By Nishi Pulugurtha
One February morning we embark on a day trip to discover a part of Bengal not very far from Kolkata. We move north, along VIP Road and Jessore Road, navigating morning traffic. At Champadali More, Barasat, we turn to the right, and take the road that leads to Basirhat. Traffic is much less here. We cross Berachampa and suddenly sight a huge mansion behind walls on the left side of the road. The gate is closed and as we come closer to have a look, we see a board on the gate, announcing that this building is now a state run home for girls. The gate is huge and has two towers at both ends. Atop the gate are figures of two men fighting a lion. There are roots of plants spouting from the towers and the grounds within are in a bad shape. Entry is restricted and one can only view the huge building from outside. This is the Gayen Bagan Bari (Garden House of the Gayen family). The building that stands on the grounds resembles a castle. In front of the building is a pond used by the inmates. The tower and turrets of the building are magnificent. This huge building that makes us stop and alight and admire is situated in a small place called Dhanyakuria.
Dhanyakuria is a village in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. This village is known for its huge mansions and it was this knowledge that brought us here. Dhanyakuria is little known, yet this small place is home to many huge mansions, built by rich families who made their money in trade. Much of the trade was in jute, jiggery, and rice. Our first sighting, the Gayen Bagan Bari is one of the mansions dotting this small place. Built by the Gayen family in the early part of the 20th century, the building is in a terrible state now. The turrets, towers, arches, windows, balconies and doors, remind one of castles. As we stand facing it, we see a spire on the left side of the building. To the right of the huge gate is another much smaller structure that is in a dilapidated condition. There are tall trees here and there and quite a bit of foliage all around the ill-maintained grounds. The tower has roots and branches emanating from it and the bricks are visible in places too. We move back a little on the road we came, take a turn and enter into the village of Dhanyakuria. As we move ahead, we cross a high school, a medical centre, all of which are housed in big buildings which once belonged to the rich families of the villages. The structures reveal opulence and are well maintained too.
We ask our way to Gayen Bari, (Gayen House) and locals direct us to a majestic house that is characterized by huge pillars. Immaculately maintained, we are told that the house has often been used by Bengali filmmakers as location for their films. The huge building is built in a style that is a fusion of Indian and European architecture. The house has a tower that stands on huge Corinthian pillars that have arches reminiscent of Islamic architecture. As one enters the huge gates, one notices the beautifully maintained lawns with flowers in full bloom. Gayen Bari is ‘L’ shaped and has two domes on the top. The entire building is painted in a shade of pink. There is an overhanging balcony that has green iron railings. In one corner of the place, a temple is dedicated to Radha Krishna, the presiding deity of the family. There are gardeners tending to the beautiful gardens of the buildings, who dissuade us from entering. After some persuasion, we are able to take a peek inside the building which is painted white, the doors and windows in green. There is a huge courtyard within around which there are rooms on all three sides that open into a balcony. On one side is the thakur dalan: this is a raised structure which is approached by a small flight of stairs. The structure has three arches. This is the place where the Durga Puja is held each year in autumn.
Within the premises of Gayen Bari is a three storied domed tower, the Nazar Minar. Decorated with four pillars, the first two storeys have arches that are rounded while the arch on the top storey reveals an Islamic influence in the shape of the arch. It is interesting to note the mixture and blend of various architectural styles in almost all mansions in Dhanyakuria.
We leave the opulence of the Gayen Bari and decide to explore the place further. Just a little away is the Sawoo Mansion, that belonged to the Sawoo family. The building is white and is not as well maintained as the Gayen Bari. This structure also has huge pillars and a stucco decoration on the window arches, a few of the windows have shades on them and some have stained glass designs too. This house too has a thakur dalan that has arches and pillars. Unlike the Gayen Bari, there is no one around here and the mansion is empty.
We move further ahead and stand right in front of the Ballabh Bari. Locals refer to this mansion as Putul Bari, the Bengali word ‘putul’, means ‘doll’. We soon see the reason. There are statues adorning the mansion. Painted in green and white, with the paint peeling off in many places, the mansion has huge iron gates. It is similar to the other mansions in the area in that it has pillars and stucco work on the corridors of both floors. The garden is ill-maintained with foliage creeping all over the place. On the corners of the terrace, there are statues of figures in European dress. Right above the main entrance to the mansion is a peacock above which is a figure wearing a crown. On each side of this figure is a moustached and turbaned male figure. The main gate was locked and we entered the premises through a small room that led into the gardens. As we entered into the mansion, the interiors looked similar to the other two mansions, in white and green with a thakur dalan. Faded photographs of family members hung on the corridors. Behind the mansion is a huge pond and trees all around. The erstwhile gardens are overgrown now. In the gardens, there are remnants of fountains, all overgrown with foliage. Just outside the premises is a three storied tower similar in design to the Nazar Minar of the Gayen Bari. Unlike that structure, this one is in a bad shape – the yellow paint is almost off, the figures on the top are mostly broken. The lone caretaker who comes in seeing us around tells us that the family is settled in Kolkata and comes here only during the Durga Puja celebrations.
As we move down the road we come across the Rasmancha, a two storied structure that served as the place of worship of Radha and Krishna during the Vasihnav Ras festival. It is white in colour and has five arches on each side of the ground floor.
A little further from the Rasmancha is the Sawoo Bagan Bari, the garden house of the Sawoo family. A huge gate with tall, imposing pillars, a reminder of great times, greets us as we move in. Most of the garden has now been sold off, and small houses dot the area. There is a big house belonging to the Sawoo family that is locked up for most of the year. Just opposite and beside the house are huge groves of mango trees. A local advises us to visit the nearby park, named after Satyajit Ray. Located between the Bidyadhari River on one side and small water bodies on the other, the park is a favourite picnic site for the locals.
Dhanyakuriya is just about 30 kms from Barasat, not very far from Kolkata, yet most people living in the city and its surroundings have never heard of the place. We are awestruck by the huge mansions, at the fusion of architectural styles used in the buildings, at the sheer opulence evident everywhere, at the faded photographs that seemed to tell a story of a different time and era, the statues that made us notice and appreciate all the details. Every pillar, every arch, every bit of the place seemed to have something that made us wonder. This small, little place left us spellbound.
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor, Department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College, Kolkata. She is an academic with varied interests and writes on travel, too. Twitter: @nishipulu
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