Heritage Stays: Live like Bengal’s Babus

Inside an 18th-century rajbari, a mansion amid lush orchards, and a home beside 500-year-old terracotta temples near Kolkata.  
Heritage Stay Bengal
As dusk falls, Balakhana looks even more inviting than usual, with reclining armchairs laid out in the verandah. Photo by: Sugato Mukherjee

Balakhana, Nabadwip

Ronodhir Palchoudhuri looks every bit the landed gentry in a sombrero, carefully chosen from the hatstand in the billiards room. He hands me one too. With an elaborate sweep of the walking stick, he leads me and a few friends to the grounds of his sprawling 16-acre estate that the Palchoudhuris have owned for four generations.

We are amid the farmlands and orchards of Maheshganj, four kilometres away from the city of Nabadwip in Nadia district. Home to the 12,000-square-foot heritage stay, Balakhana, the estate lies about 130 kilometres north of Kolkata. All traces of the humdrum journey from the state capital left us the moment the white pillars of the 18th-century Balakhana came into view. Its colonnaded facade exuded a languid splendour, overlooking the grounds that we now stroll with our genial host.

“My grandfather planted these orchards,” says Palchoudhuri as we follow him amid thick groves of litchi, mango, and mulberry. We gather around a table in the cosy gazebo and listen to the home’s history over steaming cups of Darjeeling tea, fresh from the gardens owned by the family in North Bengal.

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Balakhana’s interiors (top) exude a homey yet distinctly colonial air with wooden furniture, sepia photographs, and a fireplace in the lounge. A languid boat ride on the Jalangi river is an excellent way to see Gangetic river dolphins (bottom). Photos by: Sugato Mukherjee

Balakhana owes its European architecture to the Italian doctor who built it in 1780. It was subsequently sold to a British indigo planter, whose fortunes diminished when the indigo revolt rocked the country in 1860. He sold the estate to the Palchoudhuris in 1875. Two of the original indigo plants still remain in the grounds; Ronodhir also shows us a few indigo blocks that his grandfather preserved in an old jar.

History seeps into every corner of Maheshganj. After the walk and a scrumptious English breakfast—its star being the redolent mulberry jam extracted from the fruit trees we just saw—we walk to an abandoned airstrip at a far corner of the estate. In those days, Ronodhir’s father flew in his two-seater Tiger Moth from Kolkata. “He once flew in Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose for a rally in this area,” remembers Ronodhir with a whiff of pride. On our way back we see a dilapidated guest house where Satyajit Ray briefly stayed during the filming of Apur Sansar in 1959.

Balakhana’s interiors have a distinctly colonial feel. Its five rooms are elegantly furnished with mahogany bedsteads and vintage cabinets. I find a 240-year-old Lazarus billiards table that’s still good for a game; the fireplace in the lounge and the reclining armchairs in the verandah with louvred shutters are perfect to snuggle up with a book. Wholesome meals include mildly-spiced chicken curry and beckti, while ingredients for vegetarian dishes are mostly sourced from the estate’s farmland and orchards.

That afternoon, we take a boat ride on the nearby Jalangi river, drifting past the temple towns of Nabadwip and Mayapur. The mellow rays of the sun dance on the ripples; we spot a couple of Gangetic river dolphins leaping and diving back into the placid waters. A deep sense of slowness enfolds us as darkness descends on the river.

Essentials Balakhana is a 130 km/3.5 hr drive from Kolkata. There are regular trains between Sealdah and the city of Krishnagar; the estate provides pick-ups from the latter (Email: balakhana1870@gmail.com; doubles from Rs3,500 including breakfast).

 

Itachuna Rajbari, Hooghly District

Beyond a white-and-red arched arcade lies an expansive courtyard and the brick-and-lime facade of Itachuna Rajbari. Rejuvenated by glasses of tangy aamporha sherbet—the Bengali version of aampanna—we step into the inner parlours of history and heritage at this 252-year-old mansion.

Itachuna’s dimly lit sitting area belies its vivid past. Glass chandeliers and hand-drawn pankhas hang from the ceiling of the room that was once the mansion’s naach ghar (dancing hall).

The rajbari is a result of turbulent times in the state. As the Mughal stronghold over Bengal weakened after Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, the Marathas launched repeated attacks on the lower Gangetic plains and plundered Bengal’s towns and villages. The onslaught continued for about two decades in the mid-18th century. Some rich Maratha warriors stayed back in the verdant plains and began trading with the new rulers—the British East India Company. One such Maratha warrior-turned-zamindar clan was of the Kundans (now known as Kundus), who settled in Itachuna, and built the Rajbari in 1766.

