Rajbari Bawali.
Rajbari Bawali.

Kolkata to Bawali: Sampling village life

Travelling to a historic palatial home in Bengal

An evening of aimless internet surfing took me to the haunting photograph of a grand but dimly lit courtyard. A flight of stairs at the centre steered my gaze to the iconic pillars at the end that supported an imposing roof. The two-storey building was flanked by tall fluted columns and arched verandas. The information accompanying the photograph described it as a “265-year-old rajbari in Bawali". The map showed that it was only 40km from Kolkata, so I decided to make a weekend trip of it.

Rajbaris, or the palatial homes of zamindars (landlords), have been an integral part of Bengal’s history, though many have fallen into ruin owing to ownership issues or lack of upkeep. Thankfully, the one in Rajbari Bawali has been restored as a heritage boutique hotel.

The Hooghly river. Photo: Amrita Das
The Hooghly river. Photo: Amrita Das

The name “Bawali" can be traced to its first settlers, forest dwellers from the Baul. This erstwhile swampland, once part of the Sundarbans, was handed over as a reward to Shoba Ram Rai, an army officer under maharaja Sawai Man Singh of Jaipur, who was Mughal emperor Akbar’s commander-in-chief. The officer spearheaded a successful battalion for the maharaja and was given 300,000 acres for his services—the rajbari is part of that. There is little information about what happened to most of the land, but his descendants, the Mondal family, continue to live at the rajbari.

When I reached, Samar Mondal, the 74-year-old head of the rajbari, welcomed me from the top of the majestic staircase that leads to the thakur dalan (in-house temple). The photograph had not done justice to the imposing structure.

My first evening was reserved for the village of 300 households. The walk began with a three-centuries-old Radha Krishna temple, opposite Rajbari Bawali. An arched alley made of red bricks and pillars with Victorian flower motifs led me to the temple. At the end of a short flight of stairs is the dark sanctum, with brightly dressed idols. The temple steeple stands out from the rest of the architecture. It has delicate terracotta etching outside, with moss and plants growing in the cracks.

‘Zari’ work.
‘Zari’ work.

I continued walking through the narrow lanes of the village, flanked by small, colourful houses and ponds every few metres. I reached Jaltuni Bagan, once a venue for music and dance performances for royalty. In the centre of a large pond was a dilapidated gazebo, circled by a carpet of water hyacinth. A corroded iron bridge leads to the gazebo.

The following day, I hired an autorickshaw to Burul Ghat on the Hooghly river. Only 11km from Rajbari Bawali, its broad concrete steps took me to the low tide of the muddy but furious river. I could see grey rain clouds on the horizon, and, nearby, fishermen with jute baskets meticulously studying their catch—small shrimps.

There was time enough to stroll along Nodakhali, the village square, where idol-makers were moulding brown lumps of clay into idols, animals, and pots. Close by, a young man deftly threaded designs on to a bright red fabric. The shop was filled with mukaish work. Two pieces stood out—delicate gold threading on a royal indigo satin piece and a beige mesh on a contrasting teal silken fabric.

The slow rhythmic life at Bawali was the ideal contrast to the fast pace of the city. Two days at the rajbari and the village were perfect to wind down.

Route: Drive towards Joka. Continue on the Thakurpukur-Bibirhat-Bakhrahat-Raipur Road, turn right on KP Mondal Road and drive on till you reach the Bawali High School.

Stay: The Rajbari Bawali, (www.therajbari.com, Rs10,500 for doubles during winters, inclusive of breakfast).

Top tip: If you are travelling between November-March, a boat ride on the Hooghly would be worth your time.

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The author tweets from @Amrita_Dass.