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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!