A grey sky greeted me as I stepped out of my room to settle down in the slim balcony that served as an excellent river-view gallery. The Ganga stretched in front of me on its slow journey to the sea. Dark clouds had blanked out the sun. As I tried to make out the bank on the other side, it started raining. A shimmering curtain of water danced over the river, moving in sync with the breeze. I had all the time on Earth to put my feet up, enjoy a steaming cup of tea, and pick up the reins of the day at my own pace.
The evening before, I had arrived at the Rashbari in Belur, less than an hour’s drive from Howrah Railway station. The glimpse of a lofty naba ratna (nine pinnacled) temple, looming in the middle of a concrete jungle, came as a pleasant surprise as our car drove down the narrow alley off the Grand Trunk Road and entered the sprawling temple complex. Opposite the Radharaman Temple was a pillared hall, or the nat mandir. Just beyond the temple, a clock tower was flanked by two sets of sloped-roof Shiva temples, three on each side. On either side, we could see two tower-like nahabat khana, the circular ras mancha, and the ruins of a flat-roofed building that had obviously seen better days. A little ahead, the path cut through a field just above the muddy bank of the Ganga. A gated staircase led to the water. The complex represented an era when spirituality was enshrined in fine architecture. But it was more than a spiritual quest that made us wind our way to the Rashbari.
Belur is globally known as the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Order. But lying almost adjacent to Belur Math is a far lesser-known complex that predates it. Built in the late 19th century by Purnachandra Daw, the complex belongs to the well-known Daw (or Dawn) family of north Kolkata. It is popularly known as the Rashbari because of the three-day Ras festival usually held in November.
The Rashbari complex would have probably been lost if it was not for Atanu Daw, one of the younger members of the family. He not only undertook the renovation of the place but also decided to repurpose it by introducing accommodation for visitors. The running of the guest house and its marketing are taken care of by a Kolkata-based company called Twins Tour.
Accommodation is spread across two buildings, with two rooms in the heritage building and four in a new building (which is still a work-in-progress). The façade reflects influences of colonial architecture, with arched entrances and pillars. However, the rooms have been refurbished in keeping with modern tastes.
The heritage building backs into a lovely lawn that opens on the river. As we settled down for a cup of tea here, our host Subhajit Datta (one of the proprietors of Twins Tour) pointed out the landmarks across the river. Arching over the water was the Bally Bridge, which started life as the Willingdon Bridge in 1932 and was later rechristened as Vivekananda Setu. Next to it, we could make out the spires of the Kali Temple of Dakshineswar. As the stars twinkled across the inky black sky, strains of bells and cymbals floated down to us. The evening aarti had begun at the Radharaman Temple.
If the day is for enjoying the vistas, the evening is the time to look inwards at the temple complex, which is lit up.
As aarti commenced at the Shiva temples, we returned to our room. The squat building looked a tad out of place in comparison with its more august neighbours. However, all the rooms overlooked the river. Outfitted with a large bed, many tables and plush seating, the room was slightly cramped but clean. A painting hung over the bed and bric-a-brac displaying Bengal’s Patachitra art added colour to the room. Although the construction is still underway, the roof terrace has a spectacular panoramic view of the temple complex and the river, which was the best way to conclude my day.