Think of Colonial India and one invariably thinks British towns. But long before there were British there were other European powers that had colonized parts of India. They built beautiful cities and left behind invaluable heritage. While much of it lies forgotten, there are still places where you can find their footprint.
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Vasco-Da-Gama may have landed on the Malabar Coast in 1498, but it was the small province of Goa that the Portuguese found suitable for habitation and trade. Its natural docks, climatic conditions, and location were similar to that of Lisbon, and soon Goa became the second Lisbon. Today, five centuries later, Goa remains a treasure trove of Portuguese architecture. From 16th century chapels to 500-year-old mansions Goa’s villages are replete with Portuguese heritage. Cathedrals like Basilica of Bom Jesus and mansions like Figuerado Mansion and Palacio do Deao tell tales of a colony that was far from Portugal and yet very close to it.
After Goa, the Portuguese went to Bengal where they became friends of the ruling Nawabs and built the beautiful city of Bandel on the banks of Hoogly. Literally meaning a wharf, the tiny settlement today is home to some of the most characteristic and well-preserved Portuguese heritage. Bandel Church, built in 1599 became the first Catholic Church to be built in India and remains a testimony to the Portuguese footprint in India.
Two names instantly come to mind when you talk of the Indian French heritage – Pondicherry and Chandannagar. While Pondicherry, owing to its large Tamil-French population and Auroville Ashram, became quite popular with travelers, Chandannagar remains a little visited settlement off Calcutta. Architecturally both are similar: a wide promenade in the middle of the town, flanked by large imposing buildings painted yellow and white. Cathedrals, churches and large mansions dot the promenade in both towns and the relaxed laidback vibe is identical too.
If Pondicherry is filled with well-preserved buildings, Chandannagar has a medieval charm. The Sacred Heart Church, built in 1884, remains one of the prime examples of French architecture with its stained glass panels and intricately carved confession boxes. Durgacharan Rakshit Ghat on the Strand is an interesting amalgamation of Indo-French architecture with slender columns and decorative stucco works. The most prominent building on the strand remains French Governor Duplex’s Mansion that now houses a quaint museum.
The Dutch East India Company was formed in 1602. While the first Dutch factory was set up in Masaulipatam in Andhra Pradesh, in the following few decades the Dutch went on to establish trading centres throughout India, from Surat in Gujrat to Chinsurah in Bengal to Pulicat in Tamil Nadu even Malabar and Pondicherry. Today very little of this heritage remains. The Dutch Pondicherry lays intermingled with French Pondicherry and other than a few broken walls nothing remains of the fort in Pulicat. The only two towns with traces of Dutch colonial heritage today are Surat and Chinsurah. The magnificent tombs of the Dutch Cemetery and lush Dutch Gardens in Surat are a sight to behold. The cemetery filled with grandiose tombs – with arches and columns, obelisks and cupolas are said to be inspired by the Mughals. The Garden meanwhile is a peaceful oasis in the middle of the busy city.
In Chinsura, a small town off Calcutta, Dutch heritage lays strewn around. Most prominent of which is the tomb of Susanna Anna Maria. A fine example of Indo-Dutch architecture, it is locally known as ‘Saat Saheber Bibir Kobor’ or the tomb of someone who married seven times. A 19th-century clock tower made of cast iron, on Ghorir More, a major crossing, the Dutch Cemetery, and some old crumbling mansions also stand testimony to a beautiful Dutch past in Bengal.
Two most important Danish towns Tranquebar or Tharamgambadi in Tamilnadu and Serampore in Bengal are located in the same belt as their European counterparts. Until recently the 90-year-long legacy of the Danes laid in shambles in the tiny town of Serampore, but with recent restoration, the town has become a hub of travellers. St Olav’s Church remains one of the most significant buildings of the Danes; the Danish Tavern on the banks of Hoogly is now an inn and a café and Danish Government House, which was once the centre of Danish administration in India is an exhibition centre.
Far off in Tharangambadi, the Danish fort of Dansborg dominates the skyline. Landporten, the Town Gate, welcomes you like an aristocrat, and Goldsmith Street, with its tall pillared and tiled roof bungalows, tell tales of a glorious past. A cobbled, vehicle-free promenade exudes European charm and a walk along the King’s and the Queen streets is a sure shot way of being transported into the Danish India of the 17th century.