A heritage hotel

Would you stay in a 350 years old house? We looked at what other travelers had written, and decided it wasn’t risky. The owner explained that it was not a palace, “We are not royals.” He was very clear about the distinction. “There were only two kings in Marwar,” he explained to The Family, “Jodhpur and Udaipur.” The explanation of the differences between royals and jagirdars, land-holding princes, was a page out of history books. He cannot call the house a haveli either. Those belonged to merchants. He gets around it by repurposing a word which is never used in this context. He calls his place a castle.

We parked in the forecourt of the property and walked in through a grand door. It was probably built to the proportions of an elephant with a howdah. Royals did visit this place in those early days. Like most such old houses, the building was somewhat haphazard. Different wings had been added on at different times. Photos had shown this place as white with red trim. Now it was a dazzling white. There was a complex explanation. The old man, the owner, was full of stories. It was interesting to sit with him over a drink before dinner.

We had a choice of rooms. The manager walked us through the place. The oldest wing was very interesting. A bathroom had part of an ancient painting on the roof. I was told that it was 300 years old. I’m not a student of art history, so I can’t tell. Perhaps you can tell from the featured photo whether this appears to be a Marwari painting from three centuries ago. Apparently maintenance had been planned for early 2020, but then the lockdown happened. During that time a small tremor shook down some of the plaster, carrying part of the painting into history. The owner was quite crestfallen when I asked him about it. “I am told they can use our photos to restore it. But I can’t lie about its age. I have to tell people that parts are modern.”

The rooms in the oldest wing are charming, but small. We chose to stay in a wing which was two hundred years younger. This part of the building has interesting painted terra cotta panels embedded into the external walls. They seemed to have served some ritual purpose, because they flank niches with place for lamps.

Was there room service? “No,” one of the men said, “but I will be outside your room. Call me if you need something.” He stayed out of sight but available, behind a wooden screen with champa flowers peeping over it. We didn’t need much. The room was good, very clean, and the food was excellent Marwari fare. I discovered that the approved traditional way to eat bati and churma is not with dal, but with laal maas.

There was no wifi. Bera has good mobile connectivity. We could live without free broadband for a weekend. The rooms were otherwise wonderful, each a little suite. The furniture was what The Family called antique, but the owner said was just little things which had been in the family. He had stories about how he had to pull them out of storage and have them polished and repaired.

Our room had photos of horses and polo players on the walls. I thought I recognized one of the former kings of Jaipur in a photo taken after a fall during a polo match. When I mentioned this to the owner he said that the team mate next to him was his grandfather’s younger brother. I was treated to a walk through the bar, and a view of treasured photos of his grandfather, a polo champion, winning matches and hob-nobbing with the likes of Prince Philip and other famous polo players. Those times are past, but family stories live on. Although we enjoyed the weekend, he did not manage to make royalists of us.

The palace of illusions

Ram Singh Malam, the Kutchi polymath, designed a palace for Rao Lakhpatji, a rajah with an equally wide-ranging mind. It was called Aaina Mahal. A literal translation would be Palace of Mirrors. I prefer to call it the Palace of Illusions. When it was built in 1750 it must have been a stunning sight. Faults in the Indian continental plate which developed 180 million years ago during the breakup of ancient Gondwanaland triggered an earthquake of magnitude 7.7 on Republic Day, 2001, in Kutch. Bhuj is about 20 kilometers away from the epicenter, and the palace was badly damaged. It had housed the state museum. In the aftermath of the quake, many of the pieces that remained were stolen. The restoration is slow because of the lack of funds.

Ram Singh Malam’s Aaina Mahal seen from the entrance of St. Clair Wilkins’ Prag Mahal. The cannon presented by Tipu Sultan is in the foreground. Details of Aina mahal on the right. Click to expand.

Looking at the palace today, you have to work hard to imagine the opulence that impressed people even thirty years ago. Visiting in the early 19th century, a Marianne Postans wrote a travel memoir called Cutch; Or Random Sketches, Taken During a Residence in One of the Northern Provinces of Western India; Interspersed with Legend in 1839, where she describes the palace in these words, “Feeling quite inadequate to the task of presenting the reader with a catalogue raisonné of all the unnamable articles of virtù, which adorn this chosen retreat of luxurious royalty, I must request him to imagine himself introduced, by some wholesale glass dealer, to his sample room, where, amongst jelly glasses, and old vases, are introduced some half dozen antique musical clocks, all playing at once, and the whole display brilliantly illuminated by large wax candles at noon-day!”

A small part of the palace has been restored and is on display, as part of the state museum. The rooms are now overcrowded, and you have to spend time to examine all that is on display. I’m afraid that the time we spent was not adequate. Still, I must make special mention of the doors in this palace. Fantastically decorated doors are a specialty around the Indian Ocean, from Kerala to Konkan, north around the coast in Gujarat and Arabia, and down to Zanzibar and Malindi. Even among them, these are amazing. I wonder which was the door that a colonial Governor General was prevented from taking away as a gift to Queen Victoria.

