The pitter-patter of raindrops kept me company as I lapped up every word Ruskin Bond wrote in Friends in Small Places. A pleasant discovery in the bookshelf of my elegant zamindari suite, just behind the verandah where I sat, the book reflected my mood. The steam from the fresh cup of masala chai added to the ambience. I looked beyond the pages to be greeted by a view that draws gasps when searching for a weekend getaway from Kolkata online, the one I had been admiring in person the last two days—the magnificent portico or thakurdalan with six Corinthian pillars at the end, a green courtyard in the centre, and two floors flanked by corridors, pillars and arches on either side. In short: a majestic view of the interiors of Rajbari Bawali.
An hour’s drive from Kolkata, this over-250-year-old zamindari house had fallen to neglect and decay till a city-based businessman, Ajay Rawla, stumbled upon the place a decade ago. Dilapidated pillars, broken ceilings, and creepers on the three-acre property are all gone and today stands a grand, restored palace.
“It was what I imagined my desher bari would be,” said Rawla of his dream project. But making that dream a reality was a long process. History tells us when 300,000 acres of land was gifted to Shoba Rai Ram, an officer in Akbar’s general Man Singh’s army; it stretched from the mangroves of the Sunderbans to the old Tollygunge market in Kolkata. Over the centuries, his descendants came to be called Mondals and the entire Bawali area slowly transformed into a town of temples and palaces. It was inspired by the family’s original temple built to worship Krishna, from a sleepy village of the local Baulis who worshipped Bonbibi. Once the zamindari system was abolished post Independence, a rapid decline in wealth saw many members disperse and abandon their homes. When this palace came to Rawla’s notice, getting all family members to sell was a hard task but finally, fruitful.
The Rajbari Bawali, has been restored to its former glory using techniques of the past—with chuna and surki, refurbished with antique furniture from Bengal and surprisingly, Southeast Asian artefacts that blend together seamlessly. Now in its third year of operations, the heritage homestay boasts of 29 well-decorated rooms, two ponds, a swimming pool, an old-timey dungeon that is now a billiards room, a library, a spa (do try the homemade facial) and plenty of dining options around the property. Have I mentioned the little quirky bits like an old Rajdoot-turned into a bar, blue Chetak scooters for aesthetic appeal, or a gorgeous old safe-turned-table?
The weather had played spoilsport throughout my stay. Sudden downpours and muddy paths in the rural countryside meant many of the bespoke experiences the Rajbari offered, like a sundowner boat ride on the Hooghly or a morning village walk, remained unfulfilled. But I didn’t mind. It accidentally reflected the slow-paced life of a wealthy landowner, or so I imagined. Modern life isn’t designed to enjoy a cup of tea and read a book in the middle of the day.
Mrinalinee Majumdar, the resident director-cum-chef, and her mother Debashree, joined me for another cup of chai and adda, the quintessential Bengali pastime. Amid laughter and questions pertaining to what should lunch look like (a very important topic for Bengalis), I was touched by the genuinely warm hospitality. Not just from the mother-daughter duo, but every staff member. Most of the locals, and a few of the women decked in the traditional laal-par-shada-saree, right from the time a conch blows to welcome you, till the time you leave with a mishti mukh, everyone goes out of their way to make your stay comfortable.
The Rajbari is a much-loved destination among filmmakers and photographers. I passed the long corridor on my right with Corinthian pillars, made famous in Chokher Bali by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Lit up at night with mellow, yellow lights, it looks spectacular and one wants to keep photographing it, yet no picture sincerely reflects the gorgeousness. I sighed and went down the stairs. Lunch awaited me, a grand zamindari thali. No matter how gorgeous the four-poster bed in your room or the aesthetically-pleasing-yet-quirky property is, the food is one more reason to visit the Rajbari for a weekend getaway. Carbonara to simple khichri, thalis to snacks, a lot of thought has been given on presentation and taste.
Making short work of kochupata chingri with rice and mutton curry with hot luchis, I cleaned the terracotta plate, wiping any morsel of remaining food with my thumb.
Looking out, the pitter-patter was now a heavy downpour. The reality of heading back to Kolkata to take a flight back to Delhi wasn’t appealing at that moment, but I still had some hours to spare before the long journey back. “More chai?” enquired a staff member. I didn’t have to be asked twice as I settled down to enjoy the downpour with a piping hot cup of tea in my hand. C’est la vie indeed.
The Rajbari Bawali accommodates 29 rooms and suites and 1 dak bungalow