Chandernagore’s Christmas

Heritage & People of Chandernagore Team

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At the launch of our website at the Alliance Francaise du Bengal, we met a very interesting French born documentary filmaker Mr Fransua Joly, who decided to make Chandernagore his home.

He is a  documentary videographer, script-writer, cameraman, and filmmaking teacher.
He directed and produced over 30 films,.of which his 1989 title TIMELESS VILLAGE OF THE HIMALAYAS won the AVC Award in Hollywood The competition was presented by the American Film Institute and Billboard Magazine.

Now known as Vasudeva Das he says,

“Before my viewers and friends wonder whether Vasudeva is on the verge of turning Christian… I’m NOT. Joining the Vaisnava faith has never meant for me to renounce my Christian background but to fulfil it. In the wake of moving to a part-time home in Chandernagore, near Kolkata, I met Father Orson. We took a liking to each other and I caught myself following him on some of his parochial activities. Christmas time came and I started shooting…only for peace. the result being this informal video. It covers the midnight mass, but also a Hindu worship of the Goddess Durga, and outstanding aerial shots from my drone, right above the Ganges river. If you find the mass a bit long, skip over it, although you’d miss my comments comparing the Roman Catholic and the Hindu Vaisnava faiths. So yes, the video belongs to your compared religions folder.

Here is the beautiful video he has made for Christmas in Chandernagore, a must watch for all.

Chandernagore’s Neelkantheshwar Temple

Heritage & People of Chandernagore Team

1Chandernagore is a place dotted with temples most of which holds immense amount of historical value. Our visit to Neelkantheshwar temple revealed the untold secrets behind it. On interviewing Sampa Bannerjee, one of the present owners of the temple, was revealed the account of the place.

Mrs Bannerjee told us the temple was originally owned by Shibnath Mukherjee and his wife Sarat Kumari Devi. It was this childless Sarat kumari Devi who dreamt of constructing the temple. It is said goddess Kali ordered her to curve an idol of goddess kali and worship her as her daughter. It is this dream that led to the formation of the Neelkantheshwar temple. According to the dream a stone was found in the Rose garden in the premises of the house which was curved in Italy by Bhaskar De. Sampa Bannerjee told us, it took three to four years with a total expenditure Rs.90,000 to construct the temple. Finally, it was established on 7th of July 1913 according to Bengali calendar it was Saptami Tithi after the festival of Rathayatra. To our utter surprise the idol in the temple resembled an eight year old girl standing on the Shiva and the mystery behind it was said that Goddess kali wished to be worshiped as Sarat kumari’s daughter thus the peculiar change in the idol.

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After the sudden death of Sarat Kumari Devi, the responsibility was passed on to nephew Anadi Nath Bannerjee and his wife Jayabati devi. Later Anadi Nath Bannerjee bought the house and later it was passed on to his eldest son Prakash Chandra Bannerjee who renovated the temple. It was Prakash Chandra who came up with the idea to construct shops around the area to generate income for the expenditure of the temple. Finally, after his death on 24th July, the responsibility of the temple was taken over by the his maternal brother– Rabindranath Bhattacharya . On denouncing domestic life soon Rabindranath was unable to perform the daily rituals of the temple thereby passing it over to Anadi nath’s younger son Biswanath Bannerjee. It is from then on ward that Biswanath Bannerjee along with Akshay Bannerjee (son of Prakash Chandra Bannerjee )and his wife Sampa Bannerjee have taken up the responsibility. The glory of the hundred year old temple is presently striving to fight the erosion of time but the Bannerjees still maintain their responsibility of the annual celebrations of kali puja and the saptami tithi.

Chandernagore’s famous son: Dourga Chorone Roquitte

Heritage & People of Chandernagore Team

Chandernagore is one of those dormant historical witnesses that remained untouched since ages. But that did not subdue the glamour it possessed as one of the richest French colony. Not only financially but also with several historical figures. Walking through the place dotted with profound architectures that reminds us of its fading glory history offered us the name of Dourga Chorone Roquitte. One of the many well-known business men of his time, Rakshit constituted the upper class of the French Chandernagore. Their glory, now subdued still peeks from behind the crevices of the multi facade mansion at Lal Bagan. Our visit to the Rakshits exposed a lot of it, as Debi Charone Roquitte and Partha Charan rakshit narrated the history of the family.

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The introduction of weaving and textile industry at Chandernagore was the work of Jagannath Bhar, a resident of Saptagram, who shifted to Chandernagore to seek shelter under the French government from the borgis. Indian Textile being high on demand, mainly among the Europeans served as a catalyst to the flourishing of textile trade. Though the exact date of the migration, of the Rakshits from their homeland at Bhandarhati village near Tarakeshwar to Chandernagore; cannot be traced, but that they belonged to the tantubaya clan gives the idea that the lucrative weaving business tempted them. Dourga Chorone Roquitte (a French way of writing Durga Charan Rakshit)’s father Govinda Chandra joined a job at Kolkata. Working initially as an order supplier to a French shipping company he soon became a ‘mutsuddi’or ‘baniyan’(collector of dues of the sold goods from the consumer) in Cama Lamoru and Co.

