Way back when, when I was still a tour operator based out of London, James and I, at Ampersand, decided to slow travel down and get people to spend longer in each destination and therefore, have the opportunity to discover more, appreciate it more or simply spend time in one of the hotels they were spending a fortune on. We had a few gems, personal favourites, what we called Destination Hotels, where we would then persuade people to visit for at least 4 nights at the end of a longer trip. A place that was unique, fabulous, where the hosting was second to none, where the food was local and home-made and where there was the opportunity to do as much, or as little as they wished but to really get a sense of the people or the place. It was sometimes a tough sell, but it invariably became the highlight of the trip. It didn’t matter where people had visited in the country, we would convince them to fly off to one of these places and they never regretted the choice. There were a few that we had on this list but the three which spring immediately to mind are Ahilya Fort in Maheshwar, Glenburn Tea Estate in Darjeeling and Tranquil in Wayanad.
Since then many more charming boutique style hotels have come up but they tend to be on well-trodden circuits which can be easily slotted into itineraries. However, a few months ago, I discovered another absolute gem, one of the best and most extraordinary restoration projects I have come across in a long, long time. It is one which definitely warrants the title ‘Destination Hotel’ and deserves at least a four-night stay. The name of a place that warrants such profusion from one who can be, shall we say, somewhat sarcastic? Well it is, The Rajbari Bawali, an hour outside Calcutta.
The Rajbari Bawaliis a restored Zamindar’s palace which had been left to utter neglect and ruin and which was salvaged by Ajay Rawla. You can throw every cliché you want at this place, ‘labour of love,’ ‘restored to its former glory,’ but none of them quite do it justice. You see, Mr Rawla’s mission was not just to restore it to its former glory but to introduce back into the property and the region the style and elegance of those forgotten days. I see so much badly done and cheaply done dross on my travels around the country that to see a place restored with such refined elegance, style and sensitivity, was heart-warming. ‘Restores the faith,’ as they say, whoever they may be.
And yet, the arrival at the Rajbari is almost underwhelming. Depart Calcutta and an hour or so later one arrives at some villages which appear charming enough, spy a couple of ruins and the car stops adjacent to a long brick wall on one side and a pond on the other. Pretty unprepossessing to say the least. Step out of the car and enter through a narrow doorway but what greets you on the other side literally takes your breath away, one barely notices the girls greeting you with flowers and conch shells, such is the grandeur and elegance of the building. It’s magnificence lies on the inside. One has to simply stand and stare. I, for once, was speechless.
As one stays and explores the place, one realises that it is the thoughtfulness and style of the renovation which has brought this back to life. Some of the exteriors have been left intentionally a little rough around the edges, not clinically reinvented to be something it never was. This all adds to the charm, though some people might not get this on looking at the photos.
The furnishing is made using modern, understated designs, again, classic and elegant. A combination of the rich traditions of textiles of Bengal and the owner’s love of natural materials ensures that high quality cottons, linens and jutes, endemic to the area, have been used throughout. Not only that, but they are all custom-designed and hand-printed with natural dyes, to bring about authenticity from the day and sophistication for today’s most discerning traveller, which I try to be, from time to time.
Once I had settled into my suite, I was taken on a show around of the property. I wondered around the place in silence, Mr Rawla on tenterhooks, as he later admitted, apparently my opinion counted for something. I hadn’t considered him to be quite so delusional. However, it wasn’t the silence which sometime befalls me when visiting a new property, that of wondering how to gently break the news that maybe a few enhancements could possibly be required, if I am being polite. I was, well, let’s not get over effusive and say, ‘In awe,’ but I really was rather delighted. The quality, aesthetics, attention to detail, was all there. This was a place, I knew immediately, that deserved to do incredibly well. The only problem being, it’s in West Bengal, not Rajasthan or Kerala and therefore a tough sell. I wish more agents would operate as we had 12 years ago and sold places like this specifically to be enjoyed at the end of a longer itinerary. Or that people would now start putting West Bengal on the map and head to this place for a long weekend or more.
There are spacious gardens, a lovely swimming pool, cosy corners, both outside and inside, with armchairs and bookshelves, to while away the hours quite happily. Then, comes the piece de la resistance, a spa. Compact and bijoux, a small array of well thought out treatments to keep you feeling relaxed and pampered, throughout your stay.
