The National Museum of Denmark (NMD) and the West Bengal Heritage Commission (WBHC) have begun a collaboration to restore the 250-year-old Government House in Serampore, the erstwhile Danish trading centre near Kolkata, which in the early 19th century also became a major centre of learning. The structure is a landmark of the 18th-century Danish architecture in India.
In 2009, the Danish philanthropic organization Realdania, which undertakes architectural restoration projects, got involved in studying the possibilities of restoring the Danish heritage of Serampore. The current mission is an outcome of that study. NMD founded the Serampore Initiative, which aims to, besides restoring the structures, ‘create new knowledge about the history, development and cultural heritage of Serampore’ and ‘introduce the history, development and cultural heritage of Serampore to a historically interested audience in Denmark and India, including tourists.’
The town of Serampore near Kolkata, on the banks of the Hoogly, is one of the oldest colonial towns in India. It was once the Danish base in eastern India, a trading post in the heyday of the Danish empire. Serampore in West Bengal, Tranquebar in modern Tamil Nadu and Nicobarerne in the Nicobar Islands were the three trading posts of Denmark, forming what was called Danish India. Commodities valuable in Europe, like cotton and spices, formed the bulk of the goods traded.
Frederichsnagore, as Serampore was called then (named after King Frederik V), remained a Danish centre from 1755 to 1845, when it was ceded to the British. Initially just a trading post, with the establishment of Serampore College in 1818, the town developed into an Asiatic centre for education, linguistics and publishing. In fact, with the recognition of the college by the Danish King, Frederik VI in 1827, Serampore College officially became the third university of Denmark and the first modern university in Asia.
Today, Serampore is an industrial town with several factories. Although a rapidly developing place, Serampore has a huge potential heritage tourism centre through restoring the Danish structures to their original state.
Along with the Government House, the other structures that are part of the immediate plan for restoration are the main gate to the compound and St Olav’s Church. The church, located in the same compound, dates back to the same period, and bears the royal monogram of the Danish King Christian VII. There is also a large lake from the same period within the huge 6.5-acre complex, which is part of the restoration plan. To make the restoration complete in all respects, the river bank in front of the complex will also be landscaped.
This project is said to be the most challenging and ambitious heritage restoration project in the state till date. The reasons are not hard to find. Over the years, the large compound came to house a large number of government buildings. It became crowded. As many as 22 buildings came to be housed inside the structure. Then, encroachers, many of them shopkeepers, occupied a lot of the land and further contributed in the devaluation of the heritage status. It remained a heritage structure only in name.
Fourteen of these haphazardly constructed buildings are to be demolished and the offices contained therein relocated elsewhere in Serampore. Among the structures that cannot be demolished, is a huge building housing a court and the ADM’s office. As a result, the original circular shape of the complex cannot be restored and the new Government House compound will have an oval shape.
The active participation of the governments of Denmark and West Bengal has ensured the smooth running of the project. The restored places are expected to become major tourist attractions for people, both from India and abroad. The restoration of Serampore will open up a new front for experiencing Danish heritage in India. Besides tourism, through the restoration of Serampore to its original glory, the study of Danish colonial history, and, by extension, of Denmark, in India would also get a major boost.
Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team M3.tv