glasses and the coloured relief on the walls decorate the interior of the simple yet beautiful church. The exterior got a fresh paint of yellow probably for the festive season. The church along with the surrounding is decorated with fairy lights and it is a fair-like setup by the Strand. A Stage has been set up near the Durgacharan Rakshit ghat for the Christmas performance and some renowned music band was supposed to perform at night.
I could feel the vibe of Christmas in its own Bengali way with groups of people all around with kids in tow enjoying their day out, some like me to explore the not so popular near to home destination like Chandannagar which has a rich yet forgotten history of French Colonial past. Apart from the French connection, it is also known for its Jagadhatri Puja and its corresponding lighting and its delicious sweetmeat named ‘Jolbhora Sandesh’.
As the Colonial buildings stand today narrating its French history, so do the others talking about their glorious past. The Patal Bari or the Underground House is one among them. It belonged to the Zamindars of the nearby town of Mankundu. The house was uniquely built in a way that the lower floor used to get submerged into the river during the rise in the water level during the monsoons. The house was frequently visited by various social reformers of that time with a special mention of Rabindran Nath Tagore where he used a room in the upper floor, overseeing the Ganges, to compose some his literary masterpieces (read more about Tagore and Shantiniketan).
Chandannagar, even being very close to my native house I could never make it to its famous Jagadhatri Puja. Blame it to the huge crowd or my laziness I always missed the unique celebration and the famous lightings. I have been to Chandannagar many times but never on any occasion and today I am here on the Christmas day probably to explore the history of the city that is reminiscent of its French past gradually getting buried under the burden of age and dust of ignorance. What remains is the celebration, the Christmas celebration in its own native way.
It is not just Chandannagar, every city that holds a colonial past is seen to celebrate Christmas in its own way around its own chapel and churches. I could not stop myself to include a few Christmas decorations from the Bandel Church ground, in this post which is specially dedicated to Chandannagar. Be it Chandannagar or be it Bandel or Kolkata the festival is celebrated with equal enthusiasm it in its own Bengali way. So in Chandannagar, it is more like celebrating Christmas with ‘Jolbhora’ than with Plum or Dundee Cakes. Here are some ‘Jolbhora’ from Chandannagar to wish you all a “Merry Christmas!”