According to a notable British historian Robert Orme, Jagat Seth, a resident of Murshidabad (a district, 250 kms from Kolkata) was the richest man in the world in the early to mid-1700s. To put his wealth into perspective, a local story is narrated where it is said that the only way to stop the flow of the Ganges was by building a wall using the gold coins of Jagat Seth and when the Ganges would stop flowing, everyone would know that half of his coins were put to use! Jagat Seth was the primary financier of the Nawab of Bengal, one of the richest provinces of the then Mughal empire.
It is not ordinary to hear that this area, now a part of rural Bengal, contributed to 5% of the GDP of the World. Yes, 5% of the business in the world was getting generated in Murshidabad, a humble district in Bengal, 4 hours from the City of Joy, Kolkata. The popular folklore is that the twin city of Azimganj-Jiaganj had more wealth than the combined wealth of the entire British aristocracy.
In this part of the world, heritage has a vast and a deep meaning for the common man. The common man here is proud of what his ancestors have left behind. He is proud, not only about his region which boats of the best architectural marvels in the country, such as the Hazarduari Palace (Palace of a thousand doors), the Kathogla Palace, the Katra Mosque or the 200-year old Jain temples, but is equally proud about the Biryani recipe that his grandmother used to make. He is equally proud about the collection of beautiful Murshidabad Pure Silk Sarees that his mother was gifted by her great grand aunt on her wedding day. This was the silk that the British came to India for! One of the locals here, Mahadeb, is the most proud that his lawyer-great-grandfather left behind one of old manuscripts of a legal instrument which is written in the most fascinating script.
Heritage of the common man usually gives us a glimpse of the then prevalent society, the culture and most importantly, the social fabric. The heritage stories bring to light the then prevalent purdah system, the role of women in the society and the influences on the families that shaped their future generations.
For a common man, his heritage are the belongings of his family, whatever it may be; coins, clocks, paintings, food recipes, documents, furniture, clothes, anything that has a story or a memory attached to it. One of the heritage that the Sheherwalis (a local community of notable families who migrated from Rajasthan to Bengal in the 1700s) are most proud about is their Cuisine. The heritage Sheherwali cuisine boasts of influences from the Mughal lifestyle, the Bengal ingredients and the Rajasthani palette. The story of cuisine for the Sheherwalis further extend to witnessing letters that were written by the Royal Families of England thanking them for the mangoes sent in the late 1800s. One wonders how many months it would’ve taken for these mangoes to travel from India to England without getting spoilt! Maybe, heritage mangoes had a different shelf life!
However, the sun had to set on Murshidabad and time unleashed its wrath on to the land. The capital of Bengal shifted from Murshidabad to Calcutta and Murshidabad over the decades, earned an infamous title of the ‘unknown wealth capital of the world’. The palaces, temples and mosques were abandoned and locked down and with it, its heritage. It was only 5 years back that an ambitious project was embarked upon to preserve, restore and promote the heritage of the land in the form and shape of Bari Kothi. A 250 year old former ancestral home to Rai Bahadur Budh Sing Dudhoria was restored into the first Heritage Hotel of Murshidabad.
The dream project was the brainchild of the 6th and 7th generation father-son, Mr Sudip Kumar Sing Dudhoria & me, which was led by a Canadian restoration specialist architect, Dr. Samar Chandra. Bari Kothi boasts of 15 suites and is situated on the banks of Ganges over an acre of land with 3 gardens, 7 courtyards, 35 curated experiences, 50 local community team members, 250 years of legacy and 1000 stories. The project is managed by me and my sister Lipika and is aimed towards preserving, conserving and most importantly, promoting and developing the heritage of our family, community and region. ‘We do not sell rooms, we create experiences’ is what best describes the thought process for opening our home to the world. In order for the heritage of Bari Kothi to survive through generations, it was imperative that the project was sustainable and it wasn’t a one-off restoration exercise. Heritage had to be put in action to save it.
The perception of Heritage of and for a common man has usually been restricted towards tangible assets. However, curated experiences in Bari Kothi break that barrier and offer guests an opportunity to truly witness the heritage of the common man!
Darshan Dudhoria, is the co-owner of Bari Kothi. The property, located in Murshidabad, is a part of the RARE India Community of ‘conscious luxury’ hotels and travel experiences in India and the sub-continent.