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Rajbari Bawali outside of Kolkata. Some of these former Indian palaces are being restored into boutique hotels. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

Decaying palaces turned into boutique hotels in India – think chandeliers, gazebos, lots of mahogany and Greco-Roman columns

  • Influenced by European architecture, the grand palaces in West Bengal, India, were once the property of royal families and zamindars – wealthy landowners
  • After falling into disrepair, some of them are now being restored and turned into boutique hotels that emphasise their heritage and former grandeur

A conch is blown, bells ring, drums are beaten and sonorous religious chants sound out against the backdrop of traditional Indian oil lamps – called diyas – that are lit by women clad in white and red saris.

The Hindu worship ritual Sandhya aarti takes place like clockwork every dusk at The Rajbari Bawali boutique hotel. Sitting on the lawn in the middle of the complex’s large courtyard are the guests, being transported back to an era in which the prominent family that once called this rajbari home would have congregated in this place every evening.

Rajbari is the name given to a particular kind of Indian palace. Strictly speaking, a rajbari housed royalty during the pre-colonial era, while the former homes of affluent landlords are called “zamindar baris”, although the words are used interchangeably.
After Indian independence in 1947, many landowning zamindars and royals lost their wealth, and some rajbaris were repurposed to generate income, either as film locations or as theatres. Many fell into disrepair and some of those with multiple owners became the object of family feuds.
The Belgachia Rajbari in North Kolkata is somewhat derelict, but the old palace’s former glory can be seen in its imposing columns, shuttered windows and magnificent rooms. Photo: Kalpana Sunder
Only a few are still occupied by the families that originally owned them; others are being converted into heritage stays or boutique hotels such as the 35-room Rajbari Bawali.
Rajbaris were [...] generally inspired by Roman and Greek as well as European architecture, which wealthy people saw on their travels either for trade or studies in those days and were aspirational,” explains Ashish Acharjee, a Kolkata-based architect who works on conservation projects and is writing a book about rajbaris.
Many people from Kolkata come here just to have lunch and spend a day. Young couples love to do their photo shoots here
Debashree Majumdar

“With huge Corinthian pillars that gave them a regal aura, high ceilings, arcaded verandas, [...] pilasters and wrought ironwork often built around a huge courtyard, these rajbaris were spread all over Bengal [the vast historical area that covers modern-day Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal].

“The majority of these palaces were built in the 1700s and 1800s with the help of military engineers, from a limestone and brick dust mixture, with Burmese teak [a tropical hardwood] for support.

“Most rajbaris had a typical structure – the andar mahal [women’s quarters] and nat mandir [temple], as well as the thakur dalan [a large platform leading up a flight of stairs from a public courtyard].”

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It was just such a rajbari that Kolkata-based businessman Ajay Rawla discovered and fell in love with in 2008. He had been searching the village of Bawali – 35km (20 miles) from Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal – and its surrounding area for land.

The palace was derelict and the restoration process started with him getting in touch with all 18 of its owners, who had to be appeased and persuaded to sell. The building was then restored over eight years.

Plumbing, air conditioning and lighting had to be installed anew. Masons from the historical city of Murshidabad were trained in lime construction by the Aga Khan Foundation (an initiative set up to help teach skills to members of marginalised communities), and other artisans were schooled in the art of traditional brickmaking. Care was taken to use authentic materials and retain a sense of bygone times.

Long corridors lined with old furniture and memorabilia at The Rajbari Bawali. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

Original wooden shutters were painstakingly removed for reuse in the reborn property. Cast iron pillars and railings were sourced from old homes that were being demolished in North Kolkata.

The restoration work received an award for excellence from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, and the resulting hotel, The Rajbari Bawali, is now a member of RARE India, a collection of boutique hotels, palace stays, wildlife lodges and homestays that offer immersive experiences to travellers.

The authentic approach to the restoration is evident in the way the columns have been left half plastered, bricks in the walls remain exposed, and how an aged patina covers almost everything on the property.

