I’m a commoner in workday clothes, but this is a palace. And not just any palace, this is the sort of palace in which movies by Satyajit Ray or Aparna Sen are shot. Countless hyper-aesthetic hours of celluloid have been given to heavy anklets jingling along such chequered black and white balconies, languorous hookah-wreathed afternoons of chess on such tables, with sunlight patterning through such wrought-iron grillwork. The gods come home to such palaces for worship on certain days of the year and the women of the house wear ivory saris with red borders, the zamindari wealth of Bengal banking fire in their jewellery.
This rajbari is at Bawali, about an hour out of Kolkata. I arrive mid-morning on a rainy monsoon day. The flagstones of the courtyard leading to the majestic steps of the thakurdalan are damp and the emerald grass around the ghat is beaded with moisture. The house is a jewel of a place, not enormous, but beautifully proportioned. Colonnaded balconies run its length on both sides, leading to cool, high-ceilinged rooms with large shuttered windows overlooking ponds. It looks vaguely familiar, but this is certainly my first visit to Bawali. Then I hear that Aparna Sen shot parts of Goynar Baksho here, and it falls into place. Of course I’ve seen this house before…I’m just visiting it for the first time.
A rajbari in Bengal is usually a house built for personal use by very wealthy zamindars. This one is about 250 years old. It was built to succeed the original, and now entirely ruined, 400-year-old rajbari across the street. Here was once the seat of the Mondol family, who moved to Bengal from UP, at least five hundred years ago. Their ancestor, Harananda Mondol, helped Akbar’s general Man Singh subdue rebellions in the east, and was granted a title, along with several lakh bighas of land in 24 Parganas. The very old Tollygunge market in South Kolkata once stood on Mondol land.
“The area around Bawali was then entirely swampland and forest,” says Samarendra Nath Mondol, a descendant of the family, “Little rivers everywhere, and some isolated cottages of the Bauli people, who worshipped Bonbibi. The forests of the Sundarbans ran unbroken till here; tigers would come to drink at the pond outside the house.
The rajbari was in a derelict state when it was rescued, and restoration started in 2010. At the time I visit, the house is going through a transformation. Intricate bamboo scaffolding holds sections of the balcony, and a great deal of safety-checked wiring is bundled everywhere. The new owners are renovating the house to return it, as far as possible, to its days of former glory. This is a delicate and complicated operation requiring a great deal of specialist knowledge, much of which is now rare. Masons have been brought from Murshidabad, where the old skills of working with chuna and surki are still alive, and have received a month’s updating in restoration at the Aga Khan Foundation in Delhi. Shiraj-da is a master mason from Murshidabad, who heads a large contingent of restorers. He listed the varied ingredients that are once again being used to re-build this rajbari — “chuna, surki, khoa (ground brick), bel (fruit pulp, fermented), chitay gur (solid jaggery), sugarcane gur, supari and methi (both fermented), urad dal and mustard oil to finish.” This kind of masonry takes months to dry properly, but when it does, he says, “it is indestructible.”
The room I occupy has been completely restored, and features a gorgeous old carved four-poster bed, a cupboard finished rather pleasingly in distressed pink, and a luxuriously appointed bathroom. This is curious, as the old rajbaris tended not to have bathrooms on the premises, and certainly not large ones attached to each room. Sanjeev Khanna, who is overseeing the loving restoration of the grand old house, says that putting in the waterworks presented the greatest challenge. “Space was carved out of the rooms, which were fortunately large to begin with,” he says, “We put in all the piping and the fixtures.” This is not the only touch of the modern in the new Bawali Rajbari. Dotting the gorgeous walls with a warm patina of agelessness, which have fortunately not been plastered over, are posters of pop icons from the 60s and 70s. “If these families had not gone into decline,” says Ajay Rawla, who now owns the property, “their children would have gone abroad, been exposed to the contemporary ideas of the West, brought home those influences, hung up these posters.” I suppose it should surprise me to see James Dean, John Lennon and Marilyn Monroe look at home among the particular aesthetic of old Bengal, but oddly, it does not.
I leave the house in the evening to wander Bawali. The Radha Ballab Mandir and Joltungi’r Bagan are both part of the Mondol family heritage in the area. The former is a 201-year-old living temple, a legacy of the Vaishnavite persuasion of the Mondol family. It was robbed about forty years ago, and the valuable idol stolen. Three months later, the thieves made the mistake of trying to sink more stolen valuables into the pond in which they had hidden the idol, so it was recovered, reinstalled, and worship continued. Joltungi’r Bagan is a polygonal gazebo in a square lake, with a colonnaded patio in the distance. The water is choked over with pondweed and water hyacinth in the monsoon, but I arrive at dusk, and can almost imagine the flaming oil lamps coming alight for a performance in the gazebo, while the babus gather across the water in the colonnaded patio to watch.
I return through dark village paths to a rajbari lit up and alive. Oil lamps and clever spotlighting create a visual magic that calls up everything I have ever imagined about such houses. Just around the corner of my senses is the rustle of starched saris, the muted jangle of jewellery on the stairs, the intermingled smells of attar, jasmine and incense. A carriage pulls up to the main door, horses snorting and stamping. From it emerges a be-ringed hand holding an ivory-handled cane, the boro babu calling for minions to attend to his needs — and I am a fly on the wall. This is both time travel and magic.
A home-style meal of long-grained rice, jhingey-alu-posto, masoor dal cooked with mustard oil, cucumber-tomato salad and egg curry is the perfect end to a history-heavy day, and I retire to a sound sleep in my baroque boudoir.
The next day, there is another rajbari to be explored. Constructed in 1766, this one is located at Itachuna, near Khanyan. We arrive close to dusk, the façade of the rajbari looming imposingly over the drive as we complete the formalities of registration — this palace has been a functioning homestay for close to half a decade now.
