Once you’ve logged onto their website to book yourself in, you have a fair idea of what to expect when you reach Bawali village after an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Kolkata. You know there’s going to be this palatial, centuries-old property (rajbari in Bengali means palace) that has now been renovated into a luxury heritage hotel. You’ve seen the pictures, you’ve chosen your suite, you’ve checked out the facilities and you’re on your way.
But let me tell you, nothing prepares you for the moment that you step in. No amount of virtual visuals can do justice to the actual sight that unfolds before you. The majestic expanse of the courtyard and the sheer grandeur of the 17th-century Greco-Roman structure with Corinthian pillars supporting the verandahs and double-storeyed rooms on three sides, and carved stone cupids frolicking on the arches of the imposing ‘Thakur Dalaan’ on the fourth, show you instantly what life must have been like for this palace’s regal residents. Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago, to be exact.
An extraordinary architectural masterpiece built over four acres of land (which includes two large ponds as well) in the middle of the village in the Budge Budge subdivision of 24 Parganas (South), the rajbari used to belong to the region’s zamindars, the Mondal family. Originally Roys, Shovaram, the grandson of Basudev Roy (who lived between the end of 16th century and the early 17th century), was awarded the title—Mondal. Shovaram’s grandson, Rajaram, was the commander of the Raja of Hijli’s army, and as a reward for his bravery, the Raja granted him ownership of 50 villages that included Bawali and Budge Budge. The family set up residence in Bawali around 1710, and this marked the beginning of their dominance in the area.
The palace that they built for themselves some 250 years ago, saw years of grand living, lavish partying and eminent guests. But post-Independence, the zamindars lost a majority of their wealth, and the rajbari fell into disrepair. Many family members started to disperse to rebuild their lives while a few stayed on, caught up in the memories of their former glory.
At one stage, the rajbari was used for film shoots and also as an open-air movie theatre. But this wasn’t enough for its upkeep and the edifice gradually reduced to ruin. Until 2006, when Kolkata businessman Ajay Rawla with interests in jute, real estate and hospitality, came across this structure. He says he was looking for a site for a factory, but the moment he stepped into the dilapidated yet imposing palace with all its wild overgrowth, he was in love. “I felt like Alice in wonderland,” he recalls. He immediately realised it was way too grand for a factory, and decided to turn it into a boutique hotel instead.
Easier said than done, though. It took over two years and all his negotiating skills to locate and get all 18 members of the Mondal family to agree to the sale, including the 95-year-old patriarch who was still residing in the ruins. It then took a further eight years to restore and rebuild. Rawla, who handled the entire project himself, consulted top conservation architects from around the world to ensure a painstaking restoration that was both sympathetic and aesthetic. Roofs were restored, rooms were refurbished, ponds were recreated and pavilions were reclaimed.
The result is not just an authentic slice of vintage life, but one that is replete with luxury and comfort. Officially opened in 2016, each of the property’s 30 plush suites and rooms boast of glorious period furniture—from antique four-poster beds to carved chairs and tables—with all the comforts of modern-day living such as air conditioners and en suite bathrooms. Besides Bengali and continental cuisine that the rajbari offers, its repertoire of experiences includes sandhya aarti, a village walk and boat rides at sundown. But if you’re just in the mood for some R&R, there’s always the spa, the pool and the poolside bar to chill out at.
To know more, log on to www.rajbari.com.