The cluttered city of Serampore in the Hooghly district of West Bengal was once the seat of education for people of all strata. The third oldest college in India was established here in the year 1818 and holds the position of a prestigious educational institution to date. This busy city by the river Hooghly has a story beyond the ancient Serampore college. Today I am here to share the story of my alma mater and the city that is home to it.
An excellent educational institution very close to my hometown was the first criteria that Serampore college fulfilled while I and my parents were deciding on the college where I should get admission. Little did I care about the pride associated with the history of this college. Though I did cherish every moment in the institution and also its ancient structure and its peaceful surroundings. Today, I feel proud to be an alumnus of this prestigious institution in this ancient city that was once known as Frederiksnagore.
Sripur, as this place was previously known, was a sleepy little village with people of the local community living a peaceful life by the banks of river Hooghly. The hot and humid climate favoured the textile industry while the fertile lands and the alluvial riverbank were extensively used for paddy, jute and betel leaf cultivation. During the early 18th century many European colonies set up their trade outposts around this area by the bank of the river. (Read my previous post on Chandannagar.) (Read my previous post on Chinsurah.) The Danish East India Company also could not stay away from the lucrative trade opportunity the region offered. In 1755, they sent their representatives from their already established Tranquebar office to the Nawab of Bengal, Alivardi Khan in the quest to purchase land.
They acquired land from Alivardi Khan by the riverfront to set up the business. Gradually by 1770 the Danish business was well established here and in 1776, Colonel Ole Bie was appointed the first Crown regent of Serampore. As the trade flourished the town grew and foreign as well as native traders arrived and settled here – a bazaar was established (now known as Tin Bazaar), and factories and warehouses were built. The Danes named the place as Frederiksnagore after King Frederik V of Denmark.
The Danish East India company transferred Serampore to the Danish Crown in 1777 and the town became one of the most prominent colonies of the Danish monarchy. The merchants built elegant mansions beside the main road along the river. Indian as well as European merchants made fortunes and acquired huge properties. Though, there was little to no improvement in the lifestyle of the working class, as they lived in cramped conditions in clumsy localities outside the factory areas.
The early 19th century marks the beginning of the Serampore renaissance with the arrival of English missionaries – Joshua Marshman, Hannah Marshman, William Carey, and Willam Ward. Their main purpose of settling in Serampore was to preach Christianity but they got themselves involved in social service, helping the ill and distressed, spreading education and social awareness and advocating social reforms.
They established many schools in the area including the first girl’s school by Hannah Marshman which was accepted by the public very openly. William Carey established the Serampore Mission Press in 1800 and later published the Bengali translation of the Bible, Hitopadesha and Kathopakathan. He also published Kashidas’ Mahabharata and Krittibas’ Ramayana. The first edition of Samachar Darpan was also published. The Serampore Mission Press started the English daily, A Friend of India which is considered the predecessor of the English daily today – The Statesman. The first paper mill in India was built in Battala by John Marshman, the son of Joshua and Hannah Marshman.
Meanwhile, in 1818, the prestigious Serampore College was founded by William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward becoming the third oldest college in India that is still functional as a university through the Senate of Serampore College (University) and as an individual college. The founders invested their last savings to build the building for the college. It was the first college in Asia to award a degree. King Fredrick VI, the King of Denmark issued a Royal Charter for the incorporation of Serampore College in Copenhagen. The college was open to all irrespective of their caste, creed or colour.
It became the third Danish university after the ones in Copenhagen and Keil to bestow degrees after having the Royal Charter on 23rd February 1827. After the establishment of the University of Calcutta under British India in 1857, the Arts, Science and Commerce department came under it while the Serampore college continued to confer degrees in Theology and the process continues to date.
The Danish administration sold the town to the British in 1845 and it was incorporated within the territories of British India. With the British investment, the town was transformed into an industrial town, and jute mills along with subsidiary factories were built. Landless labourers from Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Bihar migrated here to work in the factories. The population of the town increased with the migration of the workers who gradually made Serampore their home. Serampore remained under the British administration till Indian independence. Today Serampore is a very busy city on the Howrah Burdwan mainline.
