Tea garden bungalows of North Bengal come alive in new book
Where does the word ‘bungalow’ actually come from? From the Hindi ‘bangla’, actually, meaning ‘belonging to Bengal’, to describe a house built in a certain style, presumably originating in this part of the country. The first recorded usage of the word in English dates back to 1696, when it was used for houses built for sailors of the East India Company in India. Later on, the same houses were built on a much larger scale for high-ranking sahibs, and became status symbols among the wealthy across Britain and America.
This and other such nuggets of information are part of an exciting new book titled ‘Burra Bunglows of North Bengal: Glimpses of Built Heritage and Lifestyle of Tea Estate in North Bengal’. Looking beyond the elaborate title, the beautifully designed and produced book, published by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Kolkata chapter, with support from the Tourism Department, Government of West Bengal, is a compendium of the many exquisite tea plantation bungalows scattered across North Bengal.
Edited by INTACH Kolkata convenor G.M. Kapur with lavishly mounted photographs taken by his son Nikhil, the book is an ideal fit for the tea tourism sector, which the state government has been promoting for a while. Many of the 140 bungalows covered in the book have already been converted into resorts that pay for the upkeep and conservation of these spectacular heritage properties.
“The Tourism Department has funded the publication of the book, and bought 300 of the 500 copies that we printed,” says Kapur. “The remaining 200 have all but sold out already, with orders coming in from all parts of the world.” Launched in April, the book, edited by Kapur himself, also relies heavily on the writings of Lekha Mathur, who visited very many of the tea gardens personally.
Life on India’s tea plantations in many ways embodied the luxury and strict hierarchical principles of the British Raj, with their Burra Sahibs and Chhota Sahibs, and their different sized bungalows. These houses were not just houses, therefore. They symbolised a lifestyle. “Some of the bungalows we visited were so large that even their washrooms could easily accommodate a small flat,” says Nikhil, who regularly posts his photos on his website www.nikhilkapur.com. “I’m not sure of the exact number, but at least 500 photos have gone into the book, and I took far far more than that number.” Nearly five years in the making, the book is bound to be a collector’s delight, but as Nikhil also points out, “The survival of these heritage structures essentially depends on tourism, because their maintenance is hugely expensive, and the government can’t possibly finance all of it. Thankfully, the companies who run the plantations have realised the importance of letting tourists in, though not all old-timers are happy about the development!”
As editor, Kapur has divided the bungalows into three broad areas - Darjeeling, Terai (East) and Terai (West). So for instance, alongside familiar names like Runglee Rungliot, Glenburn, Makaibari, and Margaret’s Hope, there are also relative unknowns such as Ging, Soom, or Pootabong in Darjeeling.
In November 2020, the state government had declared that the land ceiling for tourism projects and other specific commercial purposes in tea plantation areas would be 15 percent of a tea garden’s total land area, subject to a maximum of 150 acres. ‘Other specific commercial purposes’ can mean wellness centres, educational institutions, hospitals, cultural, recreation and exhibition centres, horticulture, floriculture, medicinal plant cultivation, and food-processing and packaging units, which enables tea gardens to diversify into areas that can act as back-up during a lean year.
So get your copy of the book now and, once the Covid pandemic subsides, strike out on the tea tourism trail!
A Visual Journey Into the Burra Bungalows of Tea Estates of North Bengal
08 Min Read
Tomes have been written about the exclusive variety of tea grown in the Darjeeling hills and Dooars regions of West Bengal and the lifestyle of the British planters. But the vintage buildings found on these estates have been rarely documented. INTACH Calcutta Chapter initiated a visual documentation of the ‘burra bungalows’ – the residence of the estate’s agents or managers, some of which still preserve the colonial architecture and antique artefacts that speak volumes of the lavish lifestyle of the people who lived here. Mumbai-based photographer Nikhil Kapur was roped in for the project which culminated in the coffee table book ‘Burra Bungalows of North Bengal’. (Note: the northern part of West Bengal is colloquially referred to as ‘north Bengal’)
A collection of vintage tea estate bungalows from north Bengal
With a master’s degree in film making, Kapur started his career as an assistant director for television commercials. But storytelling through visuals is what he wanted to do and switched tracks, moving from films to still photography. He specializes in photographing weddings, products, food and architecture. Even before he commenced photographing the Burra Bungalows of North Bengal, he had documented over 50 heritage buildings that belonged to the Kolkata Police (Calcutta Police). You can
What led you to the subject of Burra Bungalows for a book?
