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Of Palaces and Restorations

Rupali Gupta Mukherjee visits a restored palace in the heartland of Bengal

The Courtyard of Rajbari Bawali. Photo Courtesy: Rupali Gupta Mukherjee

From time immemorial, rajbaris, or the palatial homes of zamindars, have been a part of Bengal art and architecture, although many such splendid mansions have fallen into ruin owing to ownership issues or lack of conservation. Some are being converted to hotels, like the rajbari at Bawali. Located sixty kilometers from Calcutta, the palace-hotel enthralled with its restored regal rhythm, glamour and enduring legend. We were transfixed, bemused and in love with the aesthetic elegance.

“The daunting task of restoring the crumbling historic manor into a lavish hotel was a mammoth task. An exclusive 300-year-old colonial mansion transformed into a stunning luxury heritage boutique estate”, said the proud Resident Director of the property, Ms. Mrinalinee Majumdar. Once an imposing abode of the aristocratic zamindar family, The Rajbari Bawali undoubtedly, has revived an integral part of Bengal’s glorious history and culture.

Mr. Ajay Rawla discovered the 18th century palace in a state of ruins in 2006 and tried his best to reconstruct its history. Mr. Rawla, the Chairman, spent around seven years restoring the Rajbari’s past glory. The restoration work received acclaim, award of excellence by INTACH [Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage]. The restored Rajbari Bawali has also been featured by Conde Nast UK on their hot list of “Top 50 Hidden Destinations of the World’. The Duke and the Duchess of York were guests at the Rajbari during their visit to India.

Bawali Rajbari has a remarkable history, dating back to more than four hundred years, starting with the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The name “Bawali” can be traced to its first settlers, forest dwellers from the Baul. Initially, this place was known as “Bowali” but over the years this has changed to “Bawali”. This erstwhile swampland, once part of the Sundarbans, was handed over as a reward to Shoba Ram Rai, an army officer under Maharaja Man Singh of Jaipur, the commander-in-chief of the Mughal Emperor. History tells us that the Mondols of Bawali were originally Roys. Their dominance in the fringes started way back in 1710. Later, the royal family prospered under Haradhan, who enjoyed the benefaction of the East India Company.

350-year-old Radha Krishna Temple built in the
traditional aat-chala style. Photo Courtesy: Rupali Gupta Mukherjee

It was autumn, just before Durga Puja, when we planned a day trip to explore the rajbari at Bawali. As we moved towards the entrance of the rajbari, more than three-centuries-old, Radha Krishna temple, opposite the palace, caught our attention. An arched alley made of red bricks and pillars with Victorian floral motifs. The temple steeple stands out from the rest of the architecture. It has delicate terracotta etching outside, with moss and plants growing in cracks. We were amazed at the rich intricate structural motifs. This is another heritage site that desperately needs restoration, we felt. The West meets the East in the lofty temples and the palace of Bowali. The European style columns that hold up the temples in the village are atypical in the rest of the state. Beautiful gardens dotted with fashionable statues of Italian marble and a sinuous water turret weaves a flowing reverie. It’s really sad that most of the structures are in ruins and on the verge of collapse.

Finally, we found ourselves in front of the main entrance leading to Rajbari Bawali. The welcome was grand with the beating of the dhaak, the traditional drums, and women in traditional attire, clad in red bordered white saris, welcoming guests with the traditional smear of tika on the forehead, flowers and sweets. We were overwhelmed by the antique fixtures, after stepping inside the courtyard which revived the bygone era of the zamindars, nawabs and their lifestyles steeped in grandeur. The welcome drink was refreshing and the entire property was a visual delight, a photographer’s paradise.

The Terrace café, with a part of the vestiges from the roof took us back to the primeval past. A striking segment of the palace merges the new with the ancient, keeping the antiquity alive. Apart from exploring the huge chattels we enjoyed the sumptuous traditional Bengali lunch. The royal lunch was served with utmost warmth and hospitality. The food was exceptionally delicious, was flawlessly soaked in conventional recipe and served in a stately style.  Burnt clay plates lined with banana leaves served lip-smacking kochur loti chingri, kassa mangsho, Bhetki Paturi. The dessert was mouthwatering and elaborate, I loved the misti doi.  The ongoing melodious live concert on the lush green lawn adjacent to the dining arena was definitely scintillating.

It was an astounding experience for us; something, undeniably beyond expectation, we started our journey with the thought of exploring a historical site but we were overwhelmed by the exclusiveness of the palatial structure, antique display, hypnotic charm of the ‘Zamindari Raj’ and the warmth of the employees. I was in a trance for weeks after visiting the elite ‘khazana’ of the colonial era and was keen to know more about its imperial past. My quest brought to light many hidden facts.

Unrestored Part of the Rajbari. Photo Courtesy: Rupali Gupta Mukherjee

The ruins of the rajbari and its surrounding relics was also the memorable shoot venue preferred by renowned film director Mrinal Sen for his Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin starred movie Khandhar. It was screened at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. Later after restoration of the Khandhar, in 2003 Rituparno Ghosh selected the same setting, Bawali Rajbari for his National award-winning film Chokher Bali, an adaptation from Tagore’s novel of the same name. This also bagged the Chicago International Film Festival Award [2003] The rajbari is an extraordinary architectural masterpiece about 60km away from Kolkata, steeped in convention and opulence, a heritage boutique resort

It had been more than a month now, but still the spell of the Greco-Roman style Rajbari, the dungeon, jailkhana, cellar storing liquors from 1858, antique decor portico, fax machine and gramophones of archaic fashion, well-ventilated thakurdalan, spacious grand piano room, exquisite chandeliers in the dining hall and the faintly lit vestibule will take you, beyond doubt, to a baffling pensive world of romance!

Glossary:

kochur loti chingri — Prawn

 kassa mangsho – goat meat

 bhetki paturi – fish

misti doi – sweetened yoghurt a Bengali speciality.

Rupali Gupta Mukherjee has a passion for reading, writing and reciting poetry.   She is a nature enthusiast, loves to travel and has a zeal for photography.

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3 replies on “Of Palaces and Restorations”

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