This is also a good place to say something about the architect, Ram Singh Malam, whose portrait hangs in one of the galleries of the palace. Little is known about his early life, except that he was born in Okha, at the mouth of the Gulf of Kutch. His early life was spent as a sailor. He was rescued from a shipwreck by a Dutch ship bound for Netherlands, where he spent eighteen years learning a variety of crafts: glassblowing, architecture, clock making, enamel work, foundry and gun casting, to name a few. You can see his influence in the cast iron structure of Aina Mahal, and its once-famous mirrors.

The mirrored ceilings were an invention of Malam. The gallery around the room called the Fuvara Mahal, the wonderfully designed music chamber, the bedchambers, and the inner corridor all have ceilings in this style. They require restoration, but given the magnitude of the post-earthquake restoration needed, I was happy that at least they gave some indication of the former opulence of this palace. The Kutchi school of painting developed largely due to the royal patronage given at this time. I was entranced by the painting with the flamingos. It catches the terrible beauty of the Rann very nicely. I was happy to see a portrait of Rao Lakhpatji eventually in a niche in one corner. The tour of the palace would have seemed incomplete without portraits of him and his architect, Ram Singh Malam.

The exuberance of Prag Mahal

Prag mahal is possibly the first example of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, with its design completed in 1865. I’d posted a quick tour of the darbar hall last week. This week is another quick tour to see the delightful meld of cultures that created this style: spiral staircases desecending from Indo-Greek architecture, clock towers, Victorian Gothic exteriors, and the riotous sandstone sculptures made by local artisans.

Whether you take the street entrance (with its massive door) or the entrance from the century older Aina Mahal, the first view of the new palace is that of an European building transplanted into India. But almost immediately you begin to see the differences. The exterior stonework is more reminiscent of Mughal influence, or possibly the Iberian Mudejar style, than of Victorian Gothic.

A closer look confirms this. The facade, with its regular spacing of arches, surmounted by stones in contrasting colours, and grand mosaics with geometric motifs, is redolent of the Iberian blend of east and west which goes by the name of the Mudejar style. The clock tower and its spiral staircase became a fixture in the Indian monumental architecture of the 19-th century, and is a British influence carried here. So are the cast iron railings on the staircases. The lancet arches and the massive pillars had already developed in early modern times, diffusing through the Mughal court into Indian architecture. The decorations on the ceiling are in a local style. The effect of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake are clearly visible. Some of the stone work on the facade and in some of the minor arches are visibly damaged.

One historical artifact that was not stolen in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake were the cannons that are displayed at the entrance. A plaque told us that it was a present from Tipu Sultan to the Rao.

For me one of the highlights of the building are the sandstone sculptures on the capitals of the numerous columns in the palace. Whether it is frogs standing in for the three wise monkeys, herons swallowing fish, a caterpillar being harried by a bird, a rat looking for a pigeon’s nest, or simply horse heads and foliage, each capital is unique. The local sculptors preferred working in sandstone. This is a relatively simple medium, and, since it comes from neighbouring Rajasthan, would be cheaper than transporting harder stone from further afield. However, sandstone also weathers faster. Already, in just over a hundred and fifty years, you can see the exterior-facing parts of the capitals are more eroded and the parts which face in.

The darbar hall of Rao Pragmal II

Since we had a very short stay in Bhuj, I tried to create a shortlist of places that we could see in half a day. The palaces and the old town around it kind of select themselves. There were some warnings that the palaces had been damaged in the earthquake of 2001, but others assured us that some of the damage had been repaired. A palace complex with some buildings dating from the early modern period is not something you pass up.

When I drove in through the gate of Prag Mahal I had not expected something which looks like the nearly contemporaneous Mumbai’s CST (the erstwhile Victoria Terminus). This palace was built in the mid-19th century CE, at a time when the Gothic Revival was all the rage in England. Fusing this style with the local craftsmanship yielded something we should definitely count as one of the earliest examples of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. The design by Henry St Clair Wilkins predates F. W. Stevenson’s design of the Victoria Terminus and other buildings in Mumbai by more than a decade (construction of the palace started in 1865). For this reason, one could view Wilkins as a possible originator of the Indo-Saracenic style. I will return to the palace again, but I wanted to post about the darbar hall separately.

After paying for our entry, we entered a corridor which led up a flight of stairs to the darbar on the first floor. The tiled floor and the arches looked European in sensibility, but, on a closer look, turned out to be Indian. You can see the luxurious details of animals and vegetation of the jali in a photo above. It was executed in Rajasthani sandstone. The floor of the darbar, on the other hand, used Italian marble. The look of the darbar was much more European than the rest of the building. This was probably a response to colonial British pressure on rajas to conform to European norms or lose their nominal independence.

I noticed one detail just as we were about to wander off. If you look at the view of the door at the top of the stairs in one of the earlier photos, you might notice a smudge in the glass. These turned out to be beautifully executed etchings. You see two examples in the photos above. Like the medallions on the arches in the darbar, this was