Itachuna is an enormous ‘teen-mahal’ rajbari, in which, I am informed, the sumptuous Bollywood period movie Lootera was shot. The outer mahal houses offices, including an old corner room from which representatives of the East India Company once operated, and the old baithakkhana (living room) with ancestral portraits. The middle mahal holds a large thakurdalan lit by carriage lamps on wrought-iron posts. The mandir is occupied by an idol of Narayan — no other god has ever been worshipped in this rajbari.
I find the inner mahal impossible to map. It has what seems to my untutored eye to be innumerable balconies, corridors, stairwells and terraces, interconnected or not, leading to rooms of various shapes and sizes. Many of these are not currently in use. I hear later that the house has anywhere between sixty and eighty rooms — no one is sure of the exact count.
This is a palace built as a showcase for wealth, or to house an enormous family, including extended relatives. Based on the history of the zamindars of Bengal, it may be reasonable to conclude that it was probably both. Safallya Narayan Kundan, who built this house, was originally Maratha, and came to Bengal on work. Stories still circulating in the rajbari say that he was a benevolent zamindar, keeping a watch on the community that grew around the house in order to ensure that every home had the resources to light and use a cookfire in the evenings. He and his son worked in collaboration with the British East India Company, and over time, built this rambling house in the village of Itachuna. His descendants shortened the family name to Kundu and still own the house.
My room is a curious mix of beautiful old furniture and laminated easy-to-maintain later pieces. The bathroom is tiled in gray and white. Part of me wants to use mental rose-tinted glasses to bypass the laminate and tiles, but another part acknowledges that this is unfair to the house. A family that maintains, and partly uses, a house this old, has to arrive at compromises with the passage of time. This means allowing in objects that would have been inappropriate a long time ago, but which make things contemporary and easy to look after now.
However, not all parts of this huge house have moved with the times. Some rooms and passages are crumbling, beams and rafters splintering without support. The high-windowed baithakkhana with its huge dusty chandelier, parts of the thakurdalan and the majestic wing to the left of it have not seen maintenance for a while, which is a real pity. The parts of the house that are well-preserved are owned by Dhrubo Narayan and his brother Basab Narayan Kundu. I am told that the former visits regularly from Kolkata. There are little touches, like a regularly used prayer-room in the inner house, and a panel of local artwork around a fireplace, that bear evidence that this house has indeed been more or less constantly in use for more than two and a half centuries.
Opposite the rajbari is an ‘unawakened’ shiv mandir, in which formal worship has never taken place. I heard conflicting accounts about this temple before I saw it. One legend reports the occurrence of a serious accident on the day that the idol was due to be first worshipped; afterwards, the women of the house refused to pray at this shrine. The structure is decrepit and weatherworn, but anybody who is interested in the images of religion would be intrigued by the idol. Man-sized and pot-bellied, it has a lordly, even arrogant expression on its face, and eerie gray eyes. I wish I knew the actual history behind that idol.
This area has historically seen religious tolerance. Following advice from the rajbari, we head out to the Melatola at Pandua. This is a regular open field surrounded by the homes of people, at the centre of which rise two unexpected pieces of early fourteenth-century architecture. The minar (AD 1340) is five storeys, almost forty metres high and fairly well maintained. The crumbling mosque (AD 1300) features beautifully intricate brickwork on the few remaining walls and carved granite pillars rising out of the undergrowth. It must have been stunning in its time. But as I watch, a little girl comes into the ruins, untethers her goat from a seven-hundred-year-old pillar and leads it away.
Visiting a place like this is truly a little like time travel, and a little like magic. The beauty and the history are open to recognition — we’ve all seen the movies and pictures set in such spaces. What is magical, however, is the feeling of awe and mystery, a half-felt understanding of the stories, some told, most untold, that unfold in such places.
Much of it may have happened centuries ago, but some part of the human drama of the past still persists and touches a chord in you — and some part of you thrills to that touch. That is why we, all of us, go to these places.
Bawali Rajbari: Located at Budge Budge, about 30km from the Diamond Harbour Road-Taratolla Road intersection in Kolkata. Take the Budge Budge Trunk Road and a left towards the oil depot at the Gandhi bust after Eden City. Turn left onto KP Mondol Road, and left again at the Bawali Trekker stand to reach the village. The journey takes about an hour, in normal traffic conditions. Transport after 8pm is a problem.
Itachuna Rajbari: Located at Pandua, Hooghly, Itachuna can be reached by car or train. By car, take Vidyasagar Setu and turn left at Bosipur, towards Halusai. The Rajbari is on the road towards Khanyan Railway Station. About 45km, the journey takes 1.5hours. By train, take a local or main line train to the Khanyan station, and a trekker, auto, or van rickshaw to the Itachuna Rajbari.
Bawali Rajbari: 12 rooms should be available by end-November. Tariffs range from Rs 8,000-16,000 per night, if you wish to stay. Day trippers can enjoy the commons of the property and food for Rs 750 a day. See bawali.in.
Itachuna Rajbari: The rajbari has 11 rooms. Rates range from Rs 1,000 to 6,300, depending on weekday/weekend, location of the room and facilities available. See itachunarajbari.com.
What to see & do
Bawali Rajbari: Don’t miss visiting the ruins of the mandir and the old rajbari. Walk through the village, to see the several old temples and houses, including the Ma Mongolchondi Mandir. Those interested can also visit the large plant nursery in the area.
Itachuna Rajbari: Half- or full-day trips (Rs 2,000-4,000) to surrounding points of interest can be coordinated by the Rajbari. Attractions include the Bandel Church, the Imambara at Chunchura, and the former French colony of Chandannagar.