The idea was actually initiated by INTACH Calcutta Chapter. They had done a previous book on Burra Bungalows of Assam. That was a basic documentation of the bungalows in tea gardens of Assam. Photos were contributed by various people to catalogue the buildings. INTACH then decided to cover the West Bengal gardens as well. Each and every heritage Burra Bungalow deserved to be captured in the best way possible. I did have to compromise in certain situations, as I was covering four to five gardens in a day, so I really didn’t have time to plan each shot every day. I had to work with the light available to me at the time I arrived at the locations. But within those limitations, I feel the photographs do justice to the locales and architecture.
Gungaram Tea Estate in the Terai region
Gungaram in Terai was the first Burra Bungalow I visited for this project. The bungalow is a fairly simple structure, nothing that really stands out in terms of design. It’s large, like all burra bungalows, with immaculately manicured lawns, lots of greenery, even a small swimming pool at one end. What made it stand out for me was a large tree house, built on a tree in the front lawn. This was my first impression of the lifestyle on the tea estates. It made me realize how this was a completely different world, unblemished by the chaos of urban life. I imagine families growing up in this environment to have such rich and fulfilling experiences. There are so many bungalows out there in the Darjeeling hills and Dooars. Do tell us briefly how you went about researching the bungalows that you would shoot? From the entire list of tea gardens in north Bengal, we shortlisted the ones which still had old colonial style bungalows standing. We spoke to people who have been part of the tea industry and who have lived in these gardens. I think we started with a list of 120 gardens. Eventually, we ended up with about 100 gardens in the book, as some of the bungalows I visited were in terrible condition, some were non-existent, and some were actually not heritage structures. How long did it take you to complete the photography? What was the journey like? My first visit to north Bengal for this assignment was in August 2014 and the last visit was in July 2015. I made four trips in total, covering Darjeeling, Terai, Western, Central and Eastern Dooars. Most gardens are accessible by vehicle. Preferably a four wheel drive or at least an SUV because the roads leading up to the gardens are quite rough.
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Any interesting anecdotes from your journeys?
The Dooars gardens in the far-east require you to drive through multiple river beds. These rivers swell up during the monsoons resulting in them being cut off completely. Fortunately, I was able to avoid the monsoons, and drove across dry river beds to these locations.One location did turn out to be quite a challenge. The Jungpana tea estate comes under the Darjeeling tea growing region and therefore, like all other Darjeeling gardens, is located on a section of hills. Your vehicle can take you up to a point at the base of the hill. From there you have to travel by foot. It’s quite a trek, up the hill, all the way to the burra bungalow. The factory is located mid-way up. I climbed from about 2000 feet to 3000 feet where the bungalow is located. Unfortunately, the bungalow was in poor condition and it could not be included in the book. Not a wasted trip though, as I had this interesting experience to talk about. Which bungalows impressed you the most and why?
Glenburn would top anyone’s list as the most impressive property. But it is not a Burra Bungalow in the traditional sense as they have been running it as a tourist resort, for many years. They have kept the bungalow in its original form and also built a second building in a similar style.
Baradighi for its sheer size, on the outside and inside. With bathrooms that would put most Bombay apartments to shame.
Bathrooms which would put most Bombay apartments to shame If you were asked to choose the most favorite, which one would that be and why? Longview would be a bungalow that left the most memorable impression on me. Mostly for its location as it sits atop a hill with a view that overlooks the valley below, extending all the way to the plains. So, your view is literally infinity.
The infinity view from Longview Bungalow
They have a lounge room that has been well preserved with various artifacts, furniture and many antique items. A billiards table, a grand piano, an old gigantic radio that could pass off as a table of some sort. Immaculate wooden flooring. And an alcove with a bay window which would make for a quiet, cozy sitting area.
