Next weekend you can be at... Chandernagore

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By SOUMITRA DAS
  • Published 6.02.05
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How to get there

Trains on the main line of Howrah station will take you there in 35-40 minutes. Take Burdwan local, Bandel local, Katwa local. Get off either at Chandernagore or Mankundu station

Perhaps the only place in Chandernagore where you can still get a taste of France is Das bakery next to the Roman Catholic church Sacre Coeur or Sacred Heart. The shop looks dingy but the original oven has remained unchanged for over a century. They still bake fresh loaves in the shape of fish and crocodiles.

Otherwise, the last vestiges of French culture are gradually being wiped out from this small town that used to be a French colony till the early 1950s. This is in violation of the cessation treaty that was signed at that time.

About two months ago, the ornamental pavilion on the Strand that marked the site of what used to be the port was knocked down. Though it is being reconstructed, can the past ever be recalled?

Burrabazar, which was once lined with gracious bungalows, boasts mostly tall apartment blocks today. Some old houses have literally been sliced in half. However, some ornate old buildings like Nityagopal Smritimandir, which is a library, still catch the eye.

L?Institut Francais de Chandernagore has been restored of late and it looks quite smart. It used to be governor-general Dupleix?s office, later turned into a small museum that houses his bust and bed and archives. The items are badly displayed.

French is taught here but fewer students opt for it. A coat of arms of Gallic origin sits on top of the pediment of the sub-divisional courthouse. It is only a relic of the past.

Another relic is a dazzlingly whitewashed restaurant named Shalimar near Burrabazar. It used to be the old post-office.

The church was built in 1875, and a canal used to flow before it. Now statues of Jesus Christ and Joan of Arc stand there.

Few French-speaking Bengalis exist. At Kanailal Vidyamandir, one can still learn both French and Bengali. However, the standard of French has gone down for students hardly get a chance to hold conversations.

At one time, however, Chandernagore, still a municipal corporation, was more important to the French than Pondicherry. During the freedom struggle, Sri Aurobindo took refuge here because it was outside the British dominion.

In 1910, Sri Aurobindo lived in a small house in Borai Chanditala to escape from the British police. He left for Pondicherry from here. Prabartak Sangha under Motilal Roy also operated from here.

The old house in Borai Chanditala has been turned into a shrine. Rabindranath Tagore used to live in a house called Patal Bari on the Strand.

French may be fast disappearing but the festivity surrounding Jagaddhatri puja is becoming more showy by the year.

This goddess is being worshiped here for more than 200 years. Now budgets are skyrocketing annually and the images, too, are becoming taller. In this small town a few years older than Calcutta, with roads as narrow as lanes, 100 pujas are organised. Hordes come from far and wide to visit the pandals.

Chandernagore is also synonymous with luminous animated decorative pieces for pujas. These depict anything from Charlie Chaplin to deities, and are devised from thousands of tiny bulbs. They are so popular that they have travelled to Calcutta and London as well.