While driving through Taki Road from Barasat towards Basirhat, many curious visitors might have noticed an European Medieval style gate with two towers. On close observations it is perceived that on the top of the gate there is a statue of two Europeans fighting with a lion.
The gate is the entrance to a high walled enclosure. A signboard in Bengali states it to be State run orphanage. A smaller signboard says “No Entry without Permission”. It does not say anything about photography being prohibited. If it is early morning, one can jolly well take a chance to venture in the interior.
There is a caretaker named Dipen Mondal and a henchman who are in the best of moods in the early hours of the day. If one can pursue them with kind words and polite request, they may allow a restricted entry inside the premises. Two steps inside the enclosure and the first thing to attract the visitors is a mansion which resembles like an English Castle! With water body in its front and green vegetation around, a first time visitor on a cold winter morning can be virtually transferred to English countryside.
Welcome to the small settlement of Dhanyakuria near Basirhat, North 24 Parganas district at West Bengal. Not featured in the list of tourist destinations of West Bengal, the settlement showcases plenty of lavish mansions of fusion architecture, belonging to zamindars and merchants of yesteryear.
The “Castle” was never the property of any English nobleman. This was the Summer House alias Baganbari of the local Gaine family, who were one of the early descendants of the area. This vintage structure was built by Mahendranath Gaine, a wealthy landlord and businessman during the beginning of 20th century.
Gayen Baganbari alias Gayen Garden
The Castle looks run down and has a burnt out appearance. However, unlike the other English Castle like building (Tagore Castle) in West Bengal, this one looks unchanged in the frontal area. At first look it looks like a miniature of Windsor Castle with its battlements. The arches on the balcony and entrance doors were well designed and thankfully have not been modified yet.
On the right top side of the mansion, There is a circular empty space on the wall within a frame, which looked like had housed a giant clock. However, the caretaker said there is a similar frame like structure on the back of the mansion which has circular design embedded in the space. Maybe it was some kind of emblem, but now it is not legible.
Though the back side of mansion was not visible, I would see a spire peeping out. On the left end of the castle there is an embedded tower. Beyond it stood out a small towering structure, similar to a Keep or Kype (highest point and the center of defense of a castle) seen in Medieval European Castles. The design of the mansion was much like a Stone Keep Castle which was prevalent in England after Normans invasion. Although there was a waterbody in front of the structure, it is not a moat. Neither there is a drawbridge at the entrance of the building.
Since this a girl’s orphanage the caretaker will not permit an unsolicited visitor further beyond the water body. The premise is a large area, which showcases at least another old structure with turret near the entrance. The mansion seemed to have some designs on the outer wall. Two emblems exist on its wall. I am not sure about their details as I could not venture further. I have no idea how good are the interiors, but if the fragile exteriors are not renovated this rare architecture may well turn into rubble.
Dhanyakuria – the village of Palaces.
Once a part of Sunderbans, Dhanyakuria was converted into a proper settlement for living in 1742 when one Jagannath Das settled here with his family. Likewise families of many traders like Mandal, Gaine, Sawoo and Ballavs came and settled in the village and became affluent. This is when these families built up several mansions. The area was famous for Rice and Sugarcane. Vaishnav culture was predominant in the area.
Out of the many mansions in the vicinity, the mansions of Gaine, Ballav and Sawoo are still well maintained. The entry to the settlement is through a mid-sized lane from the Taki Road just besides the Gaine Baganbari. Going through this lane named Dhanyakuria Benepara road, one can see the pink building of Dhanyakuria High School on the left.
The first grand mansion which greets a visitor to Dhanyakuria is that of the residence of Gaine family. Adorned with light pink colour, the L shaped Gaine Mansion is an excellent example of fusion architecture. The two storied mansion is studded with several Ionian pillars besides the long open corridors in both floors. These open corridors connect the rooms. Those on the back side of the buildings are covered with window shades. On each end of the mansion there is a roof dome which is a significant add-on to the grandeur of the building. The dome near to the entrance of the mansion is more decorated with colored glass ventilators. Earlier there used to be a small spire on the top of this dome which does not exist at present.
Inside the mansion premises there is a three storied tower adorned with a dome named “Nazar Minar”. It is well decorated with four Corinthian pillars on each of its corner. Although the first two floors have rounded archways, top floor has Islamic archways. Access to the interiors of the Gaine Mansion is restricted as they house residential quarters.
The Founder of Gaine Family was Gopinath Gaine. The Gaine family had a joint venture business with the Ballavs and the Sawoos. They dealt with trading of Jaggery, Jute and other Commodities. From the profit of that business, they invested in real estate and set up colleges and donated to charity.
Mahendranath Gaine, the worthy son of Gopichand Gaine, built this mansion about 175 years ago. He had direct business dealings with the British. Benefiting from business dealings in Jute, he started a Rice Mill at Dhanyakuria. He started Durga Puja in this house.
The descendants of Gaines are still well off. Except Kanchan Gaine who is in his 70s, the rest of the family members have settled down in Kolkata and other cities. There is a family get together at the Gaine residence during Durga Puja which is held every year with pomp and show. The idol is placed on the Thakurdalan inside the mansion. Durga Puja is celebrated maintaining old rituals. On the last day of the festival, involvement of people from Kahar community is still prevalent. These people carry the idol on their shoulders for immersion to the water body.
Gaine Mansion has been a film makers favourite since long. From yesteryear Saheb Bibi Golam to present day Satwenashi by Rituparno Ghosh, many a films have been shot in these premises.
Just besides the Gaine Mansion, there is the temple of the presiding deity of the family – Shyamsundar Jiu. This one storied building is also of L shaped painted in pink. The Temple is said to be established during 1821.
