Tuesday, July 27, 2010

PALACES AND PRINCES, BANGLADESH


Viewed across a large tank, from the steps down to the water near  the homes that remain of the artists, actors and musicians who once awaited the pleasure of the Zaminder, the Dubalhati Palace at Naogoan, although ruined, reminds of the greatest stately homes of UK. Buckingham Palace, even!

Where, no doubt, peacocks and deer once roamed, in front of the vast neoclassical façade, now a crude pottery kiln and a rough roadway remain.

The real craftsmanship of the builders, of course, lies in the cement work. The acanthus leaves and scrolls, the towering columns, the capitols and the crested pediments are extraordinary masterpieces of cement work, as much as of classical reproduction architecture.

Never mind the Portland stone, or the marble. In early 20th Century Bengal, bricks and cement were ideal local materials!


Classical revival makes a regular reappearance in buildings across the world for the past 2000 years. Today, it may be unfashionable, but if the philosopher who observed that history has a habit of repeating itself, the fashion will surely return. But where, then, will be the cement craftsmen?

The state of ruin suggests something more catastrophic than mere neglect, but if the site were cleared of debris it would still make, like the noble ruins of ancient Europe, a fine visitor attraction. It is, however, difficult to resist recalling the poet Shelley, ‘Look at my works, ye mighty, and despair nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck…’

The son of the last Zaminder lives still in Naogoan, but it is difficult to imagine that he would often visit the ruins of what was.

The half hour drive from the town centre is surely worth every twist and turn to visit what was, once, surely one of the grandest palaces in Bengal.

There is no shortage of other palaces... Rajbari, Zaminderbari, call them what you will. Stately homes might be the best western description!


The huge, red brick Edwardian Oriental Sitlai Plalace in Pabna is in a far better state of repair. Standing in a well kept 15 acre estate on the banks of the Padma, complete with a dairy farm and herd of spotted deer, the palace is now a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant.


Nearby, in Pabna town centre, Tarish Palace stands unloved. A small gem of, yet again, neoclassical revival, it brings to mind the absurd question once asked by an Indian Government Minister when challenged about the state of the palaces of India; ‘should we feed the poor, or repair the palaces?’ Time, in India, has proved the validity of the response ‘Repair the palaces and the tourists will flock. You will not merely feed the poor but create jobs for them too!’ A lesson, sadly, that Bangladesh has yet to learn!
As a craft centre, tourist information centre, or even as a boutique hotel, the transient grandeur of this small palace, which remains in fairly good repair, could yet make its own contribution to the alleviation of the poverty that blights the place.


A couple of hours drive away lies Natore. The very epicenter of rural palaces. What town in Europe would not give a great deal to have the attraction of the great, sprawling Rajbari to attract the tourists who flock to such places?

Built by a ‘poor orphan’, who made good under the auspices of ‘The Honorable Company’, just how good he made in that business rather the hereditary environment is conspicuous. The original palace was ruined in the 1897 ‘Great India Earthquake’, but the ruins themselves make for fascinating exploration. The post earthquake arcades and pavilions, however, are a splendid mélange of neoclassicism and Edwardian ‘wedding cake baroque’. Other, older monuments are scattered over a wide area and repay a full day wandering this remarkable site.


Rangpur contains, perhaps, the best example of ‘wedding cake baroque’ in the frontage of its splendid palace. And, curiously, the rear of the building is astonishingly reminiscent of the William and Mary part of Hampton Court Palace near London.

The Maharajah’s sprawling palace in Dinajpur may well not be to the taste of every architectural historian, but, to paraphrase, ‘it may not be an architectural gem, but it is magnificent’

At Saidpur, the Astana-e-Haque now houses 50 families descended from the last Zaminder, which may not say a great deal about its style, but much for its size!

Near Gaibandha, east of Bogra, the grandson of the last Zaminder still lives in the compound around a small bungalow that was the residence of his grandfather. An actor and artist, the last Zaminder gave performances for local people. The bungalow may be humble, but the Mughal period temples in the gardens are fine, if crumbling pieces of terracotta and stone masons art.

