A sneak peek into the Dutch heritage in Bengal

A sneak peek into the Dutch heritage in Bengal

January 24, 2014

The district of Hoogly is unique in West Bengal, in the sense that four colonial powers once ruled parts of it – the Danish, the Dutch, the French and the Portuguese. Serampore, Chinsurah, Chandannagar and Bandel – their respective colonies – stand witness to the might of the erstwhile trading powers. The erstwhile settlements on the banks of the Hoogly river, in fact, can be said to constitute a Little Europe.

William Hodges' view of the Dutch settlement of Chinsurah in the 18th century

Tourism potential

This Little Europe is a great place to offer heritage tourism activities. However, unfortunately, quite a few of the colonial structures at these places are in a poor state of health. Lack of maintenance or the wrong way of maintenance has been steadily eroding a lot of the buildings. Now, in the last two years though, the government has started taking an active interest in repairing and conserving these places and promoting tourism there. A lot of tourism potential is as yet untapped.

In fact, the government is in the process of developing a tourism circuit around the colonial cities of Hoogly district. To do that, extensive repairs need to be done to the buildings which have stood witness to history. And the government has used a good approach to do the job – involving the governments of the erstwhile colonial powers. This would help boost all sorts of ties between the state and these countries, and would in turn lead them to promote these places as tourist spots to their citizens.

Bandel Church, built by the Portuguese

The master plan by the state tourism department has been prepared by Jones Lang LaSalle, a British architects' firm that specialises in heritage conservation and tourism. According to a senior tourism department official, suitable heritage buildings are being looked into that can be converted into hotels. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), which had pointed out to the state government many years back about the importance of restoring colonial heritage in Hooghly, will be associated with the project in an advisory capacity.

Serampore’s Danish heritage has been undergoing extensive conservation work for the last few years under the supervision of the National Museum of Denmark (NMD) and the West Bengal Heritage Commission (WBHC).

St Olave's Church, Serampore, which is to be restored

Brief history

Now it is the turn of Chinsurah and its Dutch heritage. The history of the Dutch settlement in Chinsurah goes back almost 400 years. In 1638, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan issued a warrant to the Dutch to build a kothi or trading post (what was called a factory then) to start business. The Dutch built Fort Gustavus on the banks of the Hoogly to trade in cotton, opium, ginger, hemp, silk and sugar, which gradually led to the development of a settlement. However, it was swept away by floods; a new Fort Gustavus was built in 1656. They also built a church and several other buildings. The Dutch formed their Dutch East India Company (VOC, or Vereenigde Ostindische Compagnie) around 1602, two years after the East India Company of the English.

An old map of Fort Gustavus

Besides Fort Gustavus in Chinsurah, the Dutch had a silk factory at Cassimbazar, a garden on the Hooghly River, just south of Chandannagar, and a factory for salting pork in Baranagar. In 1825 Chinsurah and other Dutch settlements were ceded to the British in exchange for holdings in Sumatra (in Indonesia, which became known as the Dutch East Indies).

Photo of Old Dutch Church, taken by Frederick Fiebig in 1851

The constructions

Fort Gustavus, built by the Dutch, now houses the Chinsurah court. The only other piece of Dutch architecture that is as visible now is the Clock Tower, set up in 1911 in honour of King Edward VII. It stands on an island in the centre of the town, now called Ghari More.

A small and simple Dutch church lies near the clock. The church is a popular tourist haunt. The larger St John’s Armenian Church is a bigger draw, though. Built in 1695 by an Armenian, the church is a marvellous piece of architecture and is said to be the second oldest church in West Bengal. The Armenians came even before the Dutch in 1625. There is a memorial located over the grave of a Dutch woman, Susan Anna Maria, who died in 1809. It looks like a temple and is a marvel of Indo-Dutch architecture. It is popularly called Dutch Mandir.

Memorial of Susan Anna Maria, popularly called Dutch Mandir

The cemetery is located 800 meters west of the Old Dutch Fort. The southern part contains the 22 remaining Dutch tombs. The cemetery is now a protected monument and is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. The Dutch Villa is another old structure. Now called Mondal Bari, one can still see the Dutch lioness murals on the entrance doors and allied wooden motifs.

View of the Dutch cemetery in Chinsurah

The contribution of the Dutch is not limited to churches. Shandeshwari Temple on the banks of Hoogly also has strong Dutch connections. Legend has it that a pair of brass drums and a silver statue of Shiva preserved in the temple were presented by the Dutch.

Shandeshwari Temple

Clock Tower

The plan

Aishwarya Tipnis, a Delhi-based conservation architect, has been employed by the Dutch government to conduct a detailed survey of the heritage structures once belonging to the Netherlands. The architect will submit a survey report after studying Chinsurah's legacy over the next six months.

Namit Shah, the honorary Dutch consul in Kolkata said: "It is not just about funding a state government project. It is about re-creating a civilization that existed and spawned here in the colonial times. We are looking at the big picture of stopping the ravages of time and developing the zone as a popular tourist destination."

Picture depicting the Dutch factory in Chinsurah: Hendrik van Schuylenburgh, 1665

Logo of the Dutch East India Company (abbreviated as VOC in Dutch)

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