Yes I know I haven't written in a long, long time. Cutting a long story short, I was with my friend Kshitish on October 9th travelling from Durgapur (where my college is) to Calcutta to enjoy the Durga Puja festivities when the bus we were in was hit from behind by a speeding truck. Besides breaking my camera, I also ended up with 14 fractures in my left arm when it hit the metal backrest at great velocity. Also my arm muscles got crushed, the skin burst apart because of the impact & the wounds were so severe that I had to get over 100 sutures, 6 excruciating surgeries & 4 skin grafts. As of now, am recuperating at home - thanks to physiotherapy & medicines, the bones & the muscles are healing gradually, but I still have extensive neural damage that restricts the movement of my joints so I can't open any of my fingers or rotate my elbow & wrist joints. The doctors have advised me not to travel for 3-4 months more atleast. In the meanwhile, I'll complete the articles that I was supposed to write but never got around to researching, starting with this one that I was working on at the time of the accident. I am not guaranteeing that the posts would be regular & numerous like before, but I promise I'll do my best!! Happy reading!!
Next to a wide highway crawling through lush green fields lies a small rural hamlet, more of an agglomerate of mediocre houses, tiny shops & shanties, roadside eateries & unpaved, pockmarked & rain-drenched roads – each of these suitably encapsulated within a little grove of its own by the roadside. Massive trucks & lorries loiter past; migratory birds call their pit stops here; the spread of vegetation soothes the eyes; the water bodies that naturally come to life after every cycle of rains provide spots for the flora of the region to flourish, the fauna to quench their thirst & the kids to escape the tropical sun & the humidity that comes with the rains in this part of the world. Dark, ominous clouds shroud the sky, bringing with them hordes of insects, especially dragonflies, masses of which try to follow every moving body – be it a truck, a person or cattle. The greenery, the highway snaking through it & the gnarled trees – each of these together conspire to present a picture of harmonious bliss, an idyllic setting unimpeded by the rush of modernity engulfing the world round it, undisturbed by the events, big & small, happening near & far. The impression of an Indian village is further completed by the presence of small hutments, still smaller temples & cattle grazing around the fields & the water bodies.
|The remains of the impressive palace & the modern school building (right foreground)|
But sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of this little green paradise is a huge palace that would perhaps have felt more at home in the plains of Europe. Ill-suited for an Indian setting, it was constructed when the Europeans – the British, Dutch, Portuguese & French – came calling at India’s shores in search of riches & treasures & claimed a position of power & authority to both commission & influence construction activity reminiscent of their native places. The Indian subjects, including the Nawabs & the Zamindars (vassals) - each of them exploited & subjugated in one way or the other - were only too eager to please their European lords in order to avoid further taxation & hardships. The Nawabs, merchants & wealthy govt. officials adopted European cultural & architectural practices – soon, it was Gothic & Victorian architectural that came to define the building scene in India, even in far-flung villages like Hetampur where the British had made their writ established. In 1905, the royal family of Hetampur (a corruption of “Hatempur”, after the then Zamindar Hatem Khan) commissioned a massive Gothic palace, the protagonist of this post, as their privileged residence – the gigantic structure boasts of 999 doors in its plan (one less than the thousand doors of the Murshidabad royal palace as a mark of respect to the most powerful rulers of Bengal), hence christened as “Hazarduari” (“Thousand doors”) “Rajbari” (“Royal residence”) – but one look at the building & one bemoans the fate of the palace that has certainly seen far better days.
|Some of the 999 doors - View from an inner courtyard|
The Hetampur royal family was established by Radhanath Chakravarty who rose from meager beginnings & subdued the Roys, the then ruling family, to establish a stronghold which he further fortified by buying huge tracts of lands in & around Birbhum & defeating contending rulers & zamindars. He accepted British suzerainty & was granted the title of “Maharaja” (a nominal title, literally “king”, bestowed by the British government; abolished along with the vassal system & hereditary titles when India gained its freedom) by the British Indian government in 1796. His sons & grandsons further expanded the family’s territorial domain & influence & they finally became the most powerful family in the whole of Birbhum, bringing their former masters, the Roys & the Rajnagar family, under their thumb. Maharaja Ram Ranjan Chakravarty (born 1851, died 1912) rendered invaluable help to the government during the disastrous famine of 1874 & was thus granted the title of “Bahadur”. He commissioned the magnificent Rajbari (it was then known as “Ranjan Palace”, christened after the Maharaja) & though he himself did not live long enough to enjoy the pleasures afforded by this Neo-Classical mansion, he left it behind as a souvenir of his rich & fertile reign.