The private dining room at The Rajbari Bawali with chandeliers and a mahogany table. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

Distressed walls and furniture, chandeliers of wrought iron, and old harmoniums and record players on vintage tables are all framed by lush greenery. On the walls hang old maps framed in glass and black-and-white photos of the rajbari before its restoration. A bar lined with vintage brews now occupies the old cellar.

Steps from the courtyard lead to a raised platform and a private dining room with a mahogany table, candlesticks, chandeliers and floral arrangements, as well as a room containing a grand piano.

Around the three-acre property are green ponds called pukur, gazebos and pavilions and a swimming pool. It has been used as a set for films by such famous directors as Satyajit Ray and Rituparno Ghosh. The property even has a suite dedicated to Ghosh’s 2003 movie Chokher Bali, which was partly shot in the room. Famous guests have included Bollywood actor Anushka Sharma.

A suite at The Rajbari Bawali, with an antique four-poster bed and high ceiling. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

“Many people from Kolkata come here just to have lunch and spend a day. Young couples love to do their photo shoots here, and we host weddings where the family takes over our entire property,” explains Debashree Majumdar, who assists her daughter, resident director Mrinalinee Majumdar, in running the property, along with a team drawn from local villages.

The original owners of the rajbari were the Mondal family, zamindars in the early 18th century. Zamindar descendant Samar Mondal – who is now in his 80s – has been drafted in to recite the religious mantras each evening.

“This area used to be a part of the Sundarbans, a stretch of mangroves and swampland with tigers and prolific wildlife,” he says. “The name is derived from the first settlers, the people of Baul.”

It’s high time that these heritage buildings with eclectic architecture were preserved for posterity.
Ashish Acharjee

There are other restored rajbaris in the region. Almost 100km (60 miles) to the north, in the village of Itachuna, is Itachuna Rajbari, a zamindar palace that dates back to 1766.

It was owned and is still operated by the Narayan Kundu family, who renovated the house with the help of the state’s tourism department. The rooms, named after family members, all feature vintage furniture.

Another rajbari, Bari Kothi, stands on the bank of the Bhagirathi River, in Murshidabad, about 240km (150 miles) from Kolkata. Once owned by the Dudhoria Raj family, merchants from Rajasthan in northern India, this rajbari has a mixture of Greek, French and Roman architectural influences and has been given a new lease of life as a classy boutique hotel fitted out with antique furniture and sunken baths.

In the centre of Kolkata, the beautifully restored Jorasanko Thakurbari is the ancestral home and birthplace of Nobel laureate and poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). This rajbari was built in 1785 and today is a museum dedicated to the Tagore family.

In the heart of Kolkata is Jorasanko Thakurbari, the ancestral palace of poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

“It’s heartening that, at last, the government has started taking cognisance of these heritage structures with a lot of history and picturesque settings, and is promoting tourism in tandem with heritage, as a theme,” says Acharjee. “It’s high time that these heritage buildings with eclectic architecture were preserved for posterity.”

But not all rajbaris have been repurposed for a rewarding second life.

A great deal of effort is needed to reach North Kolkata’s decaying Belgachia Rajbari, a once-grandiose complex with a large garden, huge Doric columns and green-shuttered windows.

This palace, along with the property’s private temple, was bought by Prince Dwarkanath Tagore in around 1823, and he thereafter furnished his new home with items imported from Britain and Italy.
Renovations are needed at The Belgachia Rajbari in North Kolkata, if the palace is to be returned to its former glory. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

The chequered marble floors, stained glass ceilings and winding staircases in the former home are still in fairly good shape, along with the large courtyards and gargantuan rooms.

All this makes it easy to imagine a large family living here in the past, the children playing in the garden while the women are in the kitchen, supervising preparations for the parties Tagore threw for the viceroy and British officers, the clinking of their glasses echoing down the centuries.

But it’s only the fluttering of pigeon wings that disturbs the sense of nostalgia hanging in these neglected halls.