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The Danes are back: How a Bengal town is restoring its European legacy

Serampore, near Kolkata, was an important 18th century Danish colony. A grand heritage restoration programme is underway in the town to restore its major landmarks to their former glory

india Updated: Dec 13, 2017 12:23 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times

Serampore, near Kolkata, was a Danish outpost for 90 years (1755-1845). The 210-year-old Lutheran St Olav Church’s restoration was completed in 2015. The project won the Unesco Heritage Award of Distinction in 2016. (Burhaan Kinu / HT Photo)

From the white colonnaded verandah of the Denmark Tavern in Serampore, a sub-divisional town 35 km from Kolkata, the panorama is serene: a placid river Hooghly flows next to the late 18th century building, towards its final resting place, the Bay of Bengal. Even on a busy suburban weekday, the waterfront is usually quiet. These days, however, the peaceful atmosphere is often punctured by sounds of hammers, saws and drills, thanks to the restoration work going on in the building. The tavern’s renovation is not a stand-alone project; it is a part of a heritage restoration programme underway in the town, which was a Danish outpost for 90 years (1755-1845). The Danes had two other colonies in India: Tranquebar (now Tharangambadi in Tamil Nadu) and the Nicobar Islands.

Other than the tavern, several other Danish-era structures are being restored: The 12,000-square feet Danish Government House (DGH) and its two gates; Red Building (a British-era structure located inside the DGH campus), and the cast iron gate, fence and staircase of the Serampore College, which completes 200 years in 2018. The 210-year-old Lutheran St Olav’s Church’s restoration was completed in 2015.

“Tranquebar and Serampore were different kinds of outposts. The former was a port town; the sea gave it a carefree atmosphere. Serampore was a commercial and educational-missionary hub, and more urban. So its heritage has had to grapple with the challenges of an expanding town and burgeoning population,” says conservation architect Manish Chakraborti.

The DGH is located at one end of its 6.7-acre compound. The former residence of the Danish governors is an imposing colonial-style building, but not ornate. The middle part of the yellow and white house, which has an extended porch and six Ionic columns, juts out. A flight of steps will take you into the rooms. Under the Danes, DGH was the administrative headquarters. It continued to be so under the British and till 1990, the Bengal government too had its offices in the building. It was abandoned in 1990 after a fire. Today, the DGH campus, which houses the sub-divisional magistrate’s office, looks rundown. The compound is more or less barren, and doubles up as a parking lot. The town outside is dense, heavily built up, teeming with people and small businesses.

However, even today, the structure and pattern of the main street of the town centre remains as it was constructed by the Danes. The St Olav’s Church is just a few steps away from DGH. It has a portico of twin columns and has the royal monogram of Christian VII, who was the King of Denmark when the church was consecrated. It is flat roofed and reflects the designs of contemporary churches in British India.

Heritage town

“The church is special not just to Christians but all communities… It is a critical component of the town’s life,” says Mohit Ranadip of the Shrirampur Heritage Restoration Initiative, a local citizen-led body. “The town’s heritage, however, is not just about the Danish heritage .... one must not miss the elegant houses of the rich Indian trading class of the 18th century and the ghats they built on the river…we must restore them too.” Some residents, however, allege that the local municipality is not doing enough to save the town’s heritage. “For example, they shouldn’t allow high-rises around the historic centre and concretise roads,” says a resident, who did not wish to named.

While the Church was restored with funds from Denmark’s ministry of culture, DGH’s restoration is being funded by the Centre, the West Bengal Heritage Commission (WBHC), and the Serampore Municipality is in charge. The renovation of DGH will be completed early next year. The National Museum of Denmark (NMD) is overseeing the restoration of the tavern, the Serampore College, and the Red Building. Realdania, a philanthropic organisation, has provided Rs 10 crore (2012-18) funding for the project, which is called the Serampore Initiative.

“Initially, I was sceptical about restoring heritage buildings outside Denmark, but after we began researching for the project, we realised that locals also have a great appreciation for these old buildings and want them to be restored,” says Dr Bente Wolff, project leader, Serampore Initiative, NMD. “Our historian, Simon Rasten, accessed 20,000 pages of Danish documents from the West Bengal State Archives and found information about the town and the architectural plans of the building.” Rasten also traced the only existing map of the Danish areas and the buildings in The Queens Reference Library, Copenhagen.

Bengal’s Little Europe

The Europeans began trading with this region from the 16th century, an era that coincided with the birth of the large trading companies in the continent. But it was only in the last decades of the 17th century that Europe-Bengal trade in textiles, raw cotton, silk, sugar, saltpeter and opium flourished and their outposts came up along the river. Starting with the British in Calcutta, there were the Danes in Serampore, the French in Chandernagore, the Portuguese in Bandel and the Dutch in Chinsurah.

The Danish history in Bengal, however, was not one of smooth progress: In 1698, they acquired a trading settlement called Dannemarksnagore. But it was closed down in 1714. In 1755, the Nawab of Bengal, Ali Vardi Khan, granted the Danes the right to settle down in Bengal as well as free trading rights. Along with the parwana, the Danes bought land and established Fredricksnagore, in the honour of King Fredrick V. In the next few years, three more villages were added to Fredricksnagore: Serampore, Ackna and Pereapore. Since then the Danish territory has been colloquially called Serampore, only officially it was Fredricksnagore.

It was under the administration of Governor Colonel Ole Bie (1776-1805), that Serampore flourished. His abilities and cunning entrepreneurship brought prosperity to the town and the present historical town centre, which is being restored, is his legacy. Contemporary travellers also wrote eloquently about Serampore’s glory days. In 1803, George Annesley wrote that the buildings of Serampore were “picturesque being white, with expensive porticoes to the south and the windows closed by Venetian blinds painted green.”

