Habit Binge

Legacy of the Kumar of Bhawal

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The front façade of the Baganbari called the Nymph built in 1933






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The front façade of the Baganbari called the Nymph built in 1933

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Side view of the two storied Nymph showing attractive architectural features






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Side view of the two storied Nymph showing attractive architectural features

Prior to the abolition of Zamindari in East Bengal (Bangladesh) in accordance with the ‘East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act of 1950’, the Bhawal zamindar estate was the second largest feudal landholding in the Dhaka district. In terms of size (area), revenue and prestige it was second only to the Dhaka Nawab estate of the Khawja family. In fact, its enormous landholdings within Dhaka city began right from today’s Bangla Motor, embracing much of Tejgaon, going all the way up to Savar and beyond. Most of the land to the north of the city fell under the Bhawal estate. In the early 1960s, on our way to school in the Dhaka cantonment area, we had to regularly pass by an attractive period building with a large pond where stork, heron, kingfisher, kite, duck and geese frolicked. The attractive old building stood on the opposite side of the former Dhaka airport at Tejgaon. This unique historic edifice looked somewhat incongruous in its setting, ensconced as it was amidst a picturesque setting redolent in luxuriant foliage, thereby attracting my attention and curiosity. There was no other comparable, large and impressive colonial era mansion like it anywhere around, unless one went all the way to the Ramna area of Dhaka city. One day, I asked my driver to stop by this old two-storied building ringed by huge old banyan, neem and rain trees of crowning glory for a good look. This eye-catching mansion was once the Baganbari or pleasure-villa of the Bhawal zamindar. Built in 1933, it is called the Nymph which was built by Kumar Ram Narayan Roy on a sprawling twenty bighas of land. I had never heard of this Kumar of Bhawal before. The information was given to me by a Hindu gardener of the horticulture department who was then working at the site. His forefathers had all been malis (gardners) of the Bhawal zamindars. As I wandered around in the vast pristine compound of the Nymph, a gentle spring breeze swayed the branches, boughs and rustled the leaves of the ancient trees. The blissful quietude of the sylvan surroundings seemed to cast a entrancing spell, as I savored the languorous ambience of the place. Little did I known then that come nightfall this peaceful place, was said to be occasionally haunted by the ghost of a young woman clad in a diaphanous white sari. The most macabre part of the story was that the ghost carried her severed head in her own hands!

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The dwarf towers of the Nymph with a dome on top represent two different religious references: Christian and Islamic






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The dwarf towers of the Nymph with a dome on top represent two different religious references: Christian and Islamic

My subsequent visits later on to the Nymph left me a bit baffled regarding its hybrid architectural styles and antecedents. Therefore, I sought the wise counsel of a distinguished veteran architect  Abu H. Imamuddin, requesting him to take a look at some photographs of the Nymph, I had passed on to him and enlighten us by describing its salient architectural features. He most graciously obliged and wrote, “Just by observing the building without any knowledge of its original plan, makes it difficult to provide an accurate architectural assessment of it. However, in brief here is a general impression of the building.  It seems that the building underwent a number of alterations and modifications over time, corresponding to the changes of ownership and the need for functional usage. The weak relationship of the inner and the outer façade is distinctly visible. The inner façade resembles the architecture of the British colonial era that flourished in Dhaka after the partition of Bengal. There are massive corner columns with decorative arches. However, the outer façade looks like a latter addition having eclectic architectural characteristics. The repetitive motifs on the railings in the outer verandah may have been adapted from the Bungalow design, atypical of the mansions of the local landlords of that period. On the roof, the dwarf towers with a dome on top represent two different religious references: Christian and Islamic. The parapets around the roof having a regular undulating pattern with projected pillars topped by spherical heads, represents a common recurring feature in the design of the colonial bungalow. The curious screen wall shown having a vertical slab built with pinwheel designed blocks, may have been placed much later for some specific functional need. The pattern of the design suggests that it is of a latter addition to the building. The overall complex architectural taxonomy of the building makes it hard to classify it into any specific category”.

Now a brief on the Bhawal Raj, the second Kumar, the Sannyasi, and the most celebrated judicial court case in the history of the British Raj in colonial India. The zamindar Raja Bahadur Rajendra Narayan Roy Chaudhuri of Bhawal died in 1901, leaving behind his widow, Rani Bilashmani Devi, and six children—three daughters: Indumayi, Jyotirmayi and Tarinmayi and three sons: Ranendra alias baro (eldest) Kumar, Ramendra alias mejho (second) Kumar and Rabindra alias sejho (youngest) Kumar. In 1904, citing gross mismanagement, the Bhawal estate was taken over by the Court of Wards. Meanwhile, the nationalist quarters and the vernacular print media in Bengal raised a big ‘hue and cry’ at the forcible takeover of one of the premier zamindar estates of East Bengal. Meanwhile, a great tragedy descended upon the Bhawal Raj family. Rani Bilasmani died in 1907, of illness. In 1909, the second Kumar suddenly died in Darjeeling, amongst conflicting reports that he was both cremated and also that his dead body had mysteriously vanished from the cremation grounds during a sudden thunder shower, before being consigned to the flames. The matter would have ended there. But soon there arose unsubstantiated charges of a palace conspiracy and dark nefarious family politics were hinted at. It was further alleged that the Kumar was poisoned by his own wife, Srimati Bibhabati Devi, in connivance with her secret paramour the family doctor. Soon strange news of a wandering Sannyasi resembling the lost Kumar also started to emanate from various parts of India, complicating the already fluid situation. To make matters worse, the eldest Kumar also died in 1910, probably as a consequence of his excessive drinking habit, followed by the death of the youngest Kumar in 1913. All three Kumar’s had died childless. The Bhawal Raj was now bereft of any legitimate male heir to the zamindari. In 1915, the Court of Wards under the Board of Revenue, went into action again and took over the management of the estate. Thus, the stage was set for a confrontation which would increasingly take on a fervently patriotic, nationalistic and anti-colonial overtone against the British Raj in support of the beleaguered Bhawal Raj.

However, powerful factions within the Bhawal Raj family coalesced to reverse the situation in their own favor. In this the widow of the youngest deceased Kumar, Srimati Ananda Kumari Devi, played a pivotal role. She adopted a boy, Ram Narayan Roy, as the new Kumar of Bhawal. Surprisingly, contrary to their negative policy against the Bhawal zamindar estate, this move was endorsed by the British Raj as evidenced from a rare photograph where the Earl of Ronaldshay, Governor of Bengal on his visit to Dhaka in 1919, had himself ‘anointed’ the boy-Kumar’s eventual assumption to the ‘guddi'(throne) of Bhawal as the heir-apparent and possibly later as the Raja. However, all this…

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