Friday, 29 August 2014

Posta Rajbari, Ratan Sarkar Garden Street

Posta Rajbari

It’s a Sunday morning as our car ventures into the mercantile chaos of Calcutta’s Posta Bazaar area. The fact that even God took rest on this day, seems to have no bearing on the people who live and work here, because although we are assured by people familiar with the area that what we see is very light traffic, there are hardly any trucks for instance, the whole place is buzzing with activity. Burrabazaar is said to have been in existence before Siraj’s sack of Calcutta in 1757 and as we go past the old silver mint, now occupied by the CRPF, through roads and lanes that are almost as old as the city itself, we note the changing look of our surroundings. From the people who are mostly Bihari labourers, to the food which the street shops serve, to the ramshackle buildings with temples on their terraces, this is not a Calcutta that most people living in the residential areas in the South would be familiar with. Indeed, it doesn’t even look like Calcutta. Its appearance is more akin to small town UP or Bihar. We come to a halt in the heart of the bazaar, next to a petrol pump, and lo and behold, a small, but magnificent Rajbari seems to pop up, as if from nowhere, it’s recently painted fa├žade standing out against a backdrop of squalor and urban decay.

Shyam Sundar temple courtyard
The Bengali word Rajbari literally means “King’s house”, but those who built these houses, were, mostly, not kings, atleast not in the conventional sense of the term. Raja was a title awarded by the British to large landowners, the zamindars, who would be responsible for tax collection and general administration of their vast estates. The actual job of collecting revenue would be left to the “nayeb”, the estate manager, while the Zamindar himself, with his accumulated wealth, would build a palatial residence and settle with his extended family, in Calcutta. Attached to the Rajbari would be the temple of the zamindar’s family diety; in this case, it is the temple of Shyam Sundar Jew.

Shyam Sundar Jiu
The “Jew” in the name has nothing to do with Judaism, or Israel. Jew or Jiu, is simply the antiquated form of “Ji”, the Hindi suffix of respect. The temple is scrupulously clean and has recently been painted. The pretty idol sits in the sanctum sanctorum. Our visit done, we are now led by Rajasree, the Roy’s daughter-in-law, into their opulent and tastefully decorated drawing room. A giant flat screen TV peacefully coexists with a Cook & Kelvey table clock. This is the “inner house”, occupied by the younger of the two Roy brothers, Jitendranath. When originally built, this portion of the rajbari would have been the preserve of the ladies and male family members. Outsiders or visitors would have been received and entertained in the “outer house”, which is now occupied by Jitendranath’s elder brother. As we chomp on some delicious “shingara” and “shondesh”, the patriarch comes in, immaculately clad in a spotless white dhoti and kurta.

Jitendranath Roy of Posta Rajbari
“The real reason the Europeans came here, was not muslin”, he begins, “it was jute. The best jute would come Sirajgunj and Narayangunj, now in Bangladesh, as would the best cotton. The jute would be fashioned into ropes by the Setts and Basaks. It was lighter, stronger, and would last longer than jute from anywhere else in India, and was used on the European ships”. Although the family uses Roy as a surname today (the Bengali pronunciation is closer to "Ray"), it is actually a title, awarded by the ruling power, to large landowners. Jitendranath says their original surname was Pal, and they had been engaged in various businesses near the Ayodhya mountain in Bengal’s Purulia district, since Ballal Sen’s time. The waters of the Subarnarekha river are still said to contain traces of gold dust. Back in the day, prospectors would get that dust out of the river and sell it to the Pals, who knew of Borax from the Egyptians, and would melt it down to coins and bars. With the advent of the Europeans, trade shifted to this part of the Bengal. The Setts and Basaks were the first to move here, founding the village of Gobindapur, named after their family diety. The Pals followed, led by Sanatan Pal. “There were two brothers”, Jitedranath says, “Ramakanta and Lakshmikanta Dhar, engaged in trade in Calcutta. Ramakanta would operate the business from here, while Lakshmikanta would tour the country, getting new clients. Lakshmikanta’s only daughter was Parbati, and one of my ancestors got married to her”. It was through this marital alliance that the Pals entered the business. The Dhars were among the foremost bankers of their age, and Lakshmikanta gave the English vast loans before the Battle of Plassey. He is said to have loaned the East india Company Rs. 900,000 to help them fight the Marathas. When the grateful British offered him the title of Maharaja, he declined, instead nominating his grandson, Parbati's son, Sukhomoy. It was Raja Sukhomoy Roy who founded the Posta Raj. In it's heydays, the Posta Raj family is said to have constructed the road from Cuttack to Puri so devotees could travel easily to the Jagannath Temple.

But when we ask him when this house was built, his memory fails. The house has been expanded over time, and from what we can make out, the oldest parts of the house were probably built between the late 1700’s and the early 1800’s. Jitendranath mentions an Italian Engineer who was involved. Italian? Could it have been Eduardo Tiretta? Who knows? Lalbari, another portion of the house, came up in 1911. We are taken for a tour of the house. Wooden stairs lead up to a terrace that gives us a fantastic view of Calcutta’s icon, the Howrah bridge. Unfortunately, the outer house, with its stucco ornamented arches remains off limits for our cameras. The property, we are told, was once vast, extending from Strand Road to Kalakar Street and Maharshi Debendra Road. Some of that has been lost of land ceiling laws, more has been lost to road widening projects, but three buildings have endured. Lalbari, Thakurbari, and Rajbari.

Posta Rajbari
Revenues from the estates was the money that most of Calcutta’s rajbaris were built on. With independence, and the abolition of the zamindari system, that source was cut off. Those not engaged in other businesses, over time, found their lavish homes difficult to maintain. Many have since been sold, demolished to make way for modern high-rises, or have simply become derelict reminders of a glorious past. The Posta Raabari, although out of the way, and unknown to many, does not fall in any of the above categories. Like the Bazaar that surrounds her, Posta Rajbari remains a still point in a rapidly moving world.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


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