Deep in the Bengali heartland is a fairyland come to life. Virtually leaping off the landscape like a pop-up storybook is a village of exquisite castles, regal palaces and aristocratic mansions sporting the finest medieval European architecture.
Like real-life illustrations of Western folklore, the castles are decked in pointy towers and square turrets, spindly spires and stepped gables, and boast gardens with ponds and cherubs. Why, here, you could be Rapunzel for a day or, if you prefer something darker, the Wicked Queen Grimhilde from Snow White.
But what is a page from the Brothers Grimm doing in Bengal’s North 24 Parganas?
This Disney-esque nook is called Dhanyakuria, a village 55 km from Kolkata, on the Taki Road, as you head north-east towards Basirhat. Some of these grand, period mansions are well over two centuries old but they were not, as one might imagine, built by the British colonial elite.
According to the recently published Dictionary of Historical Places: Bengal, 1757–1947, Dhanyakuria was once part of the Sunderbans and thus covered in thick jungle and full of saline water bodies. The village was converted into a habitable settlement in 1742 when one Jagannath Das settled here with his family and cleared away the forests.
After Das put down roots in Dhanyakuria, the families of many other traders such as the Gaines, Sawoos, Ballavs and Mandals too set up home in these idyllic parts. Their arrival coincided with the blossoming of plantations and increasing prosperity in the region. The thriving trade in rice and sugarcane, over time, allowed these settlers to build great mansions and baganbaris or ‘garden retreats’, influenced by medieval European architecture.
These families also played an important role in local philanthropy. In 1885, Mahendranath Gaine and Upendranath Sawoo, for instance, built the first English-medium school in Dhanyakuria. In 1888, Sawoo built a charitable hospital in the village, which also got a girl’s school in 1893. During famines, the families were known to give the locals free food.
Gaine Castle – A Fusion Architectural Marvel
This vintage structure, called ‘Gaine Castle’, was built by Mahendranath Gaine, and was the baganbari or ‘garden retreat’ of the Gaine family before it was acquired by the West Bengal government in the 1960s. It is Dhanyakuria’s biggest attraction.
The castle-like building looks a tad rundown today but the old grandeur is impossible to miss. It has arches on the balcony and entrance doors and the Gaine family’s ‘coat of arms’ in at least three places on the exterior walls. If you manage to get permission to stroll on the premises, take note of a portico on one side of the ‘castle’. You will notice several delightful sculptures of European jesters beneath the first-floor balcony.
Next to Gaine Castle is a small, two-storey, modern mansion, which once housed a state government-run girl’s orphanage. It was shut abruptly in October 2018, apparently because the building needed maintenance. At present, there’s a police picket outside, and convincing them to allow you to enter the mansion’s grounds is not easy.
Other Mansions of Dhanyakuria
Of the many mansions in the village, the estates of Gaine, Ballav and Sawoo are well maintained. The entry to the cluster of mansions is through a mid-size lane from Taki Road, just beside the Gaine baganbari. While passing through this lane, called Dhanyakuria Benepara Road, you will see Dhanyakuria High School on your left.
While ‘Gaine Castle’ was the family’s country home, there’s another palatial structure, in the main village, called ‘Gaine Mansion’, which served as the family’s principal residence. Painted in light pink, the ‘L’ shaped mansion is another excellent example of fusion architecture.
The stately, two-storey structure is studded with Ionian pillars and is defined by long, open corridors on both floors. These corridors connect with rooms leading off from them. The rooms at the back of the building are covered with window shades. Each end of the mansion boasts a roof-dome, which adds to the grandeur of the building.
There is also a stunning three-storey tower with a dome, named ‘Nazar Minar’ on the grounds. It has four Corinthian pillars in each of its corners. While the first two storeys have rounded arches, those on the top floor have been built in Islamic in style.
Gaine Mansion was built by Gobinda Chandra Gaine and it was expanded by his son, Mahendranath Gaine, in the mid-19th century. Since they enjoyed British patronage, they built mansions inspired by those in Europe. Mahendranath Gaine, the most illustrious member of the family, owned many jute mills and was a prominent member of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce.
Gaine Mansion is currently occupied by Monjit Gaine and his family, descendants of the original owners. Monjit tells me that the Gaine family of Dhanaykuria traded with the English and amassed a fortune doing business in jute, jaggery and other agricultural products. There was a time when they owned properties in several parts of Calcutta as well as in Bangladesh. He proudly says the annual Durga Puja is still celebrated with pomp and show in the mansion’s colossal Durga Dalan (courtyard for Durga worship).