Returning to Serampore college after many years gives a strange sense of satisfaction and pride. It seems nothing has changed but age and the year. I can still see the large windows of my classroom and through them the gallery and the desks that used to be filled by students. Today it looked empty because of the Covid closure. (Sorry for the late post, all the educational institutions have reopened now and the desks must be full again.) The distinguished college library with its iconic tall columns reminds me of the innumerable times I admired the structure while on my way to the study hall. This was the most elegant structure, on the whole campus.
Standing in front of this huge building, a sense of pride embraced me like never before. I felt the significance of the college, I realised the historical impact that the college had on society and my respect increased for the great founders. After travelling through the memory lane of my college days, I bid farewell to my alma mater. I took the riverside road and walked to the adjoining Johnnagar Baptist Church which was founded in 1800, it was once the early residence of the Serampore college missionary trio.
My next destination was the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church. This ancient church was recently renovated to give it a freshly painted new look. Not much of the history of this church is known. Keeping the unknown story unknown I moved to Henry Martin Pagoda. The name sounds a little confusing and the history too has a small twist giving this native structure a foreign name. This ‘Atchala’ temple structure is located in the ground of the Howrah waterworks beside the river Hooghly. This was once a Hindu temple built in 1677 that was abandoned and later became the residence of missionary Henry Martin.
This area along with the abandoned temple was purchased by Rev. David Brown in 1803 after he moved to Serampore where he built the Aldeen house. At the request of the pastor Henry Martin for a secluded place to stay and practice religion, Rev. David Brown arranged this temple for the same. This temple was known as a Pagoda by the Europeans. A few years later Martin moved to another place to preach Christianity. After the death of Brown, the Aldeen house along with the Pagoda was once again abandoned. It was reclaimed by nature till the recent day when it was renovated and painted white. Though the path to the pagoda remains a little wild as one has to approach it through the rough narrow walking trail formed within the bushes and shrubs beside the pond.
After this interesting finding, my Electric Rickshaw (locally known as ‘Toto’) driver brought me to the Unique Lodge which has a good collection of antiques. Our next destination was the Danish Government House which was the administrative headquarter of the Danish followed by St Olav Church. The church was built by the Danish between 1755 to 1845. The church is now affiliated with CNI (Church of North India). All the Danish architectural remains have recently been renovated with the initiative backed by the National Museum of Denmark, Realdania, a philanthropic organisation and Bente Wolff as project director. It was further supported by the West Bengal Heritage Commission and the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation.
I was delighted to see the renovated Danish structures but was sad to see the plight of the Serampore Rajbari. The Zamindars of ancient times were some sort of Rajas with huge property and money, so huge that they even lent money to the European merchants. So our Rajbari here in Serampore was once the residence of the rich merchant and zamindar – the Goswamis. It was built by Raghuram Goswami son of Harinarayan Goswami, around the 1820s. The enormous, shady structure in utter disrepair screams out of its past glory and opulence. It is said that when the Danish were about to sell Serampore to the British, Raghuram Goswami offered to buy the town which the British declined.
From here I moved to my final destination of the day, though there were many other spots which I wished to explore. I kept the rest for my next visit and happily settled in one corner of the tastefully decorated, rebuilt and renovated Danish Tavern. Originally built in 1786, by James Parr, as a resort by the Ganges beside the trade port, it served as an important food and lodging destination for the European merchants. With time the Danis Tavern lost its lustre and ultimately was left in ruins as the town lost its position as a trading hub.
This building was restored from its dilapidated condition and rebuilt to its previous glory under the project initiative of restoration of the colonial heritage buildings which I mentioned before. Today the Danish Tavern is managed by the Park Hotels group and the restaurant here offers a wide variety of delicacies to be enjoyed in an ambience that takes you back to the colonial era. As I sipped my coffee staring at the chandelier, every wall and furniture whispered stories of various visitors that gradually faded into oblivion.