Coming out of the Gaine Mansion, a brief walk on the opposite lane takes to the Sawoo Mansion on the right. The white colored building has embedded Corinthian Pillars on its walls along with stucco decoration over window arches on its exterior.Some of the windows have shades on the arches, while some arches are subdivided into two smaller arches with stained glass design on them.
The entrance door with stained glass archway is generally open to visitors which lead to a courtyard. The two floors have long corridors connecting the rooms. Facing the entrance is a beautiful Thakurdalan having five archways studded with rich stucco work.
Like the Gaine house, the Sawoo house looks well maintained too. The stucco work is freshly painted. European influence is predominant on them. The pillars of thakurdalan are of interesting style. Each pillar besides the archways comprises of a number of small Corinthian look like pilasters. Above each archway is rich stucco work on the Lunette (semi-circular wall area above the door). To reach the inner sanctum of the Thakurdalan which has a small backdoor, one has to cross another row of archways having similar design as the first.
I could not get much information about Sawoo family except the fact that the adjacent Radha kanta temple was built by Pratik Chandra Sawoo. Like Gaines and Ballavs, they were the Zamindars of Dhanyakuria. In 1885, descendant of Sawoo family – Upendranath Sawoo along with Mahendranath Gaine founded the first English School of Dhanyakuria. At present no one of the family resides in the house. There is a caretaker who is seldom seen in the vicinity. The interior doors and access to the top floor are usually locked.
Walking straight down the road leads to another lane on the right with a somewhat ill shaped statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose erected in the corner. Strolling down this path besides a pond leads to another magnificent mansion on the left – the two storied residence of the Ballav family.
Ballav Mansion alias Ballav Bati was built by Shyamacharan Ballav almost at the same time when Gaine’s Mansion was constructed. Shyamacharan Ballav became rich by trading in Jute. He was known for being kind at heart and extremely generous. The present generation of Ballav has their descendents spread over various parts of West Bengal. Near Shyambazar area of Kolkata, there is a huge mansion of the Ballav Family.
Painted with green and white, the mansion has exquisite iron gates and fencing of same colour combination. Apart from being adorned with huge Corinthian pillars, the front side of the building has rows of stucco work over the corridors of both floors. The corridor of the top floor is totally covered with window shades. There is a beautiful and well maintained garden in the Ballav Mansion premises.
The most interesting part of the Ballav Mansion is the presence of some idols on the terrace of the house. Locally this Mansion is known as “Putul Bari” alias “House of the Dolls”.
On each corner of the terrace is a single figure with European attire. Just above the entrance there is a stucco peacock above which is figure that resembles a Roman centurion with a crown like head gear. On each side of this figure there is one male figure with mustache and turban. Maybe this was an indication of loyalty to the British Lords during the era of Raj.
At the end of the premises of Ballav house, there is a three storied tower which is design wise similar to the Nazar Minar of the Gaine family. Unlike Nazar Minar, this structure is outside the premises of Ballav House. Also it is painted in yellow and has two stucco human figurines on the top. It seems there were more figurines, but at present only two remains.
Walking down further this road one encounters a huge Nine Pinnacle two storied Rasmancha on the right. During Vaisnava Ras Festival, idols of Radha Krishna idols are being worshiped here. The white colored structure looks like a Navaratna Temple at first sight. It has five arched entrance on each side of the ground floor. Just like Thakurdalan of the Sawoo house, each pillar besides the archways comprises of a number of small Corinthian look like pilasters.
As mentioned earlier, the Vaishnava culture was predominant in Dhanyakuria in its early periods and the huge Rasmancha is evidence to it. At a stone throw distance from the Rasmancha is the gate of Sawoo Baganbari alias Sawoo Summer palace. A huge gate adorned with Corinthian Pillars leads to the garden. The premises have an extensive area much like the Gaine Baganbari. The Sawoo Baganbari mansion is impressive too, but nowhere near in glamour and grandeur as compared to the Gaine Castle.
A trip to Dhanyakuria can be a refreshing weekend day tour especially during Durga Puja when the grand houses celebrate the festival and the silent hamlet becomes alive. Or if one prefers serenity and just wants to appreciate the fusion architectures of the grand mansion, a winter weekend trip can be enjoyable too.
How to reach Dhanykuria
The best way to reach Dhanyakuria from Kolkata is by car via Barasat. From Barasat it is just over 30 km. You need to drive straight via Taki Road towards Basirhat. Keep looking on your left after Berachampa and you will spot the gate of Gayen Baganbari. A few couple metres after the mansion, the Dhanyakuria Benepara Road on the left leads to the settlement. Please note that the Taki Road is not one of the best roads for driving specially after Berachampa. You need to be careful while driving.
If you fancy going by train, take Basirhat local from Sealdah and get down at Kankra Mirzanagar Station. The journey is around 1:30 hours. From the station take a local transport which will take you to Dhanykuria via Kankra Kachua Road. There are many transportation options available as this road passes by the popular temple of Saint Lokanath at Kachuadham. On reaching Dhanyakuria you may hire a cycle rickshaw for sightseeing.
Where to eat
There is no descent eatery at Dhanyakuria. It is advisable to carry food and water.
Arka Dutta , who accompanied me to Dhanyakuria
1. Chakrabarti, Ranjan (Editor) : Dictionary of Historical Places: Bengal, 1757-1947 ;Primus Books, Aug 2013
2. Mazumdar, Jaideep : Red bricks hint at glorious past , Times of India, Kolkata Xtra, Time Travel, 24 May 2014
3. Sengupta, Somen : Next weekend you can be at … Dhanyakuria, The Telegraph Metro, 6 December 2009
4. Biswas, Parna : Maha Astami te 108 ti pradip jwale Dhanyakuriar Rajbari te, Khabar 365 din (Bengali Newspaper), 20 September 2013