|Built to awe - This is just the gateway of the complex!!|
A grand red brick gateway, supported by massive Corinthian pillars & interspersed with arched windows & entrances, ushers visitors inside the huge complex that houses the forgotten palace. Marked by slender protruding eaves supported on equally-spaced brackets & topped by several feminine figurines with their arms outstretched, the gateway itself is a commanding structure – the central portion, raised higher than the extremities & supported by tall pillars gives it a militaristic look – on first sight it seems as if there would be armed guards keeping an eye at visitors from the red-painted arched windows on the first floor – but reality often betrays expectations & imaginations – small children no more than 7-8 years of age look at us with wide eyes, giggling & scuttling away as soon as we fish out our cameras. The palace houses a DAV school & a B.Ed college in its premises & hence the young scholars.
|The royal quarters|
Enter the gateway & one comes against a vast expanse that renders even considering this stretch as part of a palace compound into a struggle. Several trucks were parked shoulder to shoulder, many of them filled with what looked like coal, others revving up & readying to move out; mounds of debris & coal lay hitherto over open, dust-laden ground. Elsewhere, weeds & creepers seemed to have overtaken the entire ground, from the broken wooden doors that lay half-hidden amidst the all-encompassing vegetation to the moss-laden octagonal well that appeared more green than brown – so much so that we could not photograph the twin wings that make up the palace from the front & had to make do with a side shot. Stepping through the desolation, the ruinous state of the once magnificent palace came as no surprise – the thick, yellow pillars had turned brownish-green due to decay; all the features that described the Victorian architecture of the structure, including the ornamental tops of the Corinthian pillars, the plasterwork along the pyramidal roof & other decorative features such as the crenellations along the roof are almost gone, turned into an indecipherable, indistinguishable smudgy mask over the yellow walls & the blue rooftops; most of the original expensive Burma teak doors & windows have since been stolen & were never replaced. That the massive palace was once an impressive example of English architecture in this distant corner of the world is beyond doubt, but today a clothesline & broken furniture strewn around the structure mar the little grandeur & sophistication it is left with. Sadly the interiors are in an even worst state compared to the exteriors – by the means of wooden semi-walls & divisions, the ground floor (painted vivid blue throughout!!) has been partitioned into separate quarters for the several families that now live here. A thick layer of dust covers everything that does not move, from the wooden partitions to the portraits on the walls; in an especially secluded corner marked by thick cobwebs, an old Bajaj scooter stands next to old riff-raff including wooden cupboards, plastic containers, a few clothes & an idol of an old, bespectacled man.
|Shabby & ignored - The palace interiors|
Through the maze of rooms & their sub-divisions we finally found the stairway leading to the upper floor – a huge trapdoor angled along the incline of the staircase was a surprise to us as this was the first time we were seeing something like this - the heavy steel door could be forced shut at the time of aggression or an enemy siege. The first floor is considerably well maintained compared to the ground floor – the walls retain their original character; the framed photographs hanging on the walls were covered only in a minute layer of dust. The harmony was shattered by a disused, broken wooden palanquin comfortably tacked in the verandah, its musty interiors stuffed with old files & wood shavings, a hay stack lying along one of its sides & submerging the wooden poles that the bearers would have once held to carry the palanquin & the royal personage seated within. In one of the rooms sat the present head of the Hetampur royal family - an old Zamindar bent double with age, whose cough could be heard resounding through the whole floor – one of the attendants tending to him told us that both the "Raja" & his wife are gravely ill, both of them having had a stroke within a quarter year of each other. But the Raja was gracious enough to allow us to photograph his palace provided we did not make much noise (fine, I must have told the attendants about this blog & the other publications I write for along with the sentence “But we have come from Delhi!!” to coax them for permission).
|The unique trapdoor|
Two of the rooms, now converted into classrooms, still display much of the original paintwork they were embellished with including floral motifs (around the arched doorways & even the light switches!!) & striking frescoes depicting scenes from Indian mythology, splendidly painted & vividly-colored, executed in arched niches above the many doors that line the room's perimeter. Even the roof overlooking the wide staircase is done in huge, green & pink, four-pointed star motifs inlaid with more floral patterns. From the corridors one can look down to the courtyards enclosed by the palace (& wonder what are those big, black silos doing in the courtyard??). Looking at those numerous doors sprouting out from each wall & guessing which one leads where one indeed feels like “Alice in Wonderland”.
