A visit to Serampore - Land of Indian Renaissance


EVERY time I visited Kolkata, I wanted to go to Serampore, but the visit never materialised. This time, with a free day at my disposal, I decided to go to that small town in Hoogly district, whose historicity is not known to many even in Kolkata. Thus when I mentioned “Serampore University” many raised their eyebrows, for they had never heard about such a university. It is a tragedy that Serampore does not get its due. It is the first university in India, established in 1818, less than a year after the first college – Hindu College, renamed Presidency College – was set up in Kolkata. It was decades later that Calcutta, Bombay and Madras universities came into being. Even more important, from a journalist’s point of view, is that the first proper newspaper in the country – The Friend of India – was launched from Serampore in 1818.

The puritans may say that James Hickey’s ‘The Bengal Gazette’ was the first newspaper. But then, it was more a scandal-sheet than a newspaper. I would call Serampore as the place where Indian Renaissance began, though many may laugh at it. I will come to that in an instant.

My colleague from Pratichi (India) Trust Paromita Haldar and The Herald of India contributor from Romania Mihaela Gligor were happy to join me on the trip. They had heard about Serampore but had never visited it. The car we hired over the phone – Maruti Omni -- was a disappointment. Far more disappointing was the driver, who claimed he knew the route well, but was found to ask for direction at every junction.

As a salute to Prof Amartya Sen’s ‘The Argumentative Indian’ that Mihaela Gligor was translating into Romanian, we decided to call the driver by that time. As we crossed the Nivedita bridge, named after Sister Nivedita, the driver suddenly stopped the vehicle. He was trying to figure out which road to take, the one that goes straight or the one that goes to Dakshineswar temple.

Suddenly, Mihaela, who is otherwise parsimonious with the spoken work, turned garrulous. “It is a beautiful temple, much like a cake”. Since I had never heard anyone comparing a temple to a cake, I instantly wanted to see the temple. That solved the driver’s problem, too, as he had already driven a bit on that road. It was only when I neared the temple did I realize that nearly three decades ago, my wife and I had visited it while holidaying in Calcutta.

We realized it was a wrong day to visit the temple – the car couldn’t move caught as it was in a terrible jam. Serpentine queues of devotees, each carrying a small basket containing flowers, camphor and incense as an offering to Goddess Kali, were found in the temple premises. Paromita’s pleadings with the security guard to let us get in to just have a view of the temple from inside the compound received the expected rejection.

In any case, all three of us had visited the temple built by Rani Rashmoni in 1855. Its fame doesn’t rest on its nine spires but on the fact that Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Vivekananda’s guru, served as its priest. Situated right on the bank of the Hoogly, it has a beautiful garden and two large ponds around it. The ponds are closed for visitors except the winged variety that arrives from far and wide.

As the multitudes were growing, it was far more difficult to drive out than drive in. “Lunch is ready, lunch is ready” beckoned a restaurant employee in Bangla and English as the driver tried in vain to wriggle out of the jam. After much effort and time, we were back on the national highway, built originally by Sher Shah. We realized the driver had chosen the wrong road only when we reached some sort of a dead end and had to pass through a congested market.

We were so tired of the “Argumentative Indian” that the sudden sight of a small Baptist church on the bank of the Hoogly gave me a pleasant surprise. I could not but exclaim, “Yes, we have reached the right place.” A few seconds later, we found a majestic white colonnaded building whose pictures I had seen. We got down to have a look at the Hoogly that flowed calmly. We could see a temple on the other side of the river at quite a distance. We erroneously thought it was the Dakshineshwar temple. No, it is another Kali temple from where Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were immersed in the Hoogly. Just across the river was the Barrackpore Park, once the seat of political power in Bengal. The Governor-General always stayed at Barrackpore while his later avatar, the Viceroy, ruled from Calcutta before shifting to Shimla and New Delhi.

Serampore’s real story begins with the arrival there of three great men, whose contributions to India’s development have not received due recognition. Known as the Serampore trio, they were William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward. They were Baptist missionaries who were not allowed to disembark at Calcutta because the British, whose only interest was to make money, did not want any “trouble-makers” in their midst.

They, therefore, went to Serampore, a Danish colony which the Danes called Fredericksnagore in honour of their king Frederick the Sixth. Their intention was not to make money but transform the nation. They had a harrowing time but they persevered, to use a Biblical expression, in the Lord’s vineyard. We drove into the main campus. Outside the gate, volunteers of the Students Federation of India (SFI) were pasting wall posters to canvas votes in the college elections due a couple of days later.

The Serampore College has two wings, the arts and science section under Calcutta University and the Theology section under the Senate of Serampore University. It is the world’s largest theological institution with 1301 graduate students passing out this year alone. There are over 10,000 theology students studying in various institutions affiliated to this university. The college has a common principal for both the theology and arts and science sections.

