Abandoned for decades, the Balihar Rajbari has become dilapidated. Ceilings and layers of walls are crumbling in some of the deeper recesses of the palace.
The residential part of the compound has restricted access, so we had to wiggle through the curved rods of the ragged entrance.
The scorching heat of May and humidity added with it made the day almost unbearable. But the moment we squeezed through the gate, an ancient orange jasmine plant welcomed us into the kingdom of shadow.
The bushes covered us from the known world, and a circular seating arrangement – decaying, as if fading into memory – sheltered us from the sun.
If a random tourist somehow discovers himself in a place like this on a lonely midday – where not even the chirping of birds can be heard and the vastness of the palace with its elegant, gothic beauty fading into the darkness of an ancient past – he would be scared away very easily.
But if you are an explorer and an admirer of archeology and looking at the progress of human architecture from a unique lens, the 400-year-old Balihar Rajbari of Naogaon will take your breath away.
At first glance, perhaps you would say there is not much left of the palace to identify its features. But a keen eye will be able to find the hidden forms within the remnants.
This is probably one of the few palaces where we found a mixture of Greco-Roman, French, Mughal and Indian architectural forms and techniques.
From Greco-Roman pediments to the French style coupled columns on the balcony, Roman and Venetian rounded arches and windows mixed with Mughal pointed arches, Mughal jaali work on walls for ventilation and double shuttered wooden frames- everything seemed constructed for cohesion.
There are numerous pre-partition, colonial-era palaces or Zamindar houses, scattered throughout almost every district of Bangladesh. And out of all those palaces, the reason we chose Balihar Rajbari of Naogaon was because of its adaptation to modern architectural forms and also for the history of the Zamindar family that once reigned over this region.
Balihar is a village under the Sadar upazila of Naogaon district, situated about 18 km west of Naogaon town. The Zamindar family's history stretches back from the late 15th century to the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947.
The first Zamindar of this family was Nrisingha Chakraborty and 11 generations later, Kumar Bimalendu Roy was the last Zamindar of Balihar.
The Zamindars were essentially abolished under the East Bengal Estate Acquisition Act in 1950 after which Bimalendu Roy migrated to India. Since then, the Balihar palace fell into disrepair.
The history of the Balihar Zamindars
We found a range of interpretations about this Zamindari dynasty from different sources. So after parsing through a range of literature and talking to the local people and teachers, we formed a rough outline of the family history.
In Rajshahi Zamidarder Prasad-sthapatya (1793-1950), published by the Bangladesh Asiatic Society in 2009, Kazi Md Mostafizur Rahman said the Balihar region was once ruled by a Muslim Khan Zamindar.
In the late 17th century, a Brahmin named Nrisingha Chakraborty came from Vikrampur of Dhaka district and took up employment under the Khan Zamindar of Balihar.
Over time, he rose to a high position, married his patron's daughter and got a taluk (an administrative district with a few villages) from his father-in-law as dowry.
Although it was not clear to us why a Hindu Brahmin would marry a Muslim woman - especially during that time period - it still sounded interesting.
However, history says the Muslim rulers had married hindu aristrocatic women and although rare, inter-religion married existed.
Nrisingha eventually settled at Balihar and he further expanded the taluk which ultimately developed into a great Zamindari.
Many of the Zamindars of Balihar were highly educated, Krishnendra Roy being one. He knew Bangla, Sanskrit, Farsi and English and was also well-trained in music. He was a writer, lyricist, poet and essayist.
This Zamindari was abolished under the East Bengal Estate Acquisition Act, 1950 and the family moved to India. After that the palace was managed by estate employees.
Over the years of political turbulence in East Pakistan, the Rajbari was losing its grandeur. In 1971, the palace was looted of its iron beams, grilles and railings, furniture and even the bronze idol of the Devi Durga.
The architectural features of the palace
The palace is built over 3.5 acres of land and there were once three buildings and two temples. One of the buildings completely collapsed and in 2007, a temple was built in the area by the local Hindu welfare trust.
