Dhaka Monday September 29, 2003


Dinajpur Rajbari

Discovering the hidden glory

A day begins as the sun lifts up the horizon and peeps by the side of the two-storey grand palace. Scarlet hibiscus blooms. Mandira makes a sweet melody. A tulshi plant raises its proud head from the courtyard sacred altar. An elegant woman -- probably the ranima with vermilion on her forehead and in red bordered, white sari -- goes with her attendants toward the puja mandap. Servants and other inhabitants become busy with the Rajbari activities and the day rolls on. These are a few of the broken images that play with imagination as one observes the desolate ruins of the Rajbari of the flourishing and powerful zamindars of Dinajpur.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the aristocratic feudal lords of the land were known as zamindars. They often held courtesy titles of rajas and maharajas. These rajas or maharajas expressed their power and glamour in many ways and the architectural forms and structures built by them were one such expression. Often these ornamented, picturesque palaces translated the combined architectural language of European Renaissance, Mughal and Bengali styles.

Some of the rajas and maharajas of Dinajpur were powerful and enlightened and had embellished their religious structures with beautifully carved stone columns, gateways and other ornamental pieces quarried from the ancient ruins of Bangarh (ancient Kotivarsha). Some of these pieces have taken their place in the museum. The Dinajpur Rajbari is one such building that precariously stands as ruins on the northeastern outskirts of Dinajpur town and comprises a residential building, temples and puja mandap, large backyards, gardens and ponds -- all fulfilling the luxurious lifestyle of the rajas.

The Rajbari Complex might have been once approached by wide roads, where horse carriages moved about. But now the palatial ruins -- lonely -- are approached through an equally dilapidated narrow metal road projecting only imaginations of the past glory.

Tales of history relate that Dinajpur derived its name from Raja Dinaj or Dinaraj, founder of the Dinajpur Rajbari. But others say that after usurping the Ilyas Shahi rule, the famous Raja Ganesh of the early 15th century was the real founder of this house for a brief period. At the end of the 17th century Srimanta Dutta Chaudhury became the zamindar of Dinajpur and after him, his sister's son Sukhdeva Ghosh inherited the property as Srimanta's son had a premature death. Sukhdeva's son Prannath Ray became famous and powerful and began the construction of the famous Kantanagar Nava-Ratna Temple, now known as the Kantajir Mandir, one of the most precious heritage structures.

The Rajbari is entered through a tall, arched lion-gate facing west. One will find a daintily painted Krishna temple on the left, some abandoned outhouses in front and another gateway to the right which provides access to an inner square courtyard on about 100 square feet. Facing inward to the open courtyard on the east is a flat roofed large temple or nat mandir. The temple is exclusively decorated with attractive stucco floral motifs, while the front verandah is supported on four semi-Corinthian pillars and the main hall carried on another set of columns. Behind the temple is a square block of two-storey building known as Rani-Mahal similarly enclosing a square open courtyard. The main palace block -- decaying -- is farther east.

The highly ornate oblong Krishna Temple of the Rajbari family is laid out around a central open courtyard. The Mandapa is approached by a flight of stairs and the entry faš

ade is embellished by three rows of ringed columns of the Corinthian order with intricate ornamented cusped arches in between. The central part of the parapet above is also accentuated with floral motifs and the rest of the parapet is relieved with plain plastered panels and elements like pinnacles to variegate the skyline.

It is difficult to conceive what the main palace block looked like when it was young and bold. Wild leaves and veins have wrapped the building like octopus tendrils while the skeleton and naked brick structures give a horrid look as the ageing plaster is almost worn out of the walls. In different parts of the building, structural girders are exposed while there is no roof above. Still from his historical study and the remaining ruins, Dr Nazimuddin Ahmed gave a vivid description of the structures in one of his publications published in 1986.

"The imposing fašade of the two-storey palace, facing east has a broad frontage of about 150 feet. The central part carrying a 10 feet wide verandah above is projected prominently. The front projection has a series of elegant Ionic columns in pairs with round shafts on the upper floor.

"The parapet is plain except for a curved plaque-wall in the centre, bearing in relief, two elephants standing face to face and holding a crown. Above and below it are some indistinct English letters. On either side of the balcony a broad spiral masonry staircase leads up to the upper storey. The roof of the 15 feet wide balcony collapsed.

"Immediately behind the balcony a large hall (50"X20") originally flagged with white marble stone and flanked by two 10" wide verandahs on the east and west is roofed over with massive iron girders. The lofty 25 feet high roof is in a highly disintegrating condition. On its north there is another smaller (30"X 20") hall and on the south a broad corridor leads to the inner quadrangle of residential quarters."

If the bricks could paint or write the tales of the Rajbari and its inhabitants, what a book could have been written! But with the silent walls, the palace has now grown old and inexpressive. It has faced not only the cruelty of time but also the ravages of nature like the 1897 earthquake that had left it badly damaged. Although the palace was largely rebuilt by Maharaja Sir Girijanath Ray Bahadur, time has not spared it from its claws. It is up to us now whether we would at least let the ruins remain and let our future generations see them and let their imagination flow back to the past and touch our heritage.

Story: Zakia Rahman, architect
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain


  (C) The Daily Star, 2003.