Though Serampore was managed by the Danes, it also attracted other Europeans and Indians. “The manufacturing of cotton and silk textiles as well as salt petre and sugar led to the rise of a local class of Indian traders, middlemen and agents, and the gradual urbanisation of the settlement… Some Indians eventually became powerful, economically and politically,” Rasten told HT. The turning point in the history of Serampore was the British occupation of Denmark (1807 to 1814). The British monopolised trade in India, and in 1845 Denmark sold Serampore and Tranquebar to the British East India Company.

The challenges of heritage restoration

“When the West Bengal Heritage Commission handed over DGH in 2008 to me, it was in ruins: The floor was broken, the roof had collapsed and tree roots were coming out of the walls,” says conservation architect Gopa Sen. “There were false partitions, destroying the internal plan of the house…. It was a terrible and heartbreaking sight. And a challenge for us.”

The same was the case for the Denmark Tavern, whose front verandah, which overlooks the river, had collapsed. “The campus had been converted into quarters for policemen and additional structures had come up in its precincts. The police line is now being shifted,” says Manish Chakraborti, who is restoring the tavern and parts of the Serampore College. He is also the man behind the restoration of the church, which won the Unesco Heritage Award of Distinction in 2016. “We started with the St Olav’s Church because it had a defined boundary and a single ownership. It also has immense historical importance because missionary, educationist and botanist William Carey was the first preacher here,” explains Chakraborti. “These buildings could have been saved much earlier but there was not much political support, nor funds. Restoration was seen as a bourgeoisie exercise. The state never looked at public spaces as vibrant community spaces.”

The architects and historians involved in the projects accessed old paintings, maps and documents to get a flavour of the core heritage zone of the town and how the buildings looked during the Danish period to help them draw up a restoration plan. “The challenges in projects such as these are always unknown. Despite hours of planning, there can be surprises when you start work in an old building, which means reworking the original plan… while keeping to the strict norms,” says Sen.

Both Sen and Chakraborti are ensuring that all the work that is being done follows the heritage norms. This means that the building materials have to be same as those the Danes used: Lime, surki, molasses and khayer. Masons from Murshidabad, who know this old construction technique, have been employed for the project. The architects are also reusing old materials, especially the Burma-teak doors and windows.

For a restoration project to be successful and sustainable, it is important that people have a stake in the project. On that score, Serampore has not done badly: Citizens participated wholeheartedly in a competition to design a new bus stand, which will be shifted from the historic core area. Ranadip’s organisation is also pushing schools to teach their students the town’s Danish lineage.

Future plans

For heritage buildings to survive and ensure their long-term maintenance, which can be expensive, it is important to have an “adaptable re-use plan”. By early 2018, the 200-year-old Danish Tavern will be back in business: It will have a coffee shop, a Danish bakery and six well-appointed rooms for guest accommodation.

“The DGH will have a museum of the town’s Danish past and an exhibition hall,” says Dr Basudeb Malik, officer on special duty, WBHC. “Once the restoration is over, we are expecting tourists interested in Bengal’s colonial-trade history to come not just to Serampore but other outposts in Bengal as well. The government is working on a project to ensure this”.

“I see the restoration work in Serampore as a triggering process; It will hopefully lead to greater investments in urban restoration and push for developing safe, clean and secure community spaces, which Bengal –– for that matter, India –– is woefully short of,” says Chakraborti. “There are no green spaces here…the quality of open environment will improve for the people,” says Flemming Auland, architect, NMD.

The tourism sector is also upbeat about the opportunities such restoration programmes could bring. “Our Little Europe Tour will take tourists to the colonial settlements along the river,” says Navpreet Arora of FunOnStreets, a Kolkata-based tourism company.

Serampore, more than just commerce
The 18th century ushered in an era of Lutheran missionary activities in Serampore, thanks to the patronage of Danish rulers. Though they came to preach Christianity, they also dedicated themselves to education and social reforms. The protagonists were William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward. They established the Serampore Mission, the Serampore Mission Press and the Serampore College. The press printed the Bible in 45 languages including Assamese, Awadhi, Telegu, Bengali, Mooltani, Persian and Pushtu. Journalism in Bengal can be said to have begun with the Serampore missionaries who were the first to expose the lapses of the British government. The Serampore College was designed by a Danish architect and the front gate and two beautiful staircases were gifts from the king of Denmark.

For Denmark, it is a restoration of a link that was lost in time. “But this is just not Danish heritage… this is a part of the world’s shared heritage, which had never been studied. It deserves to be showcased,” says Dr Wolff.

“When [foreign] governments undertake these kind of projects, there is, of course always an objective of image building and visibility,” says Gulshan Sachdeva, director, Europe Area Studies Programme, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. This, however, Dr Sachdeva adds, is not necessarily a negative assessment. Some of these projects genuinely improve awareness and contribute to the local economy through increase in tourism etc. “Ultimately, it is a win-win for both the partners,” he adds.

The rise of the Indian trading class - Box (Embed code inline script)
The rise of the Indian trading class
Approximately at the same time as the Danes came to Serampore, the founder of the Goswami family, Ramgovinda, settled in the western part of the town. His two sons – Harinarayan and Ramnarayan – built a large fortune thanks to their positions as middlemen and their good relations with the Danes. Harinarayan functioned as the diwan of customs (collector) under the Danish East India Company, while his brother Ramnarayan became the official moneylender to the factory. They established an aristocratic colony on the western side of town and became influential people in Serampore. "Unlike other colonial rulers, the power equation between the Danes and Indians were different… locals such as the Goswami family called the shots because they were very rich," says Simon Rasten, historian, National Museum of Denmark.


First Published: Dec 09, 2017 18:36 IST