A quaint alcove inside Longview Bungalow
What would you like to say about the upkeep of these bungalows?
Traditionally, these bungalows would come with a massive retinue of staff, including a butler, gardener, cook, water boy, people to look after its upkeep, etc. But over the years, companies have had to undergo cost cutting measures and the number of staff has dwindled to the bare minimum. Due to this, I feel a lot of burra bungalows have not been maintained as ostentatiously as in the past. Antique wooden furniture has been replaced by plastic in many places. Many new owners of tea gardens have demolished the old burra bungalows to build a new building in its place. So what is the main idea behind the book?
The idea behind this book has been to document the remaining heritage structures before they are all, eventually, razed to the ground and disappear completely. I do hope the book spreads awareness and sensitizes people to the aesthetic, nostalgic and historical value of these structures. We would like to encourage more people to consider visiting this part of the country to experience the unknown and unexplored world of tea.
This Burra Bungalow in Pussimbing can be restored and opened to visitors The burra bungalow at Pussimbing Tea Estate, seen here, is in a state of complete ruin. It could easily be revived and made available for tourists. That would generate funds for its regular upkeep and allow visitors to experience the grandeur of its erstwhile inhabitants.
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Any other (similar) interesting photography project that you are involved in or planning? My next planned project is about lesser known heritage sites of India, almost 150 locations spread across the country. Another project I hope to take up in collaboration with INTACH and West Bengal Tourism is the documentation of Raj Baris in West Bengal. Just like the Havelis and Forts of Rajasthan, Bengal has many old residences that have immense tourism potential, as well as architectural and historical significance. Countries like the United Kingdom generate significant revenue from heritage tourism. It’s high time we create more awareness and take advantage of our rich heritage to put India on the map for heritage exploration.
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• Madhupur Bungalow
• Ajodhya Pahar Bungalow
• Panchetgarh Zamindar Bari
• Murshidabad Rajbari
• Takdah Bungalow
• Chel Bungalow
• Lava Bungalow
• Taljhora Bungalow
• Chowdhury Zamindar Bari
• McCluskieganj Bungalow
• Jorpokhri Bungalow
• Singhik Bungalow
• Dara Gaon Bungalow
• Darjeeling Bungalow
• Fagu Bungalow
• Pemayangtse Bungalow
• Yangyang Bungalow
• Rinchenpong Bungalow
• Temi Dak Bungalow
• Aritar Dak Bungalow
This heritage bungalow was built in 1841 as a summer retreat, by the owners of a tea estate in Assam. Incidentally, this is perhaps the only house of that era in Darjeeling that has retained all its past glory and possessions. At this Darjeeling Bungalow, you can get a glimpse of the Colonial era in the bungalows antique furniture, wooden floors and staircases. Many famous personalities like Sir George Everest (after whom Mt Everest is named), Vivian Leigh, Julie Christie, Lady Curzon, George Mallory, Andrew Irvine and others have visited or stayed in this house, sometime or the other.
Accommodation at Darjeeling Bungalow
This heritage property near the Mall Road has ten rooms and most of them have fire places, extra large beds and deep cushions. The wooden flooring, Tibetan show pieces, red carpet wrapped stair cases, antique furniture, paintings and everything else reminds one of the British era. There are single bed rooms, double rooms and double bed suites to accommodate the guests. The reception and lounge area as well as the dining hall with their antique furniture, are great places to relax. A small garden dotted with tea tables also add to the vintage charm. The rooms are named after the personalities who stayed there like George Mallory – the great British Mountaineer or Vivien Leigh – the Hollywood actress of “Gone with the Wind” fame.
How to reach Darjeeling Bungalow
There are all types of options to reach Darjeeling- by air, by road and by railways. The Bagdogra airport located 96 kms from Darjeeling has several direct flights from Kolkata and Delhi. One can also avail buses from Kolkata and reach Siliguri. Similarly, the nearest railway station is New Jalpaiguri and there are several trains connecting it to Kolkata and other parts of India. Direct taxis are available from Bagdogra Airport, Siliguri and New Jalpaiguri to take the commuters to the serene hill station of Darjeeling.
