In Memoriam: Lala Kashmirimal’s Mansion

Mourn for the departed glory and days

That have left the earth’s face unsung.

Mourn not for the glory that stays

With days imprinted sharp; for long.

Lala Kashmirimal's Mansion_Prinsep_thakur dwaree

James Prinsep has done a great service to the city of Benares by producing a series of sketches portraying its salient features back in 1820’s. In his Benares Illustrated the ghatscape dominates the scene. There are only two sketches of a Banarsi house and both are of Lala Kashmiri Mal’s Mansion (haveli). Those were the years of the decline of that banker’s house. The mansion was not so well kept as it used to be in its golden days around half a century ago, around King Chet Singh’s reign. Yet, the parts presented in the book, the temple in the house and the roof of the female section, are magnificent.

The house and its parts are made of solid sandstone from nearby Chunar. The huge stone mansion constructed in eighteenth century was considered as one of the four magnificent havelis of the city: the other three being Devki Nandan Khatri’s, Kangan Wali Haveli behind Beni Madho’s Dharhara and the one at Bulanala that I’ve not seen till date. The ceiling of the Thahkur Dwaree has a local parallel in that of the palace at Man Mandir Ghat:

DSC05341 DSC05343

When imagination fills colours into the pattern on the ceiling of the black and white sketch, and the stones start breathing with the rhythm of their days of youth, one may actually “see” how magnificent the haveli would have appeared to a contemporary Banarsi, or, if James is not given that honour: traveller. There’s no furniture in the room, keeping with the local way of life. The stone columns terminate into the waved arches and patterns that fill the upper part of the room.

What Prinsep calls the sleeping apartments must have been the Zenana section of the haveli. How he entered the section is definitely surprising. But then, in those days, the rules of the native house did not hold for the powerful white race. The mansion had a male and a female section, as was customary in haveli architecture.

Lala Kashmirimal's Mansion_Prinsep_roof

It was around half past six in the morning. I was nearly five kilometres walk away from my home, in the labyrinth of lanes at the heart of pakki mahaal of Kashi. I had come there walking the ghatscape between Karnatak State Ghat and Umrao Giri/Lalita Ghat. I wanted to search for Umrao Giri’s Monastery and Baoli, but the two persons at Garhwasi Tola whom I asked about it had no clue. They also knew nothing of the haveli of the title. Even my kasiphile and very knowledgeable uncle could not give me directions for reaching the haveli.

I had entered the maze of the galis at the locality called Nepali Khapra. I had read it in the Kashi Edition of Soch Vichaar that the famous (that’s what I used to think till then) Lala Kashmirimal’s Haveli is in Nandan Sahu Lane. I crossed Garhwaasi Tola and turned right before the main gali meets Thatheri Bazaar, as I knew that the  haveli was somewhere there. And then, I read the stone tablet declaring that I was in “Nandan Sahu Lane”. As it was still early in the morning, the normally crowded galis of Kashi wore a deserted look. The only human beings that could be found in the galis were the sweepers and the pullers of the carts that carry the filth away. I hesitated in accosting them with my query for the exact directions and missed my chance.

I had lost all hope of reaching the haveli when I met the gentleman in the image below. As can be seen, he is in his early morning muhalla attire: gamcha and vest. By an experienced guess, it can be said that he lives very close to the point where he was located in the morning.


“Where’s Lala Kashmirimal’s Haveli?”, I asked him. “There,” said he. Now, the word “there” hasn’t any definite meaning in Varanasi. It may mean: I don’t know, in the next gali, exactly where you have just walked past from, right in front of us etc. So, to place my feet firmly upon the rock of reality, I repeated my question. This time round, pointing towards the house in front, he reaffirmed: “There”. “But it’s so small”, said I. “Small?” I had offended him into animation, “Look into that gali, the wall of the house runs up to its end”.

The walls of solid stone that rose two stories from their base at the gali ran long indeed, but that did not impress me. So, I asked him in dismay and disappointment arising from the building’s not meeting my expectations. I had read and seen so much about it that I had created its image in my mind. This “thing” was in no way like that image. Not in the exact words, but as I was in my thinking aloud mode, the same was conveyed to the gentleman in gamcha. “It had four storeys as you can see by the structure towards the end of the wall”, said he. He was right. At the other end of the house, I could see all the four storeys intact.

Lala Kashmirimal's Haveli ruins

Now, four storeys is not uncommon in the pakki mahaal that can boast of several houses that have two, even three storeys over that. The remarkable thing about the building was its length multiplied by its width, i.e. the area of its base, and the minute work on its stone base. Compared to the details on the parapets in the black and white sketches, the window in the image to the left below and the space above the lintel over the door to the right are but poor shadows of the past glory. It must have taken years of hard work by hundreds to chisel and carve the stone and then to put it in its right place to make a work of art: Lala Kashmirimal’s Haveli.

DSC07926_lattice kashmirimal DSC07940_arch etc

Not even a decade ago was the haveli in its place. Although not its condition, its existence can be gathered from local accounts of its presence at Nandan Sahu Lane. I used to pass the gali in order to reach Chaukhambha, or during my trips towards Bibi Hatiya etc. I didn’t know then. I didn’t know three things: there was something like Kashmirimal’s Haveli, it was in that locality, and it would be wiped clean from the face of the earth before I reached it.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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