Silhouetted against the grey sky stood a pair of old lions, their unseeing eyes turned heavenwards, their jaws frozen in mid roar. Sad reminders of the grandeur and wealth that once were part of the mansion, above whose pediment they now stood abandoned and forlorn. Cow dung cakes were left to dry on the pillars that once marked the grand entrance. Plants ran wild across the courtyard. The building was a picture of neglect. But still we could not take our eyes off that ornamental pediment, the long colonnaded veranda topped by louvred sunshades, the doors inlaid with decorated plaques, the rainwater outlets ending in tiger faces.
For our motley group from Kolkata, Amadpur was a surprise indeed.
A small town, about 100km by road from Kolkata via National Highway 19 (popularly called the Delhi Road), it is home to the glimmers of a rich past whose existence might have disappeared had it not been for an ambitious tie-up between Shiladitya Chaudhuri, a member of the former zamindar family of Amadpur and Samrat Chowdhury, a hospitality expert.
According to the villagers, the Bagh Bari (Tiger Mansion) belonged to one Mukherjee family, but who they were nobody remembers. We would have loved to take a peek inside, but the occupants refused to open the door for us on a ridiculous pretext, saying cattle sheltering in the inner courtyard will escape. For all practical purposes, the house seemed encroached upon.
“There are many such places in Bengal whose architecture and history could have been preserved through a little care and participatory tourism but surprisingly the idea has never been fully explored,” said Samrat Chowdhury as we traced our way past more such crumbling mansions and abandoned terracotta temples.
Every few yards, we would stop to admire the old terracotta temples, all of which are more than two centuries old. Reflecting the typical ‘at-chala’ or eight-roofed structure popular in rural Bengal, the temples were once covered with intricately-designed tiles interspersed with floral motifs. Sometimes, the compact tiles depicted tales from life of Krishna or Rama or Durga. Sometimes, they depicted contemporary lifestyles, especially hunting scenes or people travelling by boats and palanquins. Most were unkempt and falling apart, some had even lost their outer walls. Neither the local administration nor the people seemed aware of the heritage that existed among their midst.
Thankfully, the Chaudhuris, who most likely settled here in the 1600s, never really abandoned their family home, even though the family has scattered all over the globe. Fronted by four old terracotta temples, the Chaudhuri homestead stood pretty overlooking a lake and mango orchards. Blocking the lake from the main driveway was another temple-like structure, the Dol Mancha where the family deities of Radha-Madhav are brought every year on the day of Doljatra (Holi) from their 18th century abode nearby.
The terracotta temples, two on either side of the driveway, towered over us. These temples. dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, have been repaired but not restored; much of their character lost under fresh coats of paint. One of the key characteristics of the terracotta temples of Bengal are their intricately-carved tiles on the outer walls. It is not easy to restore these temples given the lack of craftsmanship and the prohibitive costs involved. Sometimes a compromise is necessary, explained Chaudhuri. But we could still make out decorated tiles bearing floral patterns, animal motifs and scenes of everyday life.
The walk through the village was tiring because of the heat, so it was a pleasant surprise as we stepped inside the Chaudhuri home. The temperature seemed to go down a few degrees as we entered the ‘dalaan’, Bengali for a long hall, with doors on either side. The high ceiling (with ‘kori-barga’ or wooden rafters) and the thick walls kept the day's heat at bay.
“Although the house was in a habitable condition because the Chaudhuri family members assemble here annually during Durga Puja,” said Samrat Chowdhury, “it remained locked up for the rest of the year. So I convinced Shiladitya to prep it up and open a part of it as a homestay.”
Chaudhuri was agreeable to the idea but fiercely house-proud, so he had refused to alter the ambience of the nearly 400-year old house. “You will not find air conditioners in the rooms or running hot water in the bathrooms,” he warned.
From the end of the hall, a narrow flight of stairs led to the first and second floors, where our rooms were located.
The rooms were to one side of the balcony. The pattern of high ceilings with wooden rafters continued here as well. The large wooden doors and windows with louvred shutters, placed strategically, kept the room well ventilated, which, coupled with the high ceiling and thick walls about 32 inches, made air conditioning quite unnecessary. And of course, there were large-old fashioned ceiling fans. Some of the windows opened on to a large lake adjacent to the building. The roominess and the period furniture, including four-poster beds, dressers and corner-pieces were a throw-back to the days when ‘space constraint’ was a concept alien to architects. Some of the beds were so high that we had to mount wooden steps to reach them.
“I want to retain that feel of an old family home, so that senior people can enjoy the by-gone setting and the young visitors relate to things they have heard about from their grandparents or parents,” said Chaudhuri. “Therefore no glorified luxury,” he explained.