|One of the vivid frescoes executed in a large room that now serves as a classroom|
The palace building is flanked by an equally large white building which houses the school & college & thankfully possesses considerably lesser number of doors than the palace building. Between the two, a narrow path leads to the roofed shelter where the royal chariot is parked – though the chariot appears as if it could be of service for a few more years, the shelter itself is crumbling apart with the paint flaking off the walls, the pillars caved in at places & the whole area submerged in black muck & hay. One has to get her/his shoes dirty to photograph the chariot. At one time, there must have been elephants roaming the massive grounds of the palace complex & their trainers working on them; Sadly, even the horses are missing at present. Strewn around the shelter lay branches hacked off from trees, perhaps to be used as fuel wood; an upturned & grievously crushed motorcycle stood vertically upturned in the middle of the log pile – hilariously I hoped the inhabitants won't burn the motorcycle when they light the fire!! A large room that can be entered from the door preceding the chariot shelter houses a small police station too. The contribution of the Hetampur royal family towards the police & education system is quite evident – the colleges & schools that exist in this small administrative sub-division have all been founded by the royal family.
|Portraits - The one on the top is that of the Chandranath Shiva Temple nearby that is patronized by the royal family|
Adjacent to the white building is a flight of stairs that leads to the huge pond teeming with lotuses & flies alike. Sitting on the steps closest to the pond is bliss, especially since my friends Kshitish & Aakash are there to discuss college gossip & girlfriend stuff. It totally turned out to be a boy’s day out for us.
|What would it look like in spring!!?|
As we stepped out of the small hamlet & started walking along the highway towards our next destination, we fell into a discussion regarding the state of the ruined palace & what would happen to it in coming few years – the Raja & his wife seemed so frail & terribly ill, will their family care for this hereditary possession after they have passed away?? Or will it fall into an even bitter state of neglect & despair?? Interestingly, the Rajbari has featured in several films made by Hindi & Bengali directors, most notable among them being Satyajit Ray!! Regardless of the palace's short & forgotten theatrical association, one is forced to ask why the government should bother with its upkeep & conservation when there are so many more magnificent instances of architecture & heritage lying in equal or worse state of disrepair/disregard. Why would anyone, except for heritage enthusiasts like us, bother about an old, crumbling building that exists in a seldom-visited part of a far-flung state where even basic facilities of residence & safety are non-existent (read my post about the nearby Chandranath Temple here - Pixelated Memories - Chandranath Shiva Temple, we came across a small roadside eatery where even normal-looking bottled beer tasted evil).
|I wish I was also taught in a palace :(|
Some enlightened souls might argue that some structures are meant to disappear after their lease of life has expired, but they forget that it is us who through our ignorance & selfishness allowed these buildings which form an important link to our colonial past come to a stage where their structure has fallen apart & originality lost. That these should be preserved & restored to their original state even when the monetary/tourism benefits are not foreseeable in the near future is non-negotiable. We can only hope that following this & similar articles the tourists flow in & with them comes awareness & effort before it is too late for this & other splendid architectural specimens.
Our thanks to the Raja for allowing us to photograph his estate to our heart’s delight!!
Location: Hetampur village, Birbhum
How to reach: SBSTC Buses are available from different parts of Bengal to Hetampur. Alternately one can reach Suri, the headquarters of Birbhum & take a bus from there to Hetampur (Approx. 1.5hr away). The Rajbari is known to everyone, ask your way around.
Entrance Fee: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 1 hr
Relevant Links -
- Facebook.com/An Era of Indian Zamindars, Taluqdars, Jagirdars - Hetampur Raj
- Flickr.com/Kanad Sanyal - Gateway to Lost Grandeur
- Iinet.net.au - Hetampur (Zamindari)
- Telegraphindia.com - Article "When the hurlyburly's done" (dated March 4, 2010) by Anusua Mukherjee
- Thenomadicarchaeologist.com - Prisoner of Silhouette
- Travel.outlookindia.com - Feats of Clay - Bengal beyond Bishnupur