For anyone faintly interested in history and culture, India is a treasure trove. For millennia, the coasts of the subcontinent have attracted sailors and traders, including everyone from Armenians and Arabs to Chinese and Portuguese, Jews, Greeks, Romans … and so on.
Less known is the fact that Danes and Norwegians can be added to this long list. Enticed by rich trading opportunities in what was then the world’s largest economy, sailors and merchants from the United Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway (1523-1814) established trading posts at several locations.
One of these trading posts was the city of Serampore, by the banks of the river Hooghly in West Bengal. Now a Kolkata suburb renowned for its Lutheran college, the city was once a Dano-Norwegian enclave in Bengal called “Frederiksnagore”.
J.C. Soetmann from Arendal established the trading post in 1755. But it was during the governorship of another Norwegian, Ole Bie, that trade and activity flourished in Serampore. Bie spent 30 years in Bengal and passed away there in 1805. One of the most striking expressions of Bie’s energetic (and quite eccentric) period as Governor of Serampore is the magnificent Church of St. Olav.
The building of this elegant neoclassical church commenced in 1800 and still remains a functional church (Church of North India). Thanks to a recent restauration undertaken and financed among others by the National Museum of Denmark and Indian partners, this Bengali church of St. Olav has probably never looked better for the last two centuries. The belfry still sports the crowned monogram of King Christian VII.
The name of the church was fitting given that Governor Bie’s native place, Trondheim, is known as the city of St. Olav. He died just before the church was finished in 1806. But the building remains a testimony to the long historical bonds between Norway, Denmark and India. First and foremost, however, it is a surprisingly odd reminder of Norway’s national saint, King Olav II (993-1030 AD) – historically known as Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae, “the eternal King of Norway”.
Not quite what you would expect to find in a Kolkata suburb, 8700 km away from the grave of St. Olav.