Thakurdalans of Bengal: An Architectural Glory Durga Comes Home To
Thakurdalans, a common sight in ancestral mansions in Bengal, come with a deep-rooted cultural significance. Basically stretched-out porches with decorative arches and pillars, thakurdalans, an architecture inherited from the zamindars and babus, were mostly used as a place for worship and other cultural activities back in the day. Even today, when the Pujo season hits, these ancient pillared structures make a gracious comeback with Durga idols in their laps.
In old Calcutta, thakurdalans remain a part of the bonedi badis (ancestral houses) that survived the axe of modernisation. Come Durga Pujo, these thakurdalans are decked up to stage the bonedi barir pujo — i.e. pujos organised at homes. Visit pandals at the Sovabazar Rajbari, Jorasanko Daw Bari, Mallick Bari, etc and you’ll find yourself before an extravagantly decorated thakurdalan where sit the gods.
Apart from worship, thakurdalans were also often used for staging plays, musical baithaks (musical gatherings) and many more such events that need an audience; the courtyard before the thakurdalan would serve that purpose.
Often a masterful blend of Indian, Western and Islamic architecture, thakurdalans also come with Gothic or Corinthian pillars and decorative arches, commonly known as khilan. Derived from this name, those with five pillars would be called ‘panch khilan‘, those with three ‘tin khilan’ and so on. The various styles used in making them give them these names.
Taking the beauty of thakurdalans to a whole new level would be crystal chandeliers, often manufactured by the Osler company. Some even had mirrors made from Belgium glass, adorned with beautiful patterns. Nowadays, electric bulbs have replaced candles in the chandeliers.
How Thakurdalans Came To Be
Before thakurdalans became common, Durga Pujo was performed at outdoor halls known as ‘chandimandap. However, with the arrival of the colonial era, these mandaps saw a slow decline, giving way to the more elaborate dalans. Today, only a few of such mandaps exist in Bengal. Among them would be the famous chandimandap of the Mitra family in Hooghly’s Antpur, the ‘atchala’ mandap of the Sabarna Roy Chowdhurys in Barisha, etc.
As the colonial era trickled in — more precisely, the post Battle of Plassey period (1757) — architecture saw a shift in trend in Bengal. In a first, Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Sovabazar built a house with a majestic thakurdalan.
This structure was mainly built to “celebrate” the East India Company’s victory at Plassey with the untimely Durga Pujo in autumn — a practice known as ‘akalbodhan‘ in Bengal. Robert Clive himself was an invitee to this grand festival.
Some historians say that Nabakrishna indeed bought this house from one Sobharam Basak. And when the festival was organised, artisans from abroad were brought in to decorate it. However, Nabakrishna did not get much time to make the best of the mansion before the pujo. And so, the renovations continued even after the festivities, going on to see additions of a music room, dance room, a dining room and a dewankhana.
There are two houses with two distinct dalans — one belongs to Nabakrishna’s son Gopimohan and his descendants, and the other to his other son, Rajkrishna.
The Many Thakurdalans of Bengal
Along with Sovabazar Rajbari, a few more houses in old Calcutta continue to pamper their treasured thakurdalans.
Across the Calcutta School Of Tropical Medicine, the narrow lane of Kabiraj Row leads you to the palatial house of late Badan Chandra Roy, where sits yet another magnificent thakurdalan, this one with panch khilan (five pillars). Not that far from here, at Muktaram Babu Street, sits a white palace that would not miss your eye if you walked by it — the majestic Marble Palace. Built by late Rajendranath Mullick, a trader of gold in his time, the palace has now been turned into a museum.
The thakurdalan at the Marble Palace is a true masterpiece; its walls are decorated with murals depicting the stories of Goddess Diana, statues that resemble a blend of Greek, Roman and Indian architecture adorning the shrine, etc. Despite the shrine of the Roman goddess of the moon, Kali Pujo and Saraswati Pujo are still held at this palace.
Now walk a little further from the Marble Palace, At the turn of Shib Krishna Daw Lane, the Jorasanko Daw Bari houses a thakurdalan that deserves a special mention. The courtyard stretched before it looks up to several half-circle balconies that gives you the feel of being in a European opera house. The reason becomes clear when dig up the history — a member of late Shib Krishna Daw’s family loved acting!
The thakurdalan of Pathuriaghata’s Maharaja Jatindramohan Tagore’s 'Tagore Palace' is a fine example of a blend of various art forms.
Speaking of Jorasanko and Tagore, could there be a thakurdalan more princely than the one at Rabindranath Tagore’s old home?
Most of these houses continue to make a big deal of their thakurdalans during Durga Pujo (the Jorasanko Thakur Bari excluded), hosting some of the most influential pandals of the season. Unfortunately, however, there are some such historical structures across the city left in ruins.
Great Artworks Left in Ruins — What Does the Future Hold?
At the Bagbazar Basubati, house of late Pashupatinath and Nandalal Basu, the huge thakurdalan has been split into several smaller parts. What now stands here are decadent pieces of art that once exhibited an amalgamation of several schools of art and architecture.
If our ancestors’ sycophancy for the British is put aside, we will have before us evidence of how magnificent Bengal’s architecture used to be in forms of these thakurdalans. Along with their aesthetics, these structures signify the wealth that Bengal once held, the grandeur it could afford.
To still have them around and cherish them once a year is not enough. The arched porches stand as a bridge between the past and the present, and, if maintained as they should be, even the future.
(This article is a contributor piece, with opinions and observations of the writer. Edited by Shreya Teresita.)