“Changes have been minimal or functional. For example, I had to include these steel cupboards so that guests can keep their valuables under lock key. Earlier, when there was no piped water, the water-carrier would fill the water tanks. But now we have installed pumps so that there is running cold water. If you require hot water for a bath, my staff will provide it in buckets,” he explained.
Soon we realised that Amadpur is not a place where you could carry your urban sensibilities. We happily buried the chronometer and decided to follow the sun. The bird calls in the mango orchard became our morning alarm. Evening arrived with the sound of arati in the Anandamoyee Kali temple.
The surrounding countryside was perfect for walks, first to build up our appetite, and then to burn down the calories that we would imbibe. Like most traditional Bengali homes, food is an important part of life in the Chaudhuri home and the kitchen would whip up sumptuous spreads. Poppy seeds are an important ingredient in the cuisine of the Burdwan district and cook knew innumerable ways of utilising it–from posto bora to curries. Vegetarian dishes such as shukto and labhra would be balanced with fish, mutton and chicken, all cooked in a typically homely way, with hand-ground masala paste. The local mishti doi was superb.
We would walk through lightly wooded areas, past rows of banana trees and enter the sprawling mango orchard owned by the family. On the far side, we could see the lofty mansion and the adjacent ghat on the bank of the lake. A flock of geese waddled past us to reach the lake side. We walked past agricultural fields and rural homesteads and watched paddy being threshed, cheered the local boys playing football and expressed disgust at the garbage picnic parties had left behind.
During one such walk, we visited the Nihshanka Ashram to see its thousand-year old banyan tree. Our way lay past a temple containing the tomb of Narahari Baba. According to local legends, he arrived here many centuries ago and used to meditate in an underground cavern, with two Bengal tigers by his side. The cavern was under the banyan tree, and these days its aerial prop roots have spread to form a veritable forest.
Often during our walks, I would be reminded of pictures from the book A Village in Bengal by well-known Mumbai-based photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri, who had captured vignettes of rural Bengal by camping in Amadpur, his home-town.
In the evening, we would either sit at the upper floor balconies and reminisce about the bygone era of Bengali culture or spend some quiet time at the lake-side ghat behind the Dol Mancha. Above us, the stars would come out gradually and cover the inky black sky.
Adjacent to the Chaudhuri home was the Durga Bari or the Thakur Dalan, a 350-year-old building where the Chaudhuri family hold the religious festivals even today, including Durga Puja. The four sides of the building enclosed a large quadrangle. It is said that once upon a time there was a huge vault beneath the quadrangle where the ornaments of the idols and other valuables would be stored. But now that is not in use any more and the doors to the vault have been sealed.
However, Durga Puja at the Chaudhuri home differs slightly from the norm, as it is held over 19 days and not the usual five. On the day of the Jagannath Ratha Yatra, the mud that clings to the wheels of Radha-Madhav’s chariot are symbolically used to start making the frame (consisting of bamboo, straw and mud) for the Durga Puja idols. It's very traditional, though that doesn't extend to the old practice of animal sacrifice during Durga Puja. The family traces its lineage to one Sribatsa Sen Sharma from late 11th or early 12th century. According to records, it was Krishna Ram Sen Sharma who was given the title of Chaudhuri by the Mughals under whom Bengal was a Subah or district.
The weekend over, it was time to dig out that hidden chronometer and head back to the city. But as I sat in the shade of the Shiva temple in front of the Chaudhuri home, I realised that the nostalgia-driven homestay and the derelict temples had charmed their way into my heart. The next visit would be a more leisurely one, where I would enjoy the naturally cool breeze, the scent of the countryside, and study the temple architecture. Who cares if there is no air-conditioning or piped hot water!
Amadpur can be reached by road and by train from Kolkata. From Howrah station, you can take a Burdwan-bound local train and get down at Memari station, which is about 10 minutes’ drive away from the Chaudhuri House. Or, you can drive down straight from Kolkata. Amadpur is about 100km away from Kolkata by road via Memari.
Where to Stay
The Chaudhuri House offers four spacious rooms (with attached washrooms) with rates beginning from â‚¹2,500 (inclusive of breakfast) for a doubles.
Amadpur can be visited on a day’s trip from Kolkata in case you are short of time.
The rooms are plush and well-appointed but there are no cosmetic additions. No air conditioners or television sets.
Winter is the best time to visit. If you can bear the heat, you may visit during the mango harvesting season. Amadpur is known for its festivals, especially the Ratha Yatra and Kali Puja.