Location: Rajbari Bawali, Nadakhali, West Bengal 700137
Ajay Rawla is a Kolkata jute and real estate businessman with immense gifts for lateral thinking and romantic dreaming. In 2006, while hunting for a new factory site, he took a detour to look at some temple ruins he’d heard about and came across a magnificent dilapidated palace, tropical creepers growing out of its crumbling walls. It was love at first sight. Today, Rajbari Bawali is a masterclass in dedicated, sympathetic conservation.
Built in the 1770s for the Mondal zamindar (Bengal aristocrat) family, who’d acquired 50 local villages in 1710, it had been neglected since independence in 1949. The project to revive it was enormous - rajbari (Bengali for palace) covers four acres. Furthermore, the materials did not suit the climate: built in brick and stucco, the classical design comprised a great courtyard surrounded on three sides by pillars supporting two stories of rooms, with a sweeping staircase on the fourth. Corinthian capitals and frolicking cupids abounded. Ajay was undaunted. ‘I felt like Alice in Wonderland’, he remembers. First, it took two years to buy it, negotiating with 18 family members, then it took eight years to restore it. Wisely, he consulted conservationists around the world. Then he brought in an Indian team to use traditional building methods, sending some to learn old techniques. The result is a blend of careful conservation with comfortable mod cons.
This is why you take the 90-minute drive out of Kolkata to spend a few days there. Simply sink yourself into peace, authentic beauty, and that rarest of things in a hotel, huge amounts of quiet space.
Must-do wellness experience: an early morning walk through the village
Rajbari buzz phrases: have you explored that roof area/seen those rooms under the stairway/found the pool?
Ideas for unpacking your kind of slow-down wellness at Rajbari Bawali
Wonder at the stripped-back simplicity achieved by craftsmen using traditional lime washing, brick molding and plastering. Master masons were brought from Murshidabad; some craftsmen re-learned the skill of limestone-brickdust mortar called surkh at the Aga Khan Foundation in Delhi.
At the lakeside restaurant, linger over local sun-ripened pineapple and try unusual Bengali breakfast dishes. Rajbari food is seasonal, local, unusual, delicious – Bengali guests love it. Big lounger chairs entice you to bookend meals with cocktails and coffee - there is no rush to go anywhere, so relax.
Find your own comfort: lush gardens, quiet balconies, hidden lakeside seats, and cool rooms like this for reading, playing snooker or just hanging out. Wherever you are, someone will bring you a chai. At either end of the activity spectrum find the large, discreetly positioned pool and a little spa with excellent massage therapists.
Despite is size, Rajbari is like staying in a private home. Furnishings are Ajay’s own quirky finds – a rocking horse, a painting of Krishna, bold Art Deco ceiling lights, Bengali movie photos. Importantly, Ajay believes in air-conditioning. And his approach to plumbing is that is should work 24/7 for hot and cold water; it does.
Take a stroll through laid-back Bawali village, learn about the plants locals use for their health, visit the temple. The big adventure is a sunset boat ride a short drive away. But with early evening aarti (conch shell music and fire worship) and perhaps some full-throated Bengali baul singers dropping by, why bother?
Episode 13 - Ranvas, Nagaur, Rajasthan
Is it now time to start planning your Unpacking Wellness experience?
We shall emerge into a more cautious world. In preparation, I have designed some slow-travel Unpacking Wellness experiences. They are suffused in wellness, interaction is controlled, crowds are avoided. You pick and mix your selection from four week-long, in-depth visits to South Indian spots I especially love - on plateau, coast, forest and delta. Do one, two, three or all four.
If you have not traveled with me before ....
Please know that we experience great sights in the best possible way, with lots of add-on encounters and visits to off-beat places. We meet conservationists, curators, craftsmen and musicians, we walk with naturalists, we cook with local chefs. In sum, we imbibe the essence of each area thanks to my four decades of studying and visiting India - and making great friends who I share with you.
For private travel ....
I work with you to create your tailor-made trip to any corner of India, to any budget, for all interests and special needs, for families and parties of friends, for business groups and for honeymoon couples - India is ideal for everyone!