The saga of a 200-year old mansion that not only inspires wanderlust but also offers up the perfect romantic setting for the vintage love story ‘Lootera’ that is soon to hit the big screens…
If old houses could speak, what fascinating stories they would tell!
Imagine the number of squiggles chubby, crayon-stained hands have made on their walls, the streamers that have dangled from the corners of their rooms, the warm hands that have turned their brass door knobs into shining gold, the whispered sweet-nothings of lovers hanging in their corridors, the countless boots that have made indelible dents on their floors, even the still ears that have listened in quietly at keyholes! Wow, if only houses could speak!
But if you listen closely enough, houses do speak. Not your average city dwellings with two-and-a-half bedrooms and a poky little balcony… yes, those would speak too, but most likely would not have too many interesting things to say! No, I’m talking about those centuries-old mansions, large, solid structures that have stubbornly weathered many harsh winters and survived many generations of illustrious families – those imposing structures with high arches for doorways, snaking corridors, grand sweeping staircases, huge fireplaces, and… actual names for rooms!
Recently, news of a huge 200-year old ‘Haveli’, in the middle of a small, sleepy village just about 80 km away from the hustle-bustle of Kolkata, floated in on the travel grapevine. Once a flourishing residence, it was abandoned for many years and nearly ran to ruins, until just recently when the current owners, brothers Dhruba Kundu and Basab Narayan Kundu rediscovered their love for their forgotten ancestral property and decided to develop it as a heritage homestay, reviving it to its former glory and stature, bit by loving bit. The irony here is that the Kundus are descended from the dreaded and ruthless Maratha warrior clan ‘Bargi’, who plundered and looted Bengal in the early 18th century, the villain of many popular folklores!
So… Abandoned mansion? Marauding warriors? A royal homestay with traditional Bengali food? Bug-bitten Spiderman would have said “My spidey sense is tingling…’’, but for travel-bug bitten me, all my adventure synapses were crackling 🙂 This is stuff you dream of doing once in your lifetime, and since I was already in Kolkata (for a project that paled in comparison!), I packed an overnight bag, and landed up at Itachuna Rajbari, or, ‘Brick and Lime Manor’.
As you turn the corner from ripe paddy fields, bouncing on a country road alongside school-going girls in red-ribboned pigtails, herds of bleating goats and a bunch of village women balancing pots of water on their hips, it comes up suddenly before you – an imposing, bright-red brick mansion with high white arches, beautifully ornate columns and long, green wooden shutters for windows. A warm smile and a delicious drink, made from the local Gondhoraj lemons, draw you in instantly. If you are as much of an eager beaver as I am, you will fling your bag into your room, do a cursory check in, and not waste any time getting started on a fascinating tour of the mansion…
And the first stop itself will take your breath away… As you step through the grand, studded iron gates into a massive open courtyard lined with charming wrought-iron lamp posts, you realize that the mansion is enormous, and what you had seen so far was just the outhouse, a mere fifth of the whole palatial structure. An expansive 2-storeyed building surrounds you, embraces you, every bit the dreamy country houses from Jane Austen classics. The mansion speaks to you!
As if on cue, the caretaker of the mansion starts a dramatic narrative and you are transported to a time when it buzzed with the activities of its original inhabitants going about their busy, everyday life. Standing in the middle of the courtyard, facing the imposing and celebrated temple in the centre, flanked by a long viewing gallery on the left, and guest rooms and servant’s quarters on the right, you can almost hear the hum of voices and the echoes of feet. This courtyard, now still and silent, was once a cultural hub for the villagers, where every festival was celebrated on a huge scale with colours, lights and decorations, and crowds would cheer performances by renowned musicians, accomplished theatre groups and even local talents.
As you stroll into the Andar Mahal, or the private chambers of the ladies, large airy bedrooms lie basking in the afternoon sun, with many pieces of the original antique furniture still intact, gleaming proudly with the patina of old wealth. One room boasts of a stately, brass-studded bedpost, another has a king-sized, heavy, carved wooden bed, a ‘Palonko’, completely suspended from the ceiling! An ornate cupboard lines an entire wall of an enchanting room, while a dark wooden rocking chair sits invitingly in the breezy verandah, sagging from the weight of all the men who sat there puffing from their gurgling hookahs. Far ahead, at the end of the long corridor, an ornamental mirror and dressing table stands intriguingly… perhaps waiting to reflect a lovely face applying black kohl to her mysterious eyes and pressing red ‘sindoor’ between her dark, winged brows?
But before you reach that clouded mirror, your reverie is broken and lunch is announced. And before you can be properly disappointed, you are distracted by the gleaming Kansa (Bell Metal) tableware, a traditional honour to guests, and soon after, the course-wise serving of an elaborate meal, from starters to desserts, begins. Shukto (an aromatic, soupy mixed vegetable), Shaak (a stir fry of finely diced leafy greens) Dal (flavoured lentil broth), Maach (Fish), Mangsho (Meat) follow in lazy succession, accompanied by rice. And just when you are about to burst, a plateful of freshly made Rosogollas, still warm from the black woks of the village sweet shop just across, is placed enticingly before you. So when you roll out of your chair, no one blames you for choosing an afternoon snooze over continuing the mansion tour.
The evening prayer music from the temple wakes you from your slumber, and you realize it’s almost dark outside. As you head back to the courtyard, you see the dimly lit mansion with new eyes… a mysterious treasure house of secrets, with dark corners, dancing shadows and amplified sounds. Did that shutter on the first floor move? What was that faint scraping sound from that corner? You shiver in anticipation as you feel someone’s eyes on your back. The light, the shadows, the aromatic incense from the temple, mingled with the musty odour of the thick walls play silly tricks on your mind, yet you enjoy the thrill, the mystery, the possibilities…
The next morning dawns bright and you explore the grounds. A narrow lane called the Pigeon Alley opens out to an expansive granary, where hay would be stocked in tall mounds after harvesting. A walk through this open area, past a deep well attached to a quaint little mud hut, takes you to a small, quiet pond. You sit by it, looking at the reflected green of the trees around it, just admiring this picture of serenity and breathing in the calm.
Hours roll into each other in this restful place. The symphony of cooing in the pigeon alley, the flickering of the exquisite candle chandelier of the Dance Hall, the staff who treat you like royalty, the traditional meals that are as much a feast for the eyes as the stomach, the majestic aura of the mansion itself, and the rustic beauty of the village around it… all these conspire to make you lose track of passing time. It is only when you see the Itachuna Rajbari slowly fade in your rear-view mirror that you realize that some of the best things in life are a lot closer than you think. That, and the fact that if you listen closely enough, the universe has many stories to tell!