In Bogra itself, the fine mansion that was the home of Muhammad Ali is hung with his pictures taken with the likes of Queen of England. A curious combination of a typical stately home in a city centre, and a theme park playground in the garden, visitors from UK might feel very much at home!

North Bengal certainly contains a colourful array of these magnificent houses, but it is closer to Dhaka, the centre of commerce and administration, where finer and greater palaces abound.


Few are in any great state of repair, although facades can disguise the poor state of interiors. But from Curzon Hall in Dhaka University, to the huge, rambling, Ballati palace in Manikganj or the riverside Murapara palace near Naryanganj a diversity of styles mark the ebb and flow of tastes in the early Twentieth century.

Were Curzon Hall in Delhi, it would by now, no doubt, have become a genuine 5 star hotel, rather that a slowly decaying department of Dhaka’s famous place of learning whose international reputation once justified Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, lending his name to this notable addition to its facilities.

The Joydevpur palace in Gazipur, with over 350 rooms, is certainly the largest such palace in Bangladesh.

With its own romantic history of murder and mayhem, it maybe anotherslowly declining masterpiece of mid 18th century architecture, but it is still a magnificent reminder of the glory that was Bengal equal to any of the great palaces of India.

Neoclassicism is also to be found in Mymensingh. Another Edwardian masterpiece, Mymensingh palace is struggling to maintain its very aristocratic bearing!


In the North east, in Sylhet Division, the remnants of the ancient Palace of the Jaintia Kings are a reminder of earlier times. Where the Kings once held audience, seated on gigantic stone platforms beside what is now the highway to Jafflong, a tyre repair man now holds court!

At Robinbazar, near Kulaura, the Nawab’s descendants still hold court in a palace where, as recently as the 1950s the late Shah of Iran stayed for a tiger hunting expedition, a reminder that this part of Bangladesh, once a part of Assam, could compete with ancient Bengal in its royal traditions.


It is, however in ancient Sonargoan that still stand, in need perhaps of conservation even in their faded charms, the largest cluster of palaces and mansions.


From the ancient palace of the Nawab who lost his throne at the battle of Plassey, to the more contemporary Italianate Governor’s Palace, through the street of ancient merchant’s homes, a history of Bengal is simple to trace. At one end of the street the mansion could stand in any provincial city in France. At the other, the grandeur of the neoclassicism favored by the Raj completes an architectural history lesson, with its unique geopolitical background. There is surely not a city in Europe who would not envy this heritage site!

Throughout Dhaka and the north of Bangladesh, the Rajbari, Zaminderbari, and mansions are all, in their own, distinctive way, little masterpieces that speak volumes for the ancient, grander days of these lovely lands.

The huge membership of the National Trust in UK, and the fans of such ancient palaces across Europe and the developed world would find here, not only places to admire and envy, but traces, too, of the history of their own peoples. Right here, in Bangladesh!

8 comments:

  1. Really enjoy this blog will have to visit some of these locations on my next visit to Banagladesh

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  2. great job. keep it up. but feel like to spit on Bangladesh government, as to don't think of take care of those price less past of our nation.
    LITON

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  3. My great grandfather was a zamindar in Narail (Ray family) and I have heard stories of the 'palace' where my grandmother grew up till she married my grandfather and moved to Kolkata. Do you know if the palace still exists? Or any history of that particular family?

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    1. The palace was demolished following the ruinous state it was left in by Pakistan Army in 1971. However the Victoria College and the Hospital, both founded by the zaminder are still there, together with a number of Temples.
      The hospital building is ruinous, but the College is still mostly in use, though also much ruined.
      On the riverside, of course is the landing place, I think also featured in the blog, that is in good repair.

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  4. This is a very commendable and interesting effort. And sometimes mind-boggling : how come the Sitlai Palace became the unnatural facory site for a pharmaceutical company -- did the current factory owners freely usurp it when the (Hindu) zaminder/owner fled to India in 1947?

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  6. Do you know about the zamindars in panthapara or kalamridha ?

    ReplyDelete