Attractions of Darjeeling
Often termed as the “Queen of the Himalayas,” Darjeeling was a small sleepy Lepcha village in the Himalayan foothills with great views of Mt. Kanchenjungha. The British did not like it this way so in 1841, they started tea plantations in the nearby areas and soon built their summer homes in Darjeeling. With weather very similar to their homeland, Darjeeling soon became a little England teeming with colonial bungalows and continental eateries. The Toy Train soon came into being and reaching Darjeeling from the sun scorched plains of India became easy. With all these, the colonial culture of clubhouses and Mall Road strolling became popular and Darjeeling turned out to be one of the most popular summer retreats of British India. Still holding back its old charm of the British Raj in its colonial buildings and park benches Darjeeling is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. This heritage bungalow is probably one of the oldest British bungalows of Darjeeling and spending a few days here would give you a glimpse of the colonial days of the British Raj.
One of the prime attractions of Darjeeling is the Chowrasta or the Mall Road. Visitors walk along this wide promenade undisturbed as no vehicles pass this area. One can get glimpses of lucrative shops as well as beautiful mountain ranges, while strolling along the Mall road or sitting on the surrounding park benches. For animal lovers, the Darjeeling Himalayan Zoo presents a strong attraction with its array of rare Himalayan species such as snow leopard, Red panda, Clouded Leopard and Himalayan White Crested Bears. Those interested in History of Mountaineering can have a good time at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and Everest Museum which contains all the records of the various expeditions under taken to the Himalayas by the greats like Tenzing Norgay, Edmund Hillary and Others. The institute also offers courses in Mountaineering.
For nature loving tourists, Darjeeling has so much to offer. Apart from the breathtaking view of the snow-clad Mt Kanchenjungha, there are unspoilt greenery, rare and exotic flora and the flamboyant array of flowers. Rock garden, Lloyd Botanical Garden and Nightingale Park are must-visit for such tourists. These apart, tourists can always indulge in actions like hiking, mountain climbing, shopping and mountain biking. Toy train ride is ‘a must’ as it retains the old world charm of riding on a steam powered train and offers a glimpse of Darjeeling’s colonial history.
Enjoy A Socially Distant Weekend Away From The City At These Beautiful Farmhouses In Kolkata
To the point: The pandemic isn't lessening and the stress from continuous working from home seems like a bit too much. Oh, it's truly frustrating; remember the last time you went on a vacation? Well, if not far, how about a weekend at a farmhouse with your family?
1. Bawali Farmhouse
One of the most most popular farmhouses near Kolkata, it's also known as Arshnagar Farmhouse. Just an hour and 20 minutes away from Kolkata lies this beautiful farmhouse with a private pool, a lot of greenery, well-maintained gardens, comfortable rooms and everything exciting. Known as Bawali Farmhouse, your search for a peaceful place definitely ends here. Read more about it here.
2. Roadend Farmhouse
Although it's temporarily closed now, the place is scheduled to reopen soon enough. The beautiful green surrounding and the distance from the city creates the ideal weekend relaxing vibe. Serving traditional Bengali food and the nearby pond, full of lotuses, do book your stay at this place before the Puja.
3. Neeldeep Garden
This place is underrated and they project themselves correctly as a Baganbari. Neeldeep is both a farmhouse and a popular picnic spot near Kolkata where you can witness the actual farm of Bengal. Surrounding by cultivated fields and solitude, the well-maintained gardens and ample space to organize a family picnic seems the right kind of medicine for the pandemic. Click here for more details.
4. Bonolota Farm
Just 45 minutes from Kolkata, this small but lavishly green place harbours beautiful flowers and gardens. They offer a solitary stay, far away from the business of Kolkata and you can feel the refreshing surrounding with a small forest and gardens. To know more, click here.
5. Babli Farmhouse
This lies in the Birbhum district is perfectly aligned with your solitary interests. Inside the sprawling laterite forests of Birbhum, you can actually stay inside rural Bengal cottages and experience the hospitality of tribal Bengal as well. Their cottages styled in Atchala and the deep surrounding forest is truly mesmerizing. Click here to know more.