My contacts with Dutch-Indian heritage started in 1988. Since that time I have travelled many times to India and Sri Lanka to visit heritage sites and talk with Indian people interested in this shared heritage.
Early February 2020. Sugu Naidu, the tour guide we used earlier, picked me up from the hotel. We booked a car for the day trip to Sadraspatnam, some 70 km out of Chennai. In Sadraspatnam the Dutch Fort now has a new fence and gate and a new info board from the Archeological Survey of India. At the back a higher wall has been addded. The guard with the keys is under contract with the ASI.
The small cemetery inside the fort remains impressive with long flat tombstones, each of which tell a story. A ship captain, three Dutch East-Indian Company staff members drowned here in the 17th century.
After the excavations here, the kitchen floor with tiles, the mounting place for elephants with steps, an additional water source and the warehouses are all in better condition than 30 years ago when I visited here for the first time.
On the way back Guide Sugu showed me the major carved rocks of Mahabalipuram, the story of the god and normal people. She mentioned Theresa a “Dutch Palace” in Kovalam, but that turned out to be only a leftover old stone hump near the beach in one of the posh resorts here. It had a short history of the Dutch here, carved in black stone.
The drive to Pulicat on 19 February took two hours. Xavier Benedict was waiting for me in his AARDE Pulicat Museum close to the Dutch Cemetery. From the Fort Geldria there not even the sign board anymore. Xavier told me that like in Sadraspatnam excavations on Fort Geldria took place. But the owner of the land, the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Departement opposed the central Archeological Survey of India on this. Now you only see a big bush.
The cemetery is impressive with again many stories to be told from the tombstone here. They are well protected and preserved. Although the red stones of the two-stories high monument are starting to crumble.
Xavier is founder of the Art and Architecture Research, Development and Education (AARDE) Foundation.
Xavier’s passion is the large waterbody in this lagoon area that he is trying to preserve through his foundation. He is linking it with people and culture, including the European heritage. He is an architect, teaching part time at a college near Madras.
Especially the gate is very spectacular, as you can see from the film clip I made. I never forget the first time I was here in 1989 when all the tombes had been whitewashed totally. It hurted my eyes.
For the first time in more than 30 years visiting Chinsurah I stopped a day each in the other European settlements on the Hooghly river: the French in Chandranagore and the Danes is Serampore. It was good to see that here the shared heritage is conserved.
On 6 February 2020 I did my Dutch in Chinsurah presentation for members of INTACH Calcutta. I changed quite a few older slides with a selection from the ones I took a few days ago.
Next day I did my presentations to 175 pupils and teachers at the under graduate college Mrinalini Datta Mahavidyapith, in Birati, Kolkata. In two lectures I shared my experience and knowledge on journalism, my Bangladesh work with UNICEF, water, sanitation and hygiene with the IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre and the shared Holland at the Hooghly. This is how the Principal who lives close to Chinsurah called it. It became very lively and I had to answer a lot of questions.
More than 30 years ago I paid 30 guilders in an Amsterdam antiquarian bookshop for the little book: De Nederlanders in Voor-India, by H. Terpstra, published in the Patria series by P.N. van Kampen & Zoon N.V, Amsterdam in 1947, the year of my birth. This is a concise write up in Dutch about the importance of the Dutch role in India that started in the early 17thcentury and lasted until 1825. It also was for me the first book that described what the energy of Dutch ancestors established in India. How they traded, what connections they had with Indian monarchs, what attitudes and behaviours they had on local cultural and religious actions.
In his final chapter entitled Our Legacy Terpstra wrote: “Who deeply researches and documents traces of the labour of our 17th century forefathers will reap a surprising harvest”. He wrote about the Dutch cemetery and Surat with the impressive grave monument of Adriaan van Reede tot Drakensteijn and other Dutch cemeteries, churches, loges and factories on all coast of India. His attractive writing started my research in archives and antiquarian bookshops in 1988.
In February 1989 this book and others and quite a few days of study in the National archives in The Hague helped me to plan my first trip to our shared heritage with India. Soon after that I came across In het voetspoor der vaderen, by Maurits Wagenviirt, a book from 1929 that showed me the first pictures from the Dutch heritage that was still existing in 1929.
Tha made take three weeks holiday from my work. I started in Calcutta where my friend Christiaan was working and his paper clipping of 1988 pointed me to Chinsurah. With his help with local contacts I did visit the cemeteries and fort in Sadraspatnam and Pulicat near Chennai. I crossed over to Cochin in Kerala for the Dutch church and cemetery on Fort Cochin. And I went from there by train to Surat and Bharuch in Gujarat. I made slides in all these places that I have digitalised in the late 1990s to publish a few on my first website.
Unfortunately mr. Ganesh Nandy of the Indian Netherlands Friendship Society fell ill. The INSF could not receive me in early February 2020. I was very lucky that I had been approached a few days ago by Byapti Sur who I know from our earlier Dutch India heritage group. She happens to be in Chinsurah for the marriage of her brother.
At the Chinsurah train station Byapti picked me up at 10:00. Her parents live nearby so I could drop off my suitcase there.
We started at the Portuguese church in Bandel. It was too catholic for me, too much pomp and glory.
Auto taxi’s brought us back to Chinsurah where I saw for the first time the pleasant effect of the renovation of the most visible Dutch monuments: the cemetery and the Susanna Maria Yeats- Verkerk tomb. The Archeological Survey of India has created lots of green at these sites making it look like a garden around monuments. Byapti was very surprised how good they looked now compared to what she remembers from her childhood.
We walked to the nearby Hooghly Imambara. That was impressive, with a massive front and spacious inner court.
We toured around some of the highlights from the booklet produced from the technical analysis of Dutch buildings done by Ayshwara Tipnis heritage architect. She did similar work for the French heritage in Chandernagore. I saw here and there near some of the buildings info-signposts that also result from the revamp.
The project also produced two websites with valuable content. One is www.dutchinchinsurah.in. The other one is www.dutchcemeterybengal.com, which’s gives individual information on each of the persons buried on the Dutch cemetery. Students of the Presidency University in Kolkata helped produce pictures and researched backgrounds.
On 30 January 2020 I had an interesting meeting with mr. G. M. Kapur, advisor of the Indian National Trust for Art and Culture Heritage (INTACH) in West Bengal. This is the national agency for heritage conservation in India.
We discussed the Dutch heritage situation in Chinsurah and my forthcoming presentation for the INTACH members. He showed me a copy of the Bauke van der Pol’s book in English: The Dutch East Indian Company.
In the workspace with their collections staff was working to conserve old documents.
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