The palace would have looked more at home in a European setting than in this rustic countryside in a corner of West Bengal. Lofty Ionic columns supported the roof from all sides. Elaborate ornamentation, including shields and floral patterns, in golden hues, marked the white façade. Ornate wrought iron benches were arranged in the lawn in front, at whose centre stood a cannon mounted on a carriage. “The 1926 palace, known as the Phool Bagh, was indeed designed by a French architect,” said Hara Prasad Garg, a descendant of the former Mahishadal Raj family who ruled here.
Less than three hours’ drive from Kolkata, the Mahishadal Rajbari (Bengali for royal palace) is one among the handful of former palaces of Bengal that have opened their doors to visitors.
“West Bengal has many similar palaces and grand houses belonging to former royal and zamindar families,” said Samrat Chowdhury, a heritage enthusiast who is trying to spread awareness about developing these family homes as tourism products similar to the forts and palaces of Rajasthan, Gujarat and other places. “These edifices are part of our history and heritage, and we need to preserve them for posterity. Developing these as tourism products will help the owners maintain the buildings.”
The Garg family became the rulers of Mahishadal, when the lineage of the earlier rulers, the Upadhyay family, came to an end owing to the lack of a male heir. Janaki Devi who ruled the estate after the passing away of her husband Raja Anandalal Upadhyay handed over the reins to her grandson (eldest son of her daughter) Guruprasad Garg. His grandson Ramnath Garg, being childless, adopted Lachman Prasad Garg. The present generation are descendants of Lachman Prasad Garg.
Even though the two branches of the family stay in Kolkata, they have close ties with the palace. To ensure the palace remained useful, cousins Shankar Prasad Garg and Hara Prasad Garg decided to set up a museum on the ground floor. Opened in 2012, the museum soon became one of the major attractions for local visitors and those visiting the nearby tourist and picnic spots in winter.
Known for their hospitality and as patrons of Indian classical music, the family was used to hosting renowned guests. According to an account by classical singer Kumar Prasad Mukherji, ‘the late Deba Prasad Garg was one of the favourite disciples of the legendary singer Faiyaz Khan’. Khan sahib and his entourage would often stay here and other stalwarts would visit him from time to time. Musical concerts arranged by the Mahishadal Raj family were well known across the country.
Buoyed by the popularity of the museum and requests from friends, the Garg family has recently opened a two room homestay facility on the ground floor, next to the museum.
The upper floor has been retained by the family for personal use. Members of the family ensure they are present when guests are there. Family members are also present during the many religious festivals organised here, including Jagannath Rathayatra and Durga Puja, both more than 200 years old.
As the tall gates opened wide to allow our car inside, it was like entering a different world. A flight of stairs led to the corridor that ran around the building. In front of the central hall are three cannons, two of them inscribed ‘F. Kinman 1759’ and ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’. Generations of the Garg family were represented through old oil paintings and modern photographs. Various furniture, including a chair with the family crest, and bric-a-bracs were also arranged around the room. But what drew our attention were the pictures of and memorabilia associated with famous Indian classical singers.
The rooms around the wide corridor contained a variety of displays, some of which can do with some upkeep and better presentation. Weapons, animal trophies, more furniture, musical instruments and old record players, etc. offered a glimpse into the lifestyle of the former rulers. Even if you are not staying here, do not forget to take a peek at the dining hall, which contains a lovely fresco panel on its walls narrating the story of Shakuntala.
The palace has been a favourite with film makers and a lot of leading Bengali films have been shot here.
A sprawling garden, dotted with palm and other trees, encircle the palace. The fountain corner contains a statue of Raja Sati Prasad Garg Bahadur. Decorated with coloured lamps, the fountains look spectacular at night, throwing up flashes of colour in the dark.
Behind the palace is the decrepit Lal Kothi fronted by a lake. Family members would retire to this house to beat the summer heat. In another corner is the semi-circular Dadhi Baman Temple (dedicated to Rama).
A short walk from Phool Bagh (you may also drive down) will take you to the older Rangibasan palace where the family used to live before the new palace came up. Two lions sit on either side of the grand staircase that lead up to the first floor. Behind the staircase, the building’s ground floor consisted of a series of vaults. This palace too displayed European architecture with pillars and arches. The decrepit palace is now undergoing a thorough renovation.
Near the old palace is a temple dedicated to Madangopal (Lord Krishna). The temple with its nine spires and sloping roof is an example Bengal’s traditional architecture. A smaller shrine in the temple contains the idols of Jagananth, Balabhadra and Subhadra, who are taken on a ride in their chariot during the annual Rathayatra festival.
Except for the period of the Rathayatra, the much decorated 13-spired chariot can be seen lying idle in the middle of a busy square known as Rath-Tala. The Rathayatra (chariot festival) of Mahishadal, started by Rani Janaki Devi in 1776, attracts a huge crowd and a huge fair is held for almost a month. In keeping with old traditions, the chariot will start rolling only after a member of the royal family (who arrive in a palanquin from the palace) tugs at the ropes first. Until the Bahuda yatra (return journey) the idols stay in a temple referred to as Masir Bari (aunt’s house). The family’s Durga Puja follows the tenets of Vaishnav worship. Hence there is no animal sacrifice. Cultural programmes are held in the evening.
Except for the festival days, the palace complex is a tranquil area. So if you are looking for a peaceful weekend, away from the humdrum of urban life, the Phool Bagh Palace is an ideal palace. Early to bed and early to rise is the motto to be followed here. It can also be a nice retreat for those looking for a place to paint or write. Or you may ask the caretaker if you can borrow a cycle to take a look at the countryside, marked by agricultural fields and fish ponds. Or you may ask to see the social welfare activities being supported by the royal family. Or, go on a hunt for the ‘gohona bori’. Usually dollops of lentil paste are sundried to make the ‘bori’; in Midnapore, women make the ‘bori’ in many ornamental patterns (gohona meaning jewellery). However, this highly edible designer food is almost on the wane. So it would be worth the trouble to buy a packet or two before starting on your homeward journey.
Getting there: Mahishadal is around 100km by road from Kolkata via Kolaghat and Nandakumar More. You may travel by train from Howrah but driving down is a more comfortable option.
The Rajbari currently has two well-appointed rooms (with attached washrooms) for guests, one double-bed and one six-bed; the charges are ₹ 4,000 and ₹ 7,000, respectively, excluding taxes and including breakfast. However, these are tentative rates and check for latest rates nearer to your travel dates. The Museum remains open from 10am to 6.30pm daily. Admission charges: Rs 10 per head (full charges apply for children above five years). Photography is prohibited in the museum unless special permission is obtained.