Chinsurah—The Ancient Dutch Settlement

If one wanders into Chinsurah today, it would be hard to imagine that this small town which is just a suburb of Kolkata and part of Bengal’s Hooghly district, was a prosperous Dutch trading post between the 17th and 19th centuries.  But what was it that drew the Dutch to the area?  It is believed that they considered the location as an ideal location for a settlement:“Perfect for pleasure gardens and mansions, with steps leading down to the river.” These play houses were referred to as ‘bangelaers’ — a word possibly derived from its place of origin —Bengal.”

Travelling by car with two friends, we reached Chinsurah at 1.30pm on a rather warm and rainless day. We were hot and bothered and ready for lunch.  I had been informed that the best place for a meal in Chinsurah was the Welcome Restaurant and after a couple of enquires we reached the restaurant. So far Chinsura looked like any other small town in Bengal. 

However, entering the restaurant we discovered a rather posh looking interior that could well have been a restaurant in Kolkata. It had a well designed menu that offered us a lunch of tandoori, popular western, quite a few curries with rice and also a couple of Chinese dishes.  We were not the only ones at the restaurant and as we waited for our lunch, more families came in. Service was not too quick, but the fresh lime was nice and cold. After a satisfying lunch of fish curry and rice and some ice cream, we were ready to step out armed with ice cold bottles of mineral water.

We had learnt that an architectural project referred to as ‘Dutch in Chinsurah’, is presently underway. It has been initiated and funded by the Netherlands government, to revive and create a link with the Chinsurah’s heritage. Since it is historically confirmed that the Dutch had lived in this small town for almost two hundred and fifty years, the project which is in collaboration with the Presidency University Kolkata, requires considerable research on  the surviving architecture of 18th and 19th centuries.

The architectural team involved in the project is led by project leader Aishwarya Tipnis who appears to be confident of putting together a major part of the legacy that remains. In her report she says, “Approximately 95 structures of heritage value have been plotted in real time Google maps by open source Geographic Information System mapping.” Through this it has been possible to collect information on history, architecture and even the lifestyle of those who inhabited this small town. Of great help are links to other online sources, as well as maps and images from   archives in Netherlands.  Tipnis perceives this as ‘The starting point for urban planning and development to freeze Chinsurah in time and make it like Amsterdam or Jakarta. What will be most important is to ensure that the town’s individual identity is maintained, in all future developments.”

Chinsurah, once a busy Dutch trading port, still seems to have enough architectural features to work on. To begin with there is a plaque with a logo that reads VOC 1687. In Dutch, VOC stands for Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie – or the Dutch East India Company.  Standing above a staircase in the bungalow of the Commissioner of Burdwan, we are told that this was earlier the office of the Dutch East India Company. In fact the Dutch trading was considered amongst the largest commercial activity in the region.  The town is said to have been inhabited by Dutch, Armenian and Bengali merchants, who ran a brisk trade in spices, cotton and indigo.

Chinsura remains a town that vaguely reflects the forgotten history of the Dutch and an artillery wall is the only surviving feature of ‘Fort Gustavus’, the primary Dutch settlement at Chinsurah. Today, the wall is part of the Hooghly Madrasah, a 19th century structure built on the remains of the fortification. Four Dutch cannons scattered on the site are reminders of its bygone days. The area is now a park where children can be seen playing.

The ‘Ghorir More’, is an intersection of four important roads where a clock tower was installed by the British in memory of King Edward VI. This was in the 19th century, well after the British had captured Chinsurah from the Dutch. This iconic landmark is made out of cast iron and amazingly, the clock is still working. 

Among the existing architecture, is the ‘Bara Seal Bari’— the large house of the Seal family.  This rather grand mansion designed in the Indo-Dutch style was built in 1743 by Nilambar Seal, a rich and influential merchant of Chinsurah.

The house has multiple courtyards and solid Grecian columns. Columns also support the arches of the ‘Thakurdalan’, the courtyard where the pujas and festivals are celebrated. On the upper floor, the carved wood-panelled doors lead to the charming semi-circular balconies with decorative wrought iron grilles.

There is also the ‘Mandal Bari’, which is a large house built around a central courtyard. It earlier belonged to one of the most important merchant families in Chinsurah and is now the home of the Mandal family.

The Shamdeshwar Temple dates back to 500 year ago. It is said that a local fisherman found the image of Shandeshwar (Shiva) from the waters of the Ganga and a local landlord built a temple for the deity. Thereafter, the last Dutch governor, Daniel Overbeck presented two brass drums for the temple, which are still in use.

The Dutch Cemetery was built by Louis Taillefert, then director of the VOC in Bengal and was in use during the 18th–19th centuries. It houses about 45 graves of Dutch citizens who died between 1743 and 1846. The oldest tomb belongs to Sir Cornelius Jonge who died in Chinsurah in 1743.

Other prominent people buried here are Daniel Overbeck, Gregorious Herklots, a high official in the VOC, and George Vernet, another VOC director. There is also the tomb of Susanna Anna Marina, who is believed to have had seven husbands. She is said to be the inspiration behind Ruskin Bond’s famous novel, ‘Susanna’s Seven Husbands’. 

Columnist: 
Shona Adhikari