Shabby chic with a lush past
Rajbari at Bawali, near Kolkata, has a story typical of many old palaces in India: this once-illustrious headquarters of a sprawling petty kingdom stretching from the Sundarbans, a huge tidal mangrove forest flanking the Bay of Bengal, to the banks of the Hooghly River in Howrah, Kolkata's burgeoning heart, it fell into ruin after India's independence.
Uninhabited for more than 40 years, the neo-classical palace, an hour's drive from Kolkata, has since been scrubbed, buffed and given a new lease on life as a heritage hotel.
According to local legend, more than 300 years ago Rajbari's ancestral occupants, the Mondal family, fought a rebellion with the Rajputs of Rajasthan and, in return, were given 120,000 hectares of lush Bengali farming land.
Flourishing under the patronage of the East India Company, the British trading company that founded the city of Kolkata, the Mondals lived like royalty, with a 400-strong private army and their own clutch of beguiling temples, each with a legion of priests to worship Bon Bibi, the goddess of the forest.
At the heart of their rule stood Rajbari, a majestic two-storey palace resplendent in Italian architectural motifs, built by a small lake in the village of Bawali.
As with most of the 550 petty kingdoms that stretched across the Indian land mass prior to India's independence in 1949, the abolition of the fiefdom act, which allowed kingdoms to collect taxes from farmers, ensured the downfall of the Mondal family and the abandonment of Rajbari.
"They lived with such extravagance," a descendant, Samar Mondal, says.
"When their income was slashed by 80 per cent, they sold assets to maintain face and their lavish lifestyles. It wasn't long before they were unable to keep up with maintenance and repairs on the house."
By the time a local businessman, Ajay Rawla, purchased the property in 2009, Rajbari at Bawali was inhabited by snakes and had trees growing through its once-lustrous, silky-smooth walls.
The walls had been made with an ancient organic process of mixing lime, sand and egg yolk. The ceilings, since collapsed, and the breezy bedrooms shaded from the noon heat with thick wooden shutters, were colonised by bats.
Samar Mondal and I are sitting on a balcony overlooking the palace's main courtyard, its crumbling facade alive with cupid friezes, turreted windows and elongated columns lit by hundreds of candles.
Two musicians from Bawali, wearing orange dhotis and waist-long dreadlocks, play folk songs on the lawn below.
After several years of restoration, in December four palace guest rooms were opened to travellers. Keeping the essence of the original building intact, with crumbling lime-rendered walls unveiling rusty red bricks underneath, Ajay Rawla is passionate about letting the building speak for itself, creating what he calls "inspired heritage".
The comfortable but unpolished rooms have four-poster beds, flat-screen TVs and airconditioning to take the edge off Bengal's muggy humidity. Rooms are decorated with chunky farm-style antique furniture and hand-beaten copper bathtubs.
The palace's public lounges host an eclectic fusion of furniture: 1930s leather smokers' couches and art deco tables next to Chinese-style dragon sculptures. It verges on kitsch, yet an unpretentiousness and innocence prevails.
From quiet walks through the village, where locals gather at chai stands and drink sweet milky tea from small clay pots, to the feasts of curries and chapati made from locally grown vegetables to the musicians who play for palace guests, Rajbari offers a window to a world few travellers may not otherwise get to experience.
Staff have limited hospitality skills, but their sincerity is priceless (during my visit, a waiter shyly asked if I would like a drink, then poured red wine into a tumbler and added ice and a splash of lemonade).
Talks with an Indian-based hotel group are under way, which in turn means Rajbari may become a fully fledged resort, its genteel spirit likely to once again morph with the tide of time. See it now while you can.
The Rajbari at Bawali has four double rooms from 9000 rupees ($200) a night including tax and breakfast. See bawali.in.
- Sydney Morning Herald