There are 32 rooms and suites, all with Bengal hand-crafted four poster beds, most in the main building, but then there is the Dak Bungalow, which I could happily move into and would make a perfect writers retreat and the Chota Bari which is a separate building, set back in the garden, with four rooms and which would be ideal for a group of friends, yoga group, culinary group etc. Because, yes, I almost forgot, the food is also really very good. Despite my twenty years in India, I don’t think I had ever had a traditional Bengali meal before. It was a whole new experience for me and one which I enjoyed immensely. I wish I had written this earlier, as already mentioned, or at least taken notes, so that I could tease and tempt you with each delicacy, but hey, somethings are best left for you to discover for yourselves, I can’t do it all for you. There are however, different dining areas, open sided The Lotus Pavilion overlooking the gardens by the pool, The Library a wonderful cosy space serving snacks throughout the day, the main dining area at the top of the staircase is the Tjakur Dalan, as befitting this property as one would expect, and hidden behind that is the Piano Room, for private dining.
Now then, the Zamindars were renowned as much for their extravagance as their love for music, art and literature and these aspects of the local culture, are also part of the Rabari experience. From the traditional welcome, to the daily evening puja which is conducted by Mr Mondal, one of the original owners of the building and a mine of information on both it, it’s history and the local area to, the travelling musicians who are brought in to entertain, to the final giving of a drink on departure, all aspects of the culture of the region are part of the daily routine here. However, in addition to assisting with promoting the dying arts and traditions of the region, Ajay has also given this a new twist; why not use it to promote the modern arts too? Musicians and literature lovers who are striving to make it in today’s world. They are also given space here to nurture and showcase their talents.
Ajay told me before I visited that most people who venture out to the Rajbari just end up staying put and enjoying the place and it’s easy to see why. Whether with a group of friends, a yoga group, a honeymoon couple, your family, or someone just in need of R&R, the place will envelope you and make you feel at home. However, sitting and relaxing? That is just not me, so I set out to explore the local area. Yes, Calcutta is just an hours’ drive away, I love Calcutta and am always happy to venture into its charming chaos, but this, this is rural India and somewhere I haven’t explored before, and so I set off to see what I could see.
Well let me tell you, I wondered around the local village, explored further afield by cycle and also took the car to venture a little further still. Not one of these excursions disappointed and within a few kilometers of the hotel, I:
- Bought jaggery from a Muslim gentleman sitting at a Hindu temple.
- Was blessed at the adjacent Shiva Temple
- Bought a knife to slay the evil elements from within us, (it was Kali Puja the next day), from the priest I had met at the Shiva temple and who also doubles up as a paanwala.
- Ventured up to the local fishing village where I learnt that fishing nets take one month to make and cost INR2800.
- Had a lesson in how to cast said fishing net.
- Met ladies sifting for the tiniest prawns to sell to the prawn farms.
- Met embroiderers, where one item takes 4 men 7 days to complete.
- Learnt how to make bricks and tiles at the local brick factory.
- Learnt how to make puffed rice the traditional way, cooked over black sand by an old lady in the local village.
- Met village potters putting the finishing touches to the idols for the Kali puja festival.
- Sheltered from the rain in a chai shop and failed miserably at learning the card game 29. A language barrier and a large and involved audience may have had something to do with it.
- Watched two huge monitor lizards scamper across the path and into the pond where one man was sitting and shaving, whilst on the other side two ladies were washing pots.
- Visited the local football academy, famous in these parts apparently.
- Wondered around a private organic garden that I randomly got invited into and stayed for chai and pakoras.
- Returned to the Rajbari Bawali for a well-earned sundowner on the terrace, only for it to be served with organic limes given to me by the villagers.
The Rajbari Bawali has brought back to the region a sense of style and elegance that is difficult to find these days, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone. However, more than that, it has also opened up this area for gentle exploration and as I discovered, rural life is still wonderfully simple &welcoming in West Bengal.
How to reach? Fly to Calcutta and it is a 2.5 hour drive from there.
Village & P.O. North Bawali 24 Parganas (South), Kolkata 700137
+91 90733 12000