The primary materials used for the construction of the building are brick, mortar, iron and wood. But at present, these are all in a dilapidated state.
Following the building norms of the time, this palace was constructed in the prevalent fashion of Indo-European style.
At the very beginning, a double-storied entrance gateway welcomed us with its broken windows and cracks on dark walls. It has two balconies on the first floor with rooms attached.
The rooms of the upper storey of the gateway might have been used as restrooms for guards or guests.
As we crossed the gateway, we found ourselves in an open court and an open prayer hall, which was built in 2007 by the local community. Excluding this new addition, the main palace compound has two residential palaces and two temples.
There was once a ruined palace to the south of the temples but except for a grand staircase, nothing more of it remains.
There are two temples on the compound- one is the Rajeshwari Durga Mandir, built by Rajendra Roy in 1823. Rajendra Roy had erected a magnificent bronze idol of Goddess Rajeshwari or Durga in the temple here before he died.
The other one is the Krishna Kali Mandir, built by Krishnendra Roy in 1889.
The Rajeshwari temple building is inaccessible, but what we could see from a distance, it was once a beautiful Durga Mandir and the locals also said that once this mandir used to observe auspicious Durga Pujas.
The temple building has terracotta miniature sculptures along the borders. The miniature sculptures seem to feature elephants, men and women riding them with swords in hand- as though in a battlefield. But archaeologists will be able to decode the meaning better.
There are two Shiva temples on both sides of the Rajeshwari temple entrance and the pinnacled tombs of this shiv temple have sculptures of the four-armed Rajeshwari deity on them.
But these details are falling apart every passing day and if not restored in the near future, they might be lost forever.
The zoning of the Balihar Zamindar house works like this- kachari (outer house) and andarmahal (inner house) are positioned at the front and back respectively.
It is evident that different parts of this palace were built during different eras. Maybe with growing needs, the family needed to expand their residential space.
The main palace is a double-storied building with a spacious balcony and an inner courtyard at its centre. The balcony has coupled columns, which was a recurring motif in French classical architecture and was mostly used in the architecture since the 17th century.
The key structural elements of the ruin are thick walls, semi-circular arches, columns, iron beams on the ceiling and brackets on the wall. All these elements are also quite decorative with intricate designs.
The palace has an inter-compound or an inner courtyard, probably for the women in the andarmahal.
The front façade is grandiose in scale with the use of decorative designs and a beautiful arch opening. There are concrete sitting arrangements out in front of the palace, which seemed pretty unique.
The high ceiling puts you in a completely different headspace and this gives the house an imperial and colonial grandeur.
The open air court helps dissipate the summer heat from the structure and simultaneously permits sunlight to illuminate the darker areas of the interior.
The high ceilings, construction techniques, and big windows facilitate a cool environment in the summer.
The window openings are kept at a minimum distance from the floor to allow a sufficient amount of airflow. The palace compound also has a water reservoir or pond in the south which was probably the water supply for the entire palace.
In 1979, the Balihar Bilateral High School was opened in the main palace but the structure was decaying. By 1996, the building was completely unusable and the school was shifted to an adjacent building.
The headmaster of the school Afzal Hossein said, "No one from the archaeological department came for the restoration of the building. So, when the building started to fall apart, we shifted to the new building."
Old photographs show that the palace was used as the hostel of the Balihar College (which is now the Balihar Degree College) in 1994 and the Krishna Kali temple at the estate compound was used as a temple-based Hindu educational institute as well. But none of those exist in the compound anymore.
In 2007, a Radha-Govind Mandir was also built beside the Kali temple by the Hindu welfare trust. This latest addition does not match with the rest of the architecture and it was evident by the look of it that proper restoration processes were not maintained.
Khokon Chandra Pramanik, caretaker of the temple complex said, "At least they are doing something. The archaeological department or the district administration does not take any steps to restore this place."
When we reached the District Commissioner of the Naogaon district Khalid Mehedi Hasan, he said, "We have already sent a letter to the archaeological department so they take proper steps to restore and conserve this site. It has been two months since we sent the letter."