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Grandeur is writ large over the 252-year-old arched facade of Itachuna Rajbari in Hooghly district (top). The heritage homestay serves delicious Bengali luchi and pulao in bell metal crockery (bottom). Photo courtesy: Itachuna Rajbari (arched building, food)

The rooms of the Rajbari are named after the Kundu family. Our room, though average-sized, has a huge four-poster bed with wooden steps. It is a weekday and the palace is empty except for our group. We walk through its maze of softly lit corridors and stairs that often lead to rooms lying in disuse over years, and verandahs lined with mahogany furniture. The constant call of doves reverberates in the emptiness. We explore the area that houses a thakur dalaan (corridor of worship) that holds a small temple of the house deity. I notice how the dalaan’s Gothic columns have carvings of Narayana. The huge courtyard adjacent to the dalaan is dotted with beautiful cast iron lamps. Beyond the rajbari’s gates lie a few scenic Santhal villages within walking distance, and a half-day trip to the riverside towns of Bandel, Chinsurah and Chandannagar is a delightful option for guests curious about the area’s storied past.

One of the high points of visiting Itachuna Rajbari is the sumptuous, home-cooked Bengali food. At lunch, we gorge on luchi and Bengali pulao served in bell metal crockery. Later that evening, we head to Rajbari’s terrace and fall utterly silent before the sweeping views of the brick-red palace and the lush pastoral landscape beyond. Our reverie is suddenly broken by the clanging of bells and beats of drums and cymbals. The centuries-old daily ritual of evening prayer at Itachuna Rajbari has just begun in the Thakur dalaan’s temple downstairs. 

Essentials Itachuna Rajbari is a 76 km/2.5 hr drive from Kolkata. Regular trains connect Howrah to Khanyan village. The rajbari is a 10-min ride away by the battery-operated rickshaws called totos (www.itachunarajbari.com; rooms doubles from Rs3,900.)

 

Baithakkhana, Amadpur

The train from Howrah to the town of Memari halts at a string of dusty towns with multistorey buildings and glossy billboards. Eventually, we find ourselves in a wide expanse of countryside, passing quaint hamlets on the short, bumpy ride from the station to Amadpur village.

Shiladitya Chaudhuri, a member of the family that came to Amadpur 387 years ago, greets us at the entrance of Baithakkhana. The heritage homestay is ensconced in beauty and history, with a surrounding dighi (lake) and four, eight-roofed terracotta temples that I learn are at least 500 years old.

Rooms at the Baithakkhana have lofty ceilings crisscrossed with wooden rafters. They all have antique furniture, which includes carved four-poster beds, dressers and dainty corner-pieces. “I wanted to retain the home’s archaic charm. So, no TV or Wi-Fi here,” says Chaudhuri, adding that air conditioners have been a recent, reluctant addition. As we lounge in the balcony with freshly baked knick-knacks and tea, the AC does feel redundant: thick, 3.5-foot walls, and the cool breeze blowing over from the adjacent lake keeps the mercury in check.

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Carved columns, lofty ceilings and antique furniture at Baithakkhana are testimony to its place in Amadpur’s heritage. Photo by: Shiladitya Chaudhur

It doesn’t take much to imagine how things were in the Chaudhuri mansion in the olden days: Its lime-and-mortar floors and walls, and the old-fashioned ceiling fans and lamps are immaculately preserved. At the dinner table, I notice the bell metal plates that have been in use for over a century. Traditional Bengali vegetarian delicacies of chachchori (a mishmash of vegetables, greens and fish bones) and posto bora (poppy seed cutlets) whet our palates before the delectable fish curry prepared with hand-ground mustard and cumin seeds bowls us over. All of us take second helpings of the dessert mishti doi served in small stone bowls.

At the Chaudhuri house, dawn breaks with the incessant call of the rooster. Amadpur looks enticing in the pale morning light. Accompanied by Chaudhuri, we take the narrow path that snakes through bamboo and mango trees, and walk past mansions in various stages of ruin. We stop in front of a derelict house—it has dense undergrowth in the courtyard, but its grand pediment roots us to the spot. At its top is a pair of beautifully sculpted lions, their jaws frozen in mid-roar, looking strangely regal even in these decrepit surroundings. “This is the Baagh Bari (Tiger House),” says Chaudhuri, pointing to its decorative rainwater outlets made of stone with tiger face carvings. On our way back to the Chaudhuri mansion, we see a couple of crumbling terracotta temples and the Dol Mancha, where the family deities of the Chaudhuris are worshipped every year during Doljatra (Holi). “The festivities are very traditional, and include family and friends. Do join next year,” smiles Shiladitya.

Srikanta, Chaudhuri’s man Friday, calls us in: breakfast awaits us upstairs. We savour our last hour at Amadpur in the balcony before heading back to the city and its routines.

Essentials Baithakkhana in Amadpur is 95 km/2.5 hr northwest of Kolkata. Regular Bardhaman-bound trains connect Howrah to Memari. The mansion is a short drive from the station (heritageamadpur.com; doubles from Rs3,000, including breakfast).

  • Sugato Mukherjee is a photographer and writer. He has contributed to publications such as The Globe and Mail and Al Jazeera, and has received UNESCO's Humanity Photo Award. He is the author of "An Antique Land: A Visual Memoir of Ladakh" (2013).

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