In the northern part of Kolkata, in Jorasanko, on the Muktaram Basu Street , stands a grand old mansion known as the Marble Palace. Constructed by Raja Rajendra Mullick, it was inaugurated in 1835, and still serves as the private residence of the Mullicks ,which is why some parts of the palace are out of bounds of tourists. This Chorbagan land was offered as a swap to the Mullicks in early 18th century in lieu of their acres on the site of the old Fort William .
The imposing front-side of the mansion, built in neo-classical style , boasting of fluted Corinthian columns and huge, simple walls ,is visible from outside the main gate itself. On the right , as you move in , stands a huge pool ,with a non-working fountain, and stone mermaids, as also a standing statue of Raja Rajendra Mullick .The sprawling well-maintained lawns are larger than football fields and adorned with flowers .Further to the right is the menagerie. By some accounts , this was the first zoo opened in India in 1855, but now primarily serves as an aviary. There is a Jagannath Temple inside the premises which is accessible only by the Mullicks. Ducks and swans could be seen frolicking around a large pond located between the mansion’s lawns and menagerie.
I was intrigued to find three beautiful statues of ‘sleeping lions’ –two in the lawn and another one inside the zoo. They do not resemble the ‘sad lion’ of Lucerne, Switzerland, and later even a google search didn’t inform me anything regarding them. Are they symbols of any kind ? A family motif ,a signature by any artist ,imitation of any work of art ? They are quite noticeable as they peacefully repose in the hot and humid Calcutta sun .
The ground floor boasts of a Thakur-dalan (where Durga images are worshipped on a raised altar)facing a huge courtyard where the grandees must have enjoyed their tea while sitting around a small fountain . There is a billiards room , and a large music room which houses a piano and many other musical instruments. The guide informed us that 96 different types of marbles have been used inside the palace. There are six prayer halls inside the premises. On the opposite corner of the Thakur-dalan are kept a number of beautiful birdcages having peacocks,albino peacocks, mynah ,hyacinthine macaw, bird of Alexandria, trucan, Hawk-headed parakeets, silver and golden pheasants, magpies, hornbills and mute swans as inmates.
The antiques collection inside the Marble Palace is rather eclectic. Western sculptures, priceless paintings and replicas, costly Austrian chandeliers, Venetian candelabras Belgian glassware, game trophies, old clocks, porcelain urns and what not ,are herded up rather randomly. One can find original paintings by Reubens ,Joshua Reynolds, Titian, Murillo, Opie and Raja Ravi Varma (A Shakuntala and Dushyanta painting does adorn a wall, but I am no expert). Geoffrey Moorhouse in his book ‘Calcutta ‘says it looks “as if the artefacts had been scavenged from job lots on the Portobello Road on a series of damp Saturday afternoons.” This random collection of western items , sundry birds and images of sleeping lions rather create the effect of a Wonderland.
The entrance of the museum side of the palace displays sculptures made in Miroy Foundry in France. Four statues of women depicting the four seasons of summer, autumn, spring and winter look quite graceful. The Reception Hall houses a 16 foot high black wooden image of Queen Victoria, carved out of a single piece. There are also bronze busts of the Queen and Medusa kept side-by-side. Outside the hall stand marble representations of Greek gods Phoebus Apollo and his twin sister Diana , as well as many other characters from Greek Epics. Replicas /sculptures of Dancing / nautch Girls , Dancing Fauns and mermaids are present throughout the palace.
The ornate ball room boasts of two 20 foot high mirrors and two large chandeliers and many candelabras .Victorian furniture graces the room.The Bengali grandees must have enjoyed quite some social evenings here. A 200 year old Wall Clock ,still showing correct time, is also placed in the ball room.
Getting entry into the famed 3-storeyed mansion is slightly tricky. Travel advisories warn potential tourists about the requirement of an advance permit, which is to be collected from West Bengal Tourism Information Bureau office ,BBD Bagh. But I showed my government identity card at the gate, and it worked like charm. I am not too sure if they allow common visitors as easily. Why cannot they just open a counter at the entry gate itself to facilitate tourists ? I am sure footfalls shall improve by leaps and bounds should this happen. There must also be a nominal entry fee ( Rs 30 never hurt anyone) which can help in better upkeep of the palace. They must also allow visitors to click photographs of the place. This is the age of smartphone camera, and a visitor should not be denied the joy of clicking pictures. A number of well-behaved guides throng the place, and although they do not charge you anything despite the services they provide, must be tipped atleast Rs 100.
Marble Palace is a treasure which gives the impression that it does not want to be found. A pity really, because it has such potential.