By Maya Lalchandani
Rajbari Bawali, an extraordinary architectural masterpiece about 60 km away from Kolkata, has had an eventful history. It once belonged to aristocratic zamindars of West Bengal, known for their ostentatious lifestyles, their history replete with tales of intrigue, love and betrayal.
Today, run by a hospitality entrepreneur, it is a luxury getaway creating memories for guests, even for Kolkata residents seeking a hideaway during the COVID lockdown. It is also something of a Bollywood icon: Chokher Bali (2003) directed by Rituparno Ghosh starring Aishwarya Rai was shot here, as was the recently released Bulbbul, directed by Anvita Dutt.
The Mondal dynasty of Bawali has an extraordinary family history, dating back over 400 years, one which started with the Mughal Emperor Akbar, and later intertwined with tales of the East India Company and the British Raj. Built 250 years ago, this property is set in a little hamlet known as 24 Parganas dotted with fields, temples and palaces of yore.
Walking up its magnificent stately staircase held up by Corinthian pillars, visitors get a sense of romantic nostalgia almost at once. One is transported into a mist of history – lavish parties, with eminent guests wafting past, the music floating through the walls. Post-Independence, the zamindars lost their wealth and the families dispersed, and the magnificent mansion reinvented itself several times, even as a movie theatre.
Since 2009, the property has been owned by entrepreneur and environmentalist Ajay Rawla, who stumbled upon it when it was in ruins. Awed by its grandeur, he wanted to share its beauty and romance with people before it all disappeared with the ravages of time. It took seven years to restore it.
Local karigars were trained in restoration by the Aga Khan Foundation. Roofs were restored, ponds created, pavilions reclaimed, and wooden shutters installed. Teak wood from Burma and other antiques from surrounding homes, which had been demolished, all found their way into the Rajbari and were restructured.
In its new avatar as a heritage hotel and an ideal location for movie shoots and destination weddings, the property offers all the modern conveniences that well-heeled travellers are used to.
The Piano Room serves all kinds of cuisines, but the local fare – especially bhetki paturi made with fresh vegetables and fish – is highly recommended. A multi-course ‘Zamindari thali’ in the Thakurdalan is also a must. The evening masala chai is an elaborate affair, accompanied by phuchkas, jaal muri and samosas.
There are other indulgences too. The property also hosts Mantra Spa, which is temporarily shut due to COVID. As the area is vast, visitors have no worries about maintaining social distancing. The Sandhya Aarti ritual at dusk is a spectacle, featuring Sanskrit shlokas with conch shells and classical dance recitals. The entire façade is lit with oil lamps and the heady incense fills the air as local dancers perform. It is a classic setting of Bengali culture, luxury and tradition all rolled into one.
Suites are vast (from 250 to 900 sq ft) with high ceilings, four-poster beds, bookshelves and antique lamps that create a sense of historical opulence with light and shadow.
And if one seeks to partake of the other side of the Bengal experience, one can always take a walk in the village, where human rickshaws are still the norm, where women wash clothes in open ponds and children run about freely as the sun goes down over the Hooghly River.
Maya Lalchandani is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur, writer and the author of Paiso (Penguin Random House). First published in eShe’s August 2020 issue