The story goes that Govinda Chandra had helped Cama in his bad times and then onwards began a deep relation of Cama with the Rakshit family which had severe effects in the life of dourga charone, especially after the death of Govindachandra.

Born on 26th September, 1841at the very residence of Lalbagan, Dourga Charone went to a village school. Govinda Chandra’s death in cholera in the year 1851 changed the fate of the Rakshit family. Being the eldest of the two siblings Dourga Chorone was burdened with responsibilities. Preceeding his father’s death Dourga charone’s mother, a strong woman as she was raised the kids single handedly. A new chapter of his life began under the guidance of Cama who returned to chandernagore to help the family.

Cama made him well versed in French from a school near laldighi and later took him to Calcutta with the intension of employing him in his firm. His command over language was seen in the letters written by him to the chamber of Deputies and chamber of Senetors in his later years. Thus began his career at Calcutta,

At an early age of 14, Roquitte joined Cama Lamoru and Co. as an assistant treasurer to Ishwar Chandra Das. Some scam in the company disappointed Roquite which led him to leave the job and start his business. Thus began the journey of Douga charone Roquite as a business man.

It is said when Dourga began his business, he was at a loss of capital to invest, but soon his hard work and dedication bore fruits. Initially He started a cloth business with Pranakrishna(brother of Nabakrishna from Radhabajar, Kolkata) as a partner, which earned him a profit of Rs. 2200.

Soon Roquitte became the first exporter of Indian goods to foreign countries. Business flourished and Roquitte started exporting goods like paddy, tea, pulses, mustard, oil, textile, opium, poppy seeds, ghee indigo, and gunny bags in exchange for paint, medicines, metals and alcohol. Trading relation began spreading, starting with France, it soon had countries like Malaysia, Yangon (Rangoon), Trinidad, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Metternich, Egypt, and Mauritius, coming in. The imports were distributed all over in India and Dourga Chorone’s shop at 1, World Court House Lane Kolkata was an agent in this. Indian objects being high in demand among foreigners saw a chunk of foreign customers flocking at the shop. His products gained popularity among French women and therefore soon Roquitte had to hire foreigners beside Indians to work in his shop. Getting goods at a very cheap rate help him further to increase the profit margin.

The flourishing business led him to invest in the development of his homeland and thus began the social development for the people at Chandernagore.

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Roquitte began by opening ‘Ecole Durga’ school for boys under his teacher Guru Gopal Chandra Das. Apart from the free medical store an Ayurvedic medical store was also started by him at Haldarpara under Ramhari Pal with Krishna Chandra as his assistant. It was revealed by Debi Chorone Roquitte(great grandson of Dourga Charone Roquitte) that on Sundays Roquitte met poor and needy to help them with money and goods. Once, it was said people of chandernagore were reduced to begging due to sudden rise in the price of paddy. Dourga supplied paddy to chandernagore from outside to help them.

Dourga Chorone often went on pilgrimages with a huge group of people and bore all their expenses on himself, taking care of all their needs. The healthy relation with French government made them send their men at major stations to take care of the entourage.

At a very young age he was a part of the municipal committee and a member of the Counsel of Generals . As we came to know from the family members Dourga Charone used his good relation with the government to help the people in distress. For instance the law that ordered man of the family to participate in the war was stopped at the request of Roquite who was grieved to see his men in distress. Debi Chorone recollects how the French officials would visit Rakshit Bhavan to meet Dourga Charone. His good work and healthy relation with the French government earned him several titles. He received Officer d’Academie literary society of Paris, Chevalier de l’ordre royal du Cambodge from Cambodge, and finally the legendary Chevalier de la d’honneur from French government on 6th June 1896.

Behind all the successes, there were dreams that failed and left unfulfilled. His dream of to overcome the water crisis at chandernagore through several means failed resulting in huge loss. His dream of constructing a Ghat was later fulfilled by his son – Shyama Charan Rakshit with the 20,000 he kept for the purpose. The Jetty that we see today is just a smaller version of the whole creation which originally extended up to the mid-point of the river for the purpose of transaction.

Dourga Chorone celebrated all occasions with his people and included the whole chandernagore in it. Free clothes and blankets were distributed among the poor at all the occasions.

At a very early age of 56 he was diagnosed with small pox. He decided to shift to Beneras. He breathed his last on 27th August 1898. At his death ceremony the French government send their regiment to pay him salute. As has been said he was the only one to receive such an honour.