Just beside Gaine Mansion is the temple of the presiding deity of the family – Shyamsundar Jiu. This single-storey building is also distinctly European in style, and just like the main house, is ‘L’ shaped and painted pink. The temple is said to have been built in 1821.
Sawoo Mansion & Sawoo Baganbari
Apart from the two properties of the Gaine family, Dhanyakuria boasts the country estate and principal residence of the Sawoo family as well. They are in the lane right opposite Gaine Mansion. Painted white, Sawoo Mansion has embedded Corinthian pillars on its walls and stucco over the window arches on its exterior. Some of the windows have shades on the arches, while some arches are subdivided into two smaller arches with a stained glass design on them. The mansion was built by Patit Chandra Sawoo around 200 years ago.
The main door with a beautiful stained glass archway is usually open to visitors. It leads on to a courtyard. The mansions’ two storeys have long corridors that connect the rooms. Facing the entrance is a beautiful thakurdalan (ceremonial altar in the open courtyard) with five archways decorated with rich stucco work. Above each archway is stucco on the lunette (semi-circular or ‘half-moon’ space above a door).
To reach the inner sanctum of the thakurdalan, which has a small back door, you have to cross another row of archways bearing design similar to the first. The Sawoo family does not live here and a caretaker is usually available in the early morning hours.
The Sawoo family also built a baganbari or country estate close to this mansion. The premises are large, much like the Gaine baganbari. The Sawoo baganbari is impressive too, but it is nowhere near as glamorous and grand as Gaine Castle.
Stroll down a path beside a pond at the back of Sawoo Mansion and you will find another magnificent mansion on your left – the two-storey residence of the Ballav family. Ballav Mansion or ‘Ballav Bati’ was built by Shyamacharan Ballav at around the same time when Gaine Mansion was constructed. The present generation of Ballavs is scattered across West Bengal, including North Kolkata, where the family owns a huge mansion near R G Kar Hospital.
Painted green and white, the Dhanyakuria mansion has exquisite iron gates and fencing with matching colour combination. Apart from huge Corinthian pillars, the front of the building has rows of stucco above the corridors on both storeys. The corridor on the top floor is covered with window shades.
On each corner of the terrace is a figure in European attire. Just above the entrance, there is a stucco peacock, above which is a figure that resembles a Roman centurion with a crown-like headdress. On each side of this figure is a male figure wearing a moustache and turban. Perhaps this was meant to symbolise loyalty to British lords during the era of Raj. However, these figures have been freshly painted, robbing them of their old-world charm. No one lives in the mansion and the caretaker is seldom seen.
At the end of the grounds is a three-storey tower similar in design to the Nazar Minar of the Gaine family. The only difference is that, unlike Nazar Minar, this structure is outside the premises on which Ballav House stands.
Further down this road is a huge, two-storey Rasmancha (ceremonial hall) painted white. During the Vaishnava Ras Mela celebrated on the full-moon day in the Kartik month, idols of Radha and Krishna are placed here and worshiped. It has a five-arch entrance on each side of the ground floor. Just like the thakurdalan of the Sawoo house, each pillar beside the archways comprises a number of small Corinthian pilasters.
The Vaishnava culture was dominant in Dhanyakuria in its early days and the huge rasmancha is evidence of this.
Dhanyakuria’s Heritage Under Threat
If you’re still wowed by the grand castles and mansions of Dhanyakuria, here’s the sobering reality – the heritage of this once unique and magnificent village is under threat from local land developers. Ever since the orphanage housed in Gaine Castle shut down, locals have been worried that the building itself may be pulled down and taken over by land sharks. The authorities have denied this but that has not allayed fears.
The other challenge is conserving these magnificent mansions and other structures.
They are begging to be repaired, restored and protected but there is no move in this direction.
So, visit this fairyland while it can still cast a spell. It is a refreshing day tour from Kolkata, especially during Durga Puja, when these splendid estates celebrate the festival and the silent hamlet comes alive. But do hurry, magic spells don’t last forever!
LHI Travel Guide
By Road: You can reach Dhanyakuria by bus. Board one at Ultadanga, headed for Basirhat via Barasat and Berachampa. Since buses are not frequent, you might want to hire a car instead.
By Train: The nearest railhead is Kankra Mirzanagar on the Sealdah-Hasnabad line. Local conveyance is available from the railway station to Dhanyakuria.
There is not much by way of eateries in this neck of the woods, so carry edibles and drinking water. If you start early from Kolkata, this is no more than a day-long excursion.
Amitabha Gupta is a heritage enthusiast, travel writer, photographer and blogger who has been writing on the heritage of Eastern India for travel magazines and publications.