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India's decaying 'Little Europe' gets a facelift

Bengal's colonial enclaves seen as new tourism attractions

The Hooghly Imambara, a Muslim assembly hall completed in 1861 in Bandel, undergoes renovation work. (Photo by Laure Siegel)

KOLKATA -- Kolkata, or as the city was formerly known, Calcutta, was founded by the British on the humid banks of the Hooghly River in Bengal in 1690. Two centuries later, the city had grown into the most important trading center east of the Suez and remained the world's second most important economic hub (after London) until 1911, when the British moved their capital to Delhi.

But the British were not the first Europeans to set up shop along the Hooghly. Other maritime powers and traders were drawn to Bengal for its rich resources, particularly muslin silk, spices and opium, and established their outposts, or "Kuthis," along the river.

After explorer Vasco da Gama made landfall on India's west coast in 1498, the Portuguese began to build a community in Bandel in the 1580s. The Dutch soon founded a settlement in Chinsurah, while the Danish set up an enclave in Serampore, followed by the French in Chandannagar. They built ports, warehouses and churches, and then forts, luxurious mansions and educational institutions.

The Danish Governor's House, built in 1771, in Serampore (Photo by Tom Vater)

As the British East India Company tightened its grip on Bengal in the 18th century, the settlements became provincial backwaters. Hundreds of colonial-era buildings began to crumble as the small towns they were in grew into busy urban centers and the proto-colonial heritage was relegated to history books.

But this is changing. Little Europe, as the 50km stretch northwest of Kolkata is known, is experiencing a slow but definite revival. A growing trickle of tourists journey up the river and European countries have started taking a renewed interest in their imperialist pasts.

Tourism potential

Vishal Tupper, whose travel company CrossIndia has been running weekly tours into Little Europe since 2015, feels that this heritage should be preserved and promoted as a tourist destination. "The trade on the Hooghly by all these nationalities was a significant historic event in India. This is where it all started for South and Southeast Asia," he said. "There is so much of culture and heritage left behind."

The tourism industry is one of few sectors showing economic growth in West Bengal, and the state government allocated $40 million to tourism for 2015-16, a huge increase on the $6.2 million in 2010-11. In 2015, West Bengal welcomed 71.7 million tourists, 4.9% of all tourists in India and a huge jump on 14.5 million visitors a decade earlier, mostly thanks to an explosion of domestic tourism. The number of foreign visitors has also increased to around 1.5 million international arrivals a year. Almost all visitors head to heavily promoted tourist hot spots like the tea plantations of Darjeeling and the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans.

In November 2013, the state tourism department published a new master plan detailing how the state government plans to design a circuit along the Hooghly.

"Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal wants to develop the region's heritage and there have been significant achievements," noted Peter DeVries, a Dutch historian who has studied Little Europe for more than a decade and guides tours there for CrossIndia. "Most of Kolkata's churches have been restored and some historical sites such as the Currency Building on the BBD Bagh square are undergoing major work."

The Basilica of the Holy Rosary, in Bandel, built in 1599 (Photo by Laure Siegel)

But for the former European outposts to attain the kind of popularity enjoyed by the tea plantations, investment is essential, added De Vries. "The roads out of Kolkata are in terrible condition and it can take hours to get there and back. Affordable boat tours would be a solution but the river traffic is a challenge as well. There are no jetties, so any boat traveling up-river needs to anchor and transfer passengers to shore on a smaller boat. The West Bengal government has sanctioned the funds for road connectivity but the money has not been properly allocated yet."

For the moment, a dawn start in a hired car is the only way to visit the area in a day. By 9 a.m., Bandel, the furthest of the four towns from Kolkata, is crowded with street vendors, motorbikes and schoolchildren. The first significant building erected by the Portuguese is the Basilica of the Holy Rosary, completed in 1599, the oldest church in northeast India today. At the time of construction, the Hooghly reached right to the broad steps of the church. But the river has changed course and the space between the basilica and the river bank is now occupied by a garden where workers toil in the sun to create the Stations of the Cross.

"We managed to restore our church with funds from our souvenir shop, from private donations and from foreign organizations like the Salesians of Don Bosco," said Father George, one of the basilica's priests. "Fifty years ago, there were just five or six Christian families in Bandel, now there are 600, and we get visitors of all faiths and from all over the world."

Father George, a priest at The Basilica of the Holy Rosary (Photo by Tom Vater)

Bandel's other architectural highlight is the Hooghly Imambara. Built in 1861 by a prominent philanthropist from the local Shia Muslim community, this sprawling Islamic assembly hall was constructed in the shape of a rectangular courtyard, framed by long pillared galleries and fronted by squat twin towers. Huge iron bells hang in the towers' joint roof, which can be reached by two sets of 152-step stairs, one for women, another for men. The structure is now being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India.

