Returning to India and The Rajbari Bawali

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If you’ve been following me on Instagram for a while you probably know that one of our primary goals behind taking a year off to travel the world together is so David and I can show each other the places that have been meaningful and influential for each of us when we were single. For my part, I’ve been most excited to show David India, as I lived here for a year from 2010-2011 for a fellowship with International Justice Mission, a human rights NGO, and in many ways, India just needs to be seen to be believed. So after touching down in Kolkata we made our way to a small village about an hour outside the city to begin our adventure.

As we pulled up to The Rajbari Bawali, we were welcomed with a sounding conch and traditional tilak, a red vermillion paste applied between the brows as a sign of greeting and blessing. After dropping our things in our room we explored the property for an hour, wandering down hidden passageways, bothering the geese, and admiring the myriad antiques. The mansion was originally built over 250 years ago by the Rajbari family, who were local landowners (called “zamindars”) and governed the region through a system similar to feudal Europe. The grounds were grand and it was easy to imagine the opulent parties they must have hosted throughout the years.

Later we joined Mrinalinee and Vig, the managers of The Rajbari, for afternoon tea and we quickly realized we had a lot in common. Our conversation carried on from tea to cocktails, swapping stories of our experiences in India and New York like old friends. At 7:30 we assembled with the staff in the courtyard to listen to a trio of Sanskrit prayers offered over the house and village.

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We awoke the next morning and were dressed by 6am in the hopes of catching sight of a monitor lizard on the grounds. Vig had shown us a video of one running through the lawn the night before and so we decided to spend the morning camped out in one of the leafy pavilions by the pond, camera in hand. But the 6 foot long lizards were either feeling sleepy or shy that morning and didn’t come out, so we decided to take our breakfast in the pavilion as well. And let me tell you Bengali breakfasts are delicious! Mrinalinee prepared large, fluffy luchi bread served alongside dal and alor dom. Given that this was our first Indian breakfast we stuffed ourselves silly. Indian meal timings are generally much later than those in the states so we had plenty of time to work up an appetite before our thali lunch. Thalis can be incredibly beautiful as each dish is often presented in its own bowl and the dishes can cover the table!

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My favorite thing about The Rajbari isn’t the gorgeous grounds or delicious food, though those both are high points. It’s that most of the staff, from the gardeners to the chefs, are locals from the surrounding village (and this village is remote!). The hotel provides important job skills training and opportunities beyond the local vocations of brick making and weaving, and educates guests on the beauty and challenges of village life during walking tours of the village lead by local staff. We had a little group of children shadowing us throughout the tour, offering shy smiles when we turned to greet them. The sweetest encounter, came when I asked three women for a photo, and though they spoke Bengali and I only English, their response was one women around the world might give. “Who me?… but I’m not dressed for it!” One women hid the cups she had been holding behind a fencepost before posing for the photo.

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Later that evening, Mrinalinee’s uncle – and the owner of The Rajbari – arrived for a short stay. It was fun learning about his process of collecting pieces from around India for the hotel’s decor, and it was apparent this property was a labor of love. Ajay’s wife is an interior designer but he had spearheaded the project all on his own. We dressed up a little for that evening’s cocktails and entered the library to meet several local leaders from the surrounding village and we were soon sipping gin and tonics with members of the panchayat. The panchayat is a system of local leadership typically composed of wise and respected elders from each village, elected to guide community decisions and settle local disputes. They had gathered to discuss how the Rajbari could further partner alongside the village, a sort of “CSR” (corporate social responsibility) meeting. As conversation turned from English to Hindi we took our cue and ducked out for dinner under the frangipani trees.

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What a wonderful and unique experience to begin our tour of India! It’s good to be back.

xx, SF

All photos by David and Stacie Flinner for stacieflinner.com

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