If you aren’t from Bengal, then chances are you associate the State with three things: fish, roshogolla, and the large palatial bungalows you may have watched in umpteen films (Ranveer Singh-starrer Lootera springs to mind immediately). And you probably have a distinct picture in your mind of what these houses look like — pillars that meet in grand arches, colonnaded verandahs, cloistered courtyards, and perhaps a shrine. These define Bengal’s rajbaris — houses of the royalty, which saw, in architectural and design terms, the perfect syncretism of local sensibilities and English building nous.
When the British arrived in Bengal in the mid-18th Century, they struck up partnerships with local zamindars, who came into flushes of affluence overnight.
Apart from all the other tangible benefits that ended up in the coffers of the zamindars, their bungalows are the ones that have most stood the sands of time. But as the years have gone by, these rajbaris have begun to fall by the wayside, into vats of decrepitude, survived only by pangs of nostalgia and reminiscence. However, hotel owners have smartly taken advantage of this longing for the past, and restored these palatial properties and turned them into hotels and guest houses — just as has been done to several palaces and forts across the country.
The Jhargram Palace, Bawali Rajbari, Itachuna Rajbari, and Kathgola, are some that have been restored at astronomical costs, but with a clear consumer-base in mind. Some, like the one in Jhargram, also double up as residences for those families, who’ve still stuck around, royalty or not.
Part of the Jhargram Palace was converted into a hotel in 2016, and is still run by the Malla Deb family, which ruled Jhargram district till the powers of princely rulers were abolished post-Independence. Says Vikramaditya Malla Deb, “A stay at the Palace will bring the legend of the famous Malla Dev rulers to the fore. Here you can experience the royal lifestyle.” The hotel has 12 rooms, the rates of which vary depending on the size and location within the palace, and 10 new cottages, over its 20-acre campus. Most of their guests are tourists who drive down from the rest of the State for a weekend. But they see a bump in occupancy October onwards, coinciding with the festive season.
The Bawali Rajbari was in a considerably worse-off state when current owner Ajay Rawla decided to convert the 250-year-old palace into a hotel. The rajbari — home of the Mondal family — was in its heyday till Independence. Once the Zamindari system was abolished, the family spread across the globe, leaving the three-acre property in disarray. It was spotted by Rawla in 2008, at which point renovations began, ending almost seven years and ₹5 crores later. Bawali village is roughly 40 kilometres South of Kolkata, and the princely experience begins at ₹7,500, with rooms that are called the Zamindari suite, Royal suite, and Dak Bungalow. Weekends are packed, so you might want to pre-book. The hotel recommends sight-seeing in the village and countryside, with tailored ‘village walks’, as well as culinary explorations which go beyond the standard maach and jhol .
We dial back to the Lootera reference, and really the makers of the film couldn’t get more old-school Calcutta if they wanted. The film was shot at the 1766-built Itachuna Rajbari, which is still run by the Narayan Kundu family. Renovations were begun, with the help of the State Tourism Department, in 2016. Located in Itachuna village in Hooghly, heritage is at a stone’s throw all around, with Pandua and its famed 13th-Century minar minutes away, and the erstwhile French colony of Chandannagar less than an hour away.
The conversion (either whole or partial) of these palatial bungalows to boutique hotels is lucrative for more than one reason. For one, upkeep is expensive, and there are few guarantees of State funding. Jhargram Palace, for example, gets none. “We currently don’t receive any State/Central Government funds to maintain the palace,” says Malla Deb. But he adds that the State Tourism Department lends a hand in marketing, publicity, operations, and training manpower. “We are also in talks with West Bengal Heritage Commission to receive funds,” he says. The financial plight of rajbaris is similar across Bengal. Kolkata’s Shobhabazar Rajbari, home to one of the most famed Durga puja traditions in the State, for example, faces trouble. “A major chunk of the upkeep costs are met by voluntary donations from the extended family, but that isn’t always enough,” says Debayan Mitra, of the erstwhile Shobhabazar royal family. But they, for one, have never contemplated converting even a portion of the house into either a guest house or a hotel. “But it is rented out for marriages, plays, and other such functions at times to help with finances,” Mitra says.
If you’d like a sojourn around the Bengal countryside, away from the clatter of the trams and clichés of the bridges, the wide pillars and high ceilings of rajbaris have some unique tales to tell.
Raja Nabakrishna Deb is said to have marked Durga puja in Shobhabazar rajbari as a celebration of Siraj-ud-Daulah’s defeat at British hands at the Battle of Plassey. Robert Clive and Warren Hastings were his guests of honour.
Housed in splendour
Rajbaris are often confused with bonedi bari or zamindar bari . While a rajbari housed the royalty, bonedi baris were homes of the founding families of Bengal. Zamindar baris were the homes of affluent landlords.
While no records exist, Itachuna is said to be one of the oldest rajbaris in the State.
The word ‘bungalow’ comes from the Hindi word bangla meaning ‘of Bengal’, ‘in the Bengal style’, or belonging to a Bengali.