A few kilometres downriver, the Dutch founded Fort Gustavus in Chinsurah in 1635. The Armenians joined them in 1645 and for some years the two communities traded in saltpeter, textiles and spices with Bengali merchants. In 1825, Chinsurah was formerly ceded to the British and the Dutch were reduced to traders.

Since 2014, the "Dutch in Chinsurah" project, initiated by the Dutch government, Presidency University Kolkata and Aishwarya Tipnis Architects, a firm specializing in conservation projects across the subcontinent, has been mapping the remaining historical buildings to find ways to enhance the heritage value of Chinsurah and to prepare a viable tourism package for the state.

Chandernagore Sub Divisional Court, built in 1878 in Chandannagar (Photo by Laure Siegel)

The Dutch buildings, for the most part, have been reappropriated for local needs. What is left of Fort Gustavus now serves as an Islamic boy's school, the Hooghly Madrassa. Next door, the erstwhile Governor's House is used as the District Magistrate's office. The District Court, built by the Dutch in 1829, allegedly features the longest corridor in India, once accessible to noblemen who rode straight up to the first floor on horseback. The only building attesting to the Armenian presence is the beautifully restored Church of St. John the Baptist, visited on an annual pilgrimage by Kolkata's Armenian community.

France established Chandernagore, now known as Chandannagar, in 1673. The French managed to hang on to their outpost until 1952, a few years past India's independence, and the river promenade -- the Strand -- retains a distinctly Gallic flair. Lined with an incredible collection of colonial edifices including the Chandernagore Sub Divisional Court, the Sacred Heart Church, the mansion of former French commander Duplessis, now the Chandannagar Museum and Institute, and a spectacular pavilion, imbued with displaying the French national motto "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite", the avenue is popular with young lovers, who occupy the rows of benches facing the Hooghly in the afternoons.

Basabi Pal, head of the department of French studies at Chandannagar Government College (Photo by Tom Vater)

In Basabi Pal's classroom at Chandannagar Government College, the walls are lined with references to both the French revolution and India's struggle for independence.

"The French Embassy sends educational advisors and supports us financially with books and computers. The college is one of very few places to learn French to graduate level in the east of India. For children who grow up in Chandannagar, an emotional bond to the past remains and it makes sense to learn French," said Pal, head of French studies at the college.

The town's colonial-era real estate is in a more desperate situation. While former French structures now owned by the state are being used, much like in Chinsurah, for local purposes, others that are in private hands are facing collapse.

"Ninety-nine buildings have been identified as French heritage. Their owners are pushed to sell to developers because they have no money to maintain them. Every month, another edifice is gone and it breaks my heart," says Pal.

The French embassy is launching efforts that may lead to larger recognition of Chandannagar's heritage, following the "Dutch in Chinsurah" project template. Current workshops guide French and Indian students toward the establishment of a new conservation model. But neither the West Bengal nor the French government are willing to invest money into large-scale restoration.

In Serampore, the closest settlement to Kolkata, the heritage conundrum has taken a decisive turn for the better. Since 2008, the Serampore Initiative, a project brought to life by the National Museum of Denmark, and funded by Realdania, a private Danish association, and the West Bengal Heritage Commission, has been restoring several buildings in the riverside town. Work on St. Olav's Church, which dates back to 1805, has been completed, and the former Danish government house is under renovation.

St. Olav's Church, built in 1806, in Serampore (Photo by Tom Vater)

"All the restoration work is done in ongoing consultation with all the stakeholders to identify local needs and to give the restored buildings a viable new life. The former government house will be used as a culture and information center and we are to fund and design an exhibition on Serampore's history for part of the house," said Bente Wolff, project head of the Serampore Initiative.

But it is the current restoration of the Danish Tavern, using traditional construction techniques and materials, which draws the largest public interest. The Tavern, which dates back to the 1780s, once served as an inn offering drinks, newspapers and billiards for European male visitors escaping Calcutta for rest and recreation.

The interior of the Danish Tavern, built in 1782 and currently being restored to open as a coffee house and boutique hotel in 2018, in Serampore (Photo by Tom Vater)

"It is our hope that the Danish Tavern can give life to the river front and serve as a local meeting place. Serampore has a large student community and there are no cafes in the area to serve them," said Wolff.

Besides functioning as a coffee house, the tavern will offer six boutique hotel style rooms, making it the first international standard heritage accommodation along the entire Little Europe stretch of the Hooghly.

There are other high-profile examples around Asia of successful large-scale restoration projects, from Penang in Malaysia to Kochi in India and Luang Prabang in Laos, which have proved conservation can benefit the local economy. Nonetheless, given the sheer number of historical sites and the dearth of cash in Little Europe, it is uncertain how much of its architectural history will survive.

DeVries noted the early successes as well as the challenges facing the area's rehabilitation: "The Danes show that partnerships to preserve the old buildings are viable. But the climate is savage and property owners need incentive to restore their crumbling structures. Hotel rooms are one way to go, but encouragement from the authorities such as land tax rebate and restoration grants are also needed."

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