Staying at one of the celebrated Rajbari's of West Bengal had been on my bucket list for a long time. So, it was wonderful to finally check that off the list, especially during a magical monsoon season. For those who are not familiar, Bengal’s Rajbari’s are royal houses of the 'Zamindars' (landlords) that are usually built with a beautiful amalgamation of local sensibilities, British colonial building nous, and European architectural patterns. And the 350-year-old Rajbari at Bawali delivered a visual treat that was well beyond what I expected from these former palatial residences of West Bengal. From the traditional welcome with aarti and blowing of the conch to the indulgent multicourse meals, the stay at this stately mansion also gave me a sneak peek into the kind of regal lifestyle the zamindars might have led
Unfortunately, just like the other crumbling Rajbari’s of Bengal, this monument was left to decay until a passionate local entrepreneur painstakingly retrieved it from ruins and restored it to grandeur. Giving it a new lease on life as a heritage hotel. Commendably, the restoration has been done so tastefully without losing the essence of the original building. But the process of recover this weathered beauty that was draped in the evolution of nature was supposedly not an easy task. Master masons had to be hired from other regions of the country, as not all masons are savvy enough to bring back to life artwork done by experts from a bygone era. Especially without potentially causing irreversible damage. Kudos to the owner Ajay Rawla, for the fervent effort.
The exquisite heritage property is set in the village of Bawali. Despite being just around 30 km southeast of Kolkata, the throbbing capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, the peaceful hamlet feels like a world away. Though Kolkata has its own character, the hustle and bustle of Kolkata can be a stressful affair – especially for travellers. So, this is a perfect escape from the chaos and commotion of the big metropolis. This erstwhile swampland, once part of the majestic Sundarbans, was handed over as a reward to an army officer for leading a successful battalion for the Rajputs in this region. The Rajbari is part of the 300,000 acres of ‘tiny’ token of appreciation rewarded for his services!
And just like the Rajbari's romanticized in celluloid, the setting of the royal residence itself infuse more magic into the mix. An idyllic Bengali village that is still under a hangover from the zamindari age, tall palm trees lining the narrow lanes, timeless temples that you cannot walk past without capturing a few clicks for the gram, ponds filled with water lotuses where the locals fish and bathe, and the palatial zamindar's home propped as the centrepiece. Bawali is just that kind of rustic village.
The entire premises breathes history and history from every nook and corner. The neo-classical architecture, colourful facades decorated with cupid friezes, crumbling lime-rendered walls unveiling rusty red bricks underneath, Greco-Roman Corinthian pillars connected via grand arches, collonaded verandas, and cloistered courtyards. I could keep going on and on if I was to call out all the architectural nuances of this extraordinary heritage treasure.
While the architectural elements of the property itself offer enough of a pictorial treat, the interiors and décor of the Rajbari also provide plenty of picture-perfect frames that pair charming heritage with vintage memorabilia. Antique wooden chairs and coffee tables that dot the courtyard and gardens, discerningly chosen bric-a-brac mixed with regal artefacts that ornament the common areas and quirky decorative items like the vintage Chetak scooters or the old Rajdoot bike that’s tweaked into a bar enhance the aesthetic appeal. So, a stay here would definitely treat you to an authentic slice of vintage life that’s laced with the right amount of luxury and comfort.
The property is also loaded with a range of cute little spaces where you could chill with a drink, lounge with a book, or just sink into a meditational mode!
Each of the rooms and suites has been carefully designed and decorated to recreate an authentic heritage experience without compromising on modern-day comfort and luxury. We stayed in the Zamindari suite which was spacious enough and elegantly embellished. The traditional Bengali hand-crafted wooden four-poster bed along with custom-designed and hand-printed highly quality cotton and linens was the highlight and wonderfully echoed the distinctive style of the Rajbari Bawali.
Dine like a Zamindar
No authentic Bengali experience is complete unless you experience the diverse culinary delights of the region. And when you stay here, you don’t have to go too far to embark on an epicurean adventure. Just treat yourself to a royal Zamindari Thali at the Thakurdalan, the dining space with an aristocratic touch. A Thali is an Indian-style meal made up of a selection of various dishes which are served on a platter. And just like the mansion that reflects the opulence, style and grace of the Zamindars of Bengal, the Thali gave us a view into their extravagant gastronomic indulgences. I might not get to live a Zamindari lifestyle, but this gastronomical indulgence - that pampered us with an array of regular to forgotten recipes - was close enough!
The property offers as an activity a sundowner country boat river cruise, that supposedly allows you to take in the beauty of a tropical sunset while sailing on the waters of the Hooghly river. But given the monsoon weather, we didn’t take the chance. But instead decided to stay closer to the mansion and enjoy a sunset drink from one of the multiple perfect settings in and around it. The stunning cafe space on the terrace was inviting but given the pitter-patter of mild drizzle that had already kicked in, we packed our beers and decided to savour the invisible sunset along the pretty pond next to the bungalow. And the crumbling ancient temple behind provided the perfect backdrop to a boring Heineken, and even made it palatable!
From Vineyard to Verandah
Perched at the end of the charming courtyard overlooking the Thakurdalan, the Verandah is a spacious open lounge with dated clay tile roofing and unfinished brick walls that ooze ample character. And the panoramic view of the central scape from the cosy couches here was spectacular. The perfect place to enjoy the spectacles and acts of the monsoon theatre. And the pitter-patter from the early evening had now morphed into a heavy downpour. Though it was not a bar per-se, they allowed us to enjoy our own beverages without a corkage fee. What better way to enjoy the orchestra of lighting and thunder, than chilling out in the lounge with a Chenin Blanc and getting your favourite jazz tunes piped via Bluetooth from the in-house speakers!
Activities & Side trips
Though the village might seem like its devoid of experiential activities, there are some fun things to do in and around the mansion. We spent the early evening walking through the narrow lanes of the village, flanked by small, colourful houses and ponds every few metres.
Though there are plenty of opportunities to click the perfect snaps, the star of the hamlet is the stunning temple complex that is located right next to the mansion. Its striking architecture is replete with terracotta panels on its dome and dark red brickwork at its foundation. If the visually arresting reflections of the temple from the pond weren’t enough, the ruins inside the complex are a treasure trove of more stunning sceneries. You could also borrow the complimentary bicycles and ride around the village and surrounding fields
If you are not keen on exploring the world outside this fabulous mansion, the boutique palace also has enough to offer within its compounds. Two pretty ponds, a swimming pool, an old dungeon that is now a billiards room, a library, and even a spa to pamper yourself – just to name a few options. Or You could just eat, sleep, and repeat until you have to return to the reality and urban chaos of normal life!
Quick Getaway for
Being located a quick but chaotic 90-minute drive away from Kolkata, this place is an easy weekend getaway from the ‘city of joy’