The campus has many exotic trees. This is not a surprise as William Carey was a pioneering Botanist and horticulturist as well. There is a museum but it is closed. All we could do was to take the pictures of Carey’s statue in the foyer of the museum. “Why don’t you meet the Principal? He may have it opened for you”, suggested an employee.

We realized how mistaken the employee was only when we knocked on the doors of the two-storied house in one section of which Principal Lalchungnunga stayed. This was the same house where William Carey stayed towards the end of his life in 1834. “The Principal is taking rest. He has a function to attend at 3 p.m.” said his wife, whose name is “Hillary” but with a different spelling. Despite my dropping all names, including that of a common friend, she would not disturb her husband’s nap.

Mrs Lalchungnanga showed us a functional pedestal organ in the living room, perhaps, used by the Serampore trio. At our prompting, she gave us a glass of water which Mihaela, understandably, declined to accept. For all her love of India, she does not trust un-packaged water. From there, we walked towards Registrar Rev Dr Ravi Tiwari’s house, across the road. I knew him as I had once interviewed him for The Herald of India.

Dr Tiwari exuded warmth as he received us. He is a second-generation Christian, whose family tree can be traced to Tulsidas, who translated the Ramayana into Hindi and made it popular in North India. He showed us the photograph of his grandfather. “Look at his cap. Those days Muslims and Brahmins wore almost the same type of caps”. I took the close-up pictures of both his “framed” father and grandfather. Mihaela and Paromita might have wondered why I was doing so.

They did not know that I had a plan to write a piece on Dr Tiwari’s father, who had translated the liturgy of my church -- the Mar Thoma Syrian Church -- into Hindi. It is still being used in the church service in North India. After offering us tea and biscuits, he led us to the terrace to give us a panoramic view of the Hoogly. “I have never seen the water so low as this year” said Dr Tiwari, echoing the sentiment of Copenhagen. This residential building known as Mack House is relatively new.

“Sometimes I shudder when I stand here” said the Registrar. It was at this spot that a horrible incident had occurred. This was soon after William Carey arrived at Serampore. He saw a young widow being dragged and pushed on to the funeral pyre of her husband. He protested but he was asked to mind his own business.

Carey wrote a booklet on the horrible practice of sati. When it appeared in Britain, William Wilberforce, nicknamed “God’s politician”, raised the issue in Parliament. The tract went a long way in building public opinion against the evil practice. Serampore was also notorious for infanticide. Carey and Company used every forum available to them to campaign against the practices. One of threesome, Ward, was a printer by profession. They set up the best printing press in India at Serampore.

Meanwhile, Carey began learning languages like Sanskrit, Bengali and Marathi. And when the British started a college at Fort William in Calcutta to train their newly recruited civil service officers, Carey was appointed to teach them these languages. “Carey used to commute daily between Calcutta and Serampore by boat taking advantage of the high tides from the Bay of Bengal.”

Carey became a friend of Governor-General William Bentinck and whenever they met, he used the opportunity to demand abolition of sati. Carey’s friendship with Hindu reformer Raja Rammohan Roy, who was also against the practice helped in clinching the issue. The day Sati was abolished Carey worked day and night to translate the proclamation into Sanskrit, Bengali and other Indian languages. He feared the government might withdraw the proclamation under religious pressure and he, therefore, wanted to make it a fait accompli. He was so busy translating the notification that he could not attend the church service on that day – a Sunday. It was the first time he missed the church.

From Serampore they published the Bible in many Indian languages. Carey was also the first to publish dictionaries and grammar books in many Indian languages. And when the British introduced censorship, it was his ‘Friend of India’ which was penalized. He used the media to campaign against the compulsory cultivation of indigo. More important, he set up over 100 schools in the region, where students enjoyed equality and a sense of oneness, unheard of concepts those days. Thus, I am not wide of the mark when I say Indian renaissance began at Serampore.

“A jute mill is now situated at the spot where the press stood” said Dr Tiwari who came out to show us William Carey’s grave about two kms from there. On the way, he showed us the Danish church which preceded the arrival of the Serampore trio. The Danish court building is now being renovated with generous assistance from the government of Denmark.

A few minutes later, when we got down at the newly-built flyover, a passerby asked me, “Are you visiting Carey’s grave?” A hundred metres from the main road was a small graveyard surrounded by a boundary wall. There were three large graves of the Serampore trio like the three points of a triangle. Weeds and plants grew luxuriously around the graves. There were also smaller graves of their family members, besides those who taught at Serampore College.

“My father, who was a professor at Serampore., wanted to be buried here. But as ill-luck would have it, he died when I was posted at Shillong. I can be buried here if I die in harness, not otherwise,” said Dr Tiwari with a smile on his face. “No, you have a long way to go before you can think of death,” I told him as we took leave of the Serampore trio and returned to Kolkata. How truly had William Carey said, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God”!

The writer publishes www.heraldofindia.com.

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