After his death, according to his wish the family contimued to maintain the plethora of celebrations with equal grandeur. Being an well organised man he had equally divided his property among his children later due to mismanagement a lot of it were sold. After him his grandson, Tulsi Charan Rakshit was appointed the mayor under the foreign government. But unfortunately the glory of the family was short lived and with the death of Dourga Charone the fall had began which increased its pace with the later generation. As Mr. Partha Charone Rakshit, grieves the upcoming end of the history. The busy life of the modern day generations have left the palatial building and its saga unsaid. Further the fall in the business led to severe financial crisis that made it difficult for them to live up to their standards. Therefore a lot had to be cut down. Partha Charan Rakshit told us the unfortunate consequences taking its effect on the building but still Rakshits are able to maintain the wonderful architectural creation.

It was through Debi Charone Roquite and Partha Charan Rakshit that a lot was unveiled. Unfortunately with the death of Dourga Charone the family lost not only its prosperity but also its grandeur. What presently remains is just a mere residue of a glorious past.

Confluence of French and Bengali culture.

In Conversation with Ms Basabi Pal, French Proffesor at Chandernagore College

Heritage & People of Chandernagore Team

As a part of this project we came across a variety of people out of which Basabi Pal , a professor at Chandernagore college was one of those,  who  gave first hand experiences to us. Her journey with French as an important language in her career started from the French Institute of Chandernagore where she learnt a lot about French Chandernagore, its people culture and life style.Capture.JPGrt.JPG

Out of them very close to her heart was Betteille family.  Her love for the language began in an early age and the Betteille family played an important role in it.  She revealed how the whole family was a confluence of French and Bengali culture. She recalls how Madame Betteille being the principal of the ‘School for Little girls’ in the year 1903 ,sat on a well carved Mahoghony chair on the strand road enjoying the view . She further recalled monsieur Morris Betteille who was French by attire and by birth but spoke fluent Bengali. She recalls how Betteille not only shared a close relation with her family but also spoke fluently in Bengali with her mother. Their command over French, English and Bengali filled her with awe and it is this that later influenced her to take up French as her career.  Her description of Leena Betei who after marriage became Mrs. Leena Dey gave us a picturesque idea of a cultural milieu. Leena Betteille was the daughter of Morris Betteille, who became the principal of the school in future.DSC_0343.JPG

Mrs. Pal told us how Mrs. Dey followed Bengali customs and rituals intently and her love for Bengali culture showed in every spec of her life as her French facial features peeked from the very Bengali white sari and vermillion. Monsieur Betteille died in chandernagore and was buried in Sacred Heart cemetery, following which Betteille family remained here. Basabi Pal recollects her meeting with Leena Dey’s son Pradyut Dey at Paris and then goes on to reveal her visit to the marriage of famous sociologist Andre Betei, a member of the same Betteille family.   While looking back at the past Basabi Pal missed the silence, serenity and purity of the Chandernagore but the happiness of nostalgia shone on her face.

Chandernagore’s Prabartak Sangha

Heritage & People of Chandernagore Team

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Chandernagore boasts the work of several great men, one of which was Sri Aurobindo Ghosh. Though he had no connection with Chandernagore but fate brought him there and thus began the history of this place – Prabartak Sangha.

As Sister Nibedita wrote, the night of 19th February 1919 “was a stormy night” when she visited Ghosh to reveal the news of warrant being issued in his name, advising him to leave. Sri aurobindo quite perplexed wrote “ i was wondering what to do” when he finally decided to leave for Chandernagore. Thus on 20th February he ferried from the Ahiritola ghat along with two of his men reaching Chandernagore on 21st of February. At Chandernagore his arrangement of staying at Charu Chandra’s place failed and destiny pulled him to Motilal Roy’s house, who on the request of Sirish Chandra an ardent follower of Rash Bihari Bose decided to shelter Ghosh for some time. It is the 42 days stay at Motilal Roy’s place that made Moti lal not only bond with Ghosh and but also became his fervent adherent thus began the idea of Prabortak Sangha and its social works.

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House of Motilal Roy at Chandernagore

Our visit at the Prabartak Sangha unveiled the history of the sacred place. Men like Rabindra Nath Tagore, Nazrul Islam, Subhas Chandra Bose, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy visited to pay homage to the place and its founder. It is said that Mahatma Gandhi , not only pay a visit but spend a night there. Prabartak Sagha was founded by Motilal Roy with one of its Akshay tritiya mela being chaired by Bipin Chandra pal in the year 1930. The temple may have been created by Motilal Roy but as Aurobindo wrote “all of Moti’s work are mine” He was further quoted saying “if you want to know my ideology , my philosophy, go to Prabartak sangha”. The ‘Prabartak Patrika’, which celebrated its centenary on 15th August, 2015 bore his words. Further the Sangha continued with its social work forming ashrams and schools, serving people and presently completed seventy five years in this process. We were fortunate enough to visit such a place and now we salute the immense work of the great man and his followers.

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