A magnificent setting for Bengali typeface

Soumitra Das | Updated on May 11, 2018

Venerable campus: Alongside its arts, science and commerce faculties, Serampore College is a university for theological education in South-East Asia. Photo: Amit Datta

Portal of knowledge: The ornamental main gate was imported from Birmingham as a gift from Danish King Frederik VI, who ruled Serampore from 1755 to 1845   -  Amit Datta

Keeping with the times: Many of the buildings on the campus are in dire need of restoration and maintenance   -  Amit Datta

Two centuries young, Serampore College may be a bit worse for the wear, but its built heritage is a repository for several admirable firsts in the field of education

Serampore College, which will celebrate its bicentenary this year, is better known as the birthplace of Bengali publishing and prose writing. In the early 19th century, it was a publishing powerhouse in all of India. Three Baptist missionaries — William Carey (1761-1834), Joshua Marshman (1768-1837) and William Ward (1769-1823) — were the brains behind this epoch-making feat. What is less-known, however, is that it is a rare institution that functions both as a teaching college for arts, science and commerce, and a theological university that draws students from all over India and neighbouring countries. It also played a pioneering role in encouraging the education of women.

The Senate of Serampore College is the academic wing of theological education in India, with 58 affiliated colleges and institutions. Each year, it sends out 1,500 degree-holders, according to the principal Dr Vansanglura.

Although not a listed heritage structure, the college is certainly one of the most stately buildings in Serampore town, Hooghly district. The main building, close to the Hooghly river, appears majestic with a giant portico in the Ionic order. The cast-iron double staircase in the high-ceilinged entrance hall and the ornamental main gate were imported from Birmingham as a special gift from Danish King Frederik VI, who ruled Serampore from 1755 to 1845. In fact, the town had been renamed Fredriksnagore during the reign of the previous Danish king, Frederik V, from 1746 to 1766. In his 1948 book Hooghly Jelar Itihas O Bangasamaj, local historian Sudhirkumar Mitra quotes the poet Dinabandhu Mitra waxing eloquent about the beauty of the college’s main building with its many windows and gardens.

Portal of knowledge: The ornamental main gate was imported from Birmingham as a gift from Danish King Frederik VI, who ruled Serampore from 1755 to 1845   -  Amit Datta


Sudhirkumar Mitra writes: “Marshman and Ward along with two friends arrived in Serampore to spread the Christian gospel in 1799. The then governor Lord Wellesley mistook them for French spies and ordered them to return to England. But Reverend David Brown disabused Wellesley of his mistaken notions and the missionaries were allowed to settle down in Bengal. Carey came to Bengal in 1793 and he used to live in Malda. Marshman and his friends were not allowed to visit Malda, so they were compelled to stay on in Serampore. Carey arrived there and the three set up a mission (Baptist Missionary Society)... Here, Ward set up the first mill in India to manufacture paper.”

Mitra goes on to recount how the mission soon established a church, a school, college, bookshop and a printing press. In time, they even brought out a periodical, Digdarshan, and two newspapers, Samachar Darpan and Friend of India. This, in no small measure, contributed to the spread of education and the development of Bengali literature, he records.

A printing press was set up as early as 1801. “Wooden blocks of the Bengali alphabet were first produced in Serampore which were used to print the first Bengali translation of The Bible... Carey’s first Bengali grammar in print was out that year, and 1855 saw its fourth edition. Gangakishore Bhattacharjee was the first Bengali to write a book of English grammar...” Mitra writes.

The plot for the college was purchased in 1818 and it came up in 1827 under a Danish royal charter. The institution had the rights to confer degrees in all subjects similar to those enjoyed by Danish universities in Copenhagen and Kiel.

“The college library is a repository of treasures... manuscripts, hand-written documents and the first editions of various periodicals and journals,” Mitra says in his book.

The British East India Company had long prohibited missionary activities in its territories to avert public unrest and disruption to its trade, according to the websiteIndo-Danish Heritage Buildings in Serampore, jointly hosted by restoration architect Flemming Aalund and historian Simon Rasten, who are part of a National Museum of Denmark team working to conserve the built heritage of Serampore. That reportedly saw British missionaries approaching the Danish crown for protection and they “were welcomed in Serampore by the then head of the Danish settlement, Ole Bie... the missionaries showed strong interest in education and natural science. In 1800, a botanical garden was laid out at the ground of the present India Jute Mill...”

Noting that William Carey was an “extraordinarily gifted linguist”, the website mentions his feat of translating the Bible into more than 10 Indian languages, as also Burmese, Persian and Chinese. A by-product of this was his work on grammars and dictionaries in several Indian languages. “Between 1800 and 1832, the Serampore press printed books in 48 languages of which 45 were Bible translations. Thirty-seven of these were translated by the Serampore Mission and Carey alone had produced 35...”

This printing office was destroyed in a fire on March 11, 1812. Within minutes, the building, paper, books, presses, typefaces — all the equipment used for printing in a variety of scripts — were burnt to ashes, and the loss was pegged at £12,000, Dr Vansanglura recounts over email.

What was particularly irreplaceable was the loss of manuscripts, the result of years of labour, including the material for a grand polyglot dictionary of the Sanskrit family of languages, and the better part of a manuscript of a translation of the Ramayana.

In 1845, when the Danish settlement was transferred to the British, care was taken to see that the college continued to enjoy the rights and immunities granted by the royal charter of 1827.

Though legally entitled to confer degrees in both theology and general studies, the college currently restricts itself only to theology. In 1918, as part of the centenary development of the college under the leadership of the then principal George Howell, its council was reconstituted with representations from various Christian traditions in India, and a common accrediting body was instituted.

By affiliating with other colleges and seminaries to offer theological degrees, the Serampore college has since become a university for theological education in South-East Asia.

The degrees in arts, science and commerce are awarded by the University of Calcutta, another hoary institution that was established in 1857.

While the college has gone from strength to strength, many of the buildings on its campus are worse for wear and in dire need of restoration and maintenance. The main building is in bad shape, as is Carey House, once the residence of the pre-eminent linguist, and where the principal and two faculty members currently have their quarters. Large chunks of plaster have fallen from the pediment of the main building, and the paint is peeling from the pillars and façade.

Keeping with the times: Many of the buildings on the campus are in dire need of restoration and maintenance   -  Amit Datta


The students’ quarters is only around 100 years old, but this fine structure too is in urgent need of repairs. The cast iron gate and double staircase are worn out, and their restoration is currently a part of the National Museum of Denmark initiative.

As part of the bicentennial celebrations, there are plans to open an extension of the college at Aldrin House.

Also on the anvil are a research centre, publication division, light-and-sound shows and a guest house, says Dr Vansanglura. “I had a talk with the mayor of Howrah about the Aldrin House and he was very positive about repair and renovation. We are going to prepare an estimate and plans and submit them to the chief minister of West Bengal. The mayor will even go further for funding. We will work together for the development of the college.”

At a time when violence and indiscipline have become the norm in several educational institutions in West Bengal, Serampore College remains a centuries-old exception.

Soumitra Das is a Kolkata-based journalist

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Published on May 11, 2018
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