Imagine watching the birds go about their daily business while you lounge back in a planter’s chair on a sunlight speckled verandah of an 18th century French style mansion set in the lush green gardens of a rural Bengal Estate. This is exactly what’s on offer at the 17-acre Balakhana Estate in Bengal’s Maheshganj. Balakhana belonged to the Palchoudhuri family since 1875 and is a heritage homestay today with five rooms available for guests. If you want some activity in between vegetating on the verandah, guided nature walks and boating are on offer.
On the road to Maheshganj, the lush greenery and evocative names of the Bengal countryside— Boinchi, Samudragarh, Dhatrigram—do not prepare guests for Balakhana. The house is not visible either from the road or the gate. As one progresses along the driveway, it gradually comes into view through the foliage. Instead of the double or triple storey bulk of a typical British Indian zamindarbari, the clean classical lines of a single-storey European villa come as a surprise. The elegant fascade conceals within its walls 12,000 square feet of living space, with a verandah that stretches 2,000 square feet.
The verandah is the centre of life in Balakhana. It provides the best view of the 17-acre estate and its antique recliners, planter’s chairs and marble-topped table provide the most comfortable setting to experience the estate’s extensive bird life, including its two resident geese.
Balakhana is self-contained. The guests consume fruits, vegetables and milk from the estate. The latter produces fresh cream of a thickness, colour and taste that would cause indigestion to many city dwellers. For entertainment, there are billiards, a library, walks around the estate, boating in the nearby river and stargazing through clear skies. The house and its lifestyle, offers an opportunity to return to a slower life and savour its simple pleasures.
The food maybe the biggest draw at Balakhana with the kitchen serving Bengali, English and Continental fare made of produce from the grounds. The Estate has 30 date palms, from which jaggery is made every year. Guests, who are at Balakhana in the winter months, can see the process of tapping and the boiling of the date syrup. However, guests get to enjoy the prepared ‘gur’ throughout the year at Balakhana.
Since food is an important part of the experience, it is not surprising that great care goes into the preparation of the meals. Most of the ingredients, in keeping with the ethos of the slow food and local food movements, come from the Estate grounds. No chemical fertilisers are used; instead dung manure, compost and mustard-cake are employed to help the yields. The Estate has its own cows, ensuring fresh unadulterated milk. This focus on organic farming also ensures employment opportunities for the local population.
Inside, Balakhana offers what would call “solid comfort”. Bedrooms are enormous with ceilings more than 20 ft high and designed for natural cooling. The entire house is filled with beautiful mahogany furniture and if one so desires, one can sleep on Savis’s bed which is reached after climbing a flight of four steps. Balakhana being a heritage homestay, there is no provision for room service.
Balakhana is a home and much of the charm of staying there is the experience of being at home in a family. And like in all families, consideration for each other is the essence of a pleasant stay. Peace and quiet amid nature is the very stuff of Balakhana.
Owners of tea gardens and manufacturing companies, the Palchoudhuris of Nadia are a lineage of enterprising and technically gifted individuals, early aviators, avid gardeners, philanthropists with a history of public service. They embody values that are more and more improbable in this world of concrete, glass and speed, but all the more to be cherished and shared by staying awhile in Balakhana.
Maheshganj has a tropical wet and dry climate and the best time to visit the city is from November to March. This is a good time to visit and take in the warmth of the fireplace in the living room and bonfire outdoors. Balakhana is shut to visitors after the Easter weekend, till end of June, re-opening 1st of July, as the rains set in and the ambient is a little cooler.
However, if one were to venture out of Balakhana, spiritual solace is at Mayapur (4 km away) or Kalna (35 km away). For shopping trip, the fabled saris of Phulia/Santipur are 30 km away while the equally famous clay dolls and sweets of Krishnagar are 12 km distant.
How to reach: You can go by road via Kona Expressway/ Golden Quadrilateral/ State Highway. Or take Jessore Road and hit NH-34. Look out for old red pillars to Balakhana. There are also trains with AC chair cars from Kolkata and Sealdah stations like Hazarduari Express and Bhagirathi Express. Daily local EMU trains ply hourly from Sealdah to Krishnagar.