Glory lost and found: Rajbari Bawali

Resurrected from scratch and restored to grandeur, a stately mansion beckons tourists in West Bengal. 
Glory lost and found: Rajbari Bawali

HYDERABAD: As the limousine winds its way through the narrow lanes in Bawali Village, each turn presents a charming angle of rural tranquillity. But when it turns at the ruins of the Radha Krishna temple, I helplessly lose my heart to the place. Rewinding three centuries, the Rajbari mansion stands in front of me like a weathered beauty draped in the glory of time. Resurrected from scratch and restored to grandeur by Ajay Rawla, a Kolkata businessman with an aesthetic eye, today Rajbari Bawali is a much-coveted boutique hotel (60 kms from Kolkata) and a RARE discovery: a quiet getaway from the urban chaos to relax, recover and rejuvenate…

A traditional Bengali welcome follows with aarti and blowing of the conch making me feel as if I have come back to a long lost family home: I feel reconnected and experience a sense of “Déja Vu”. Next, the resident director Mrinalinee Majumdar, charmingly clad in her grandmother’s heirloom saree warmly receives me to lead into the palatial mansion.

I stand in the courtyard, admiring the majestic structure: surmounting the portico is an imposing pediment with Corinthian pillars at the end of a flight of wide steps that is flanked on either side by pink bougainvillaea creepers. Potted orange hibiscus greet on each step while rows of arches and pillars stand in two stories on either side of the building in two galleries. A lone arched ruin on the top, a bit of the original structure left untouched, stands as a mute remnant of the past reminding me of Tintern Abbey ruins.

As I walk through the corridors I learn that this stately Zamindari mansion once wrapped in luxury, had gone into decay due to family feuds. Out of the many films that were shot in Rajbari, my room - “Chokher Bali” occupies the pride of place with the beautiful Aishwarya Rai’s pictures hanging on the walls. The four-post bed, the carved rosewood cupboard, and the heavily padlocked mystery steel trunk (the only three heirlooms left from the past) add to the enigmatic antiquity.

Debashree Majumdar, the gracious hostess of Rajbari, pampers us to a multi-course Zamindari Thali at the Thakurdalan, a twelve seat private dining with an aristocratic touch. Post lunch I take a long walk around the property to discover a charming little library with a stand-alone lounge set at the end of the Courtyard where the unique lamps made of books impress me.

At the poolside, Baul singers (Bengal’s mystic minstrels) transport me to a different world: the full-throated Manoranjan Baul sings from his heart, the Duggi player beautifully brings out the subtle rhythm of Baul music. While we feast on Phuchkas, jhal muri, samosas, and masala chai, I am told their pool dinners are much sought after as guests can dip their feet in the water as they feast: the wide and spacious shallow side accommodates tables, chairs and guests to sit in water! Later at the spa, Thinley from Bhutan gives me a full body massage treating my deep tissues with strong pressure; her small frame belies a lot of strength and power. I submit and fall asleep as the oil seeps into every pore of my body. In the evening I meet the creator of the ‘reborn’ Rajbari, Ajay Rawla.

Seven years of tiresome restoration has neither deterred his spirit nor dimmed his passion for heritage: the tenacity has won him the prestigious INTACH award for Rajbari Bawali’s restoration. We sit in the Verandah watching the magical spectacle of Sandhya Aarti taking place on the majestic flight of steps of Thakurdalan: one of the original owners of Rajbari, Samar Mondal’s voice booms in the courtyard as he recites Sanskrit shlokas accompanied by the conch and beats of the drums. Oil lamps adorn the steps; the fragrance of the incense fills the air.

This aural and visual feast is an everyday spectacle in the property for the guests to watch and soak in. Perched at the end of the spacious Courtyard overlooking the Thakurdalan, the Verandah is a spacious open lounge (with dated clay tile roofing), from where one can have a panoramic view of the central scape and the regular art performances that take place almost every day.

Ajay Rawla shares some interesting details of his arduous journey, in other words, the rebirth of Rajbari. “Weak foundation sections were reinforced using original mortar mix… Broken, run- down roofs were re-laid with custom-made bricks (made to match at the local brick kilns). Master masons were hired from the architecturally rich Murshidabad district of North Bengal, a select group was sent to the Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi for 6-month onsite training under the tutelage of the Aga Khan Foundation in the lost art of limestone/brick dust (Surkhi) mortar.

As we picked up each broken remnant there was a transformation and as master masons re-laid each layer with trowels the edifice came back to life.” I see pride and satisfaction turning into a smile on his face.That night in my “Chokher Bali” room, I lie on the prettily frilled four-post bed that had witnessed blossomed romances, bitter breakups, tender pillow talks, silly fights, sulks, sleepless nights, satiated slumbers – all in the world of the rich and the decadent. An unsolved mystery, the treasure chest teases me in my dreams with untold stories and hidden secrets.

To be continued…
Fact file:
The RajBari Bawali is a member of RARE India, which is a community of the finest boutique hotels that promote ‘Conscious Luxury’. Their hotels are often set away from the repetitive and regular routes, aspire to tread softly on the land they are set in and preserve the innocence of the destination. In short, you have a ‘RARE’ collection of hotels and concepts that offer the perfect immersive experience to the evolved traveller. 

For bookings & information:
Contact: 9830383008/9073312000

(The author is a documentary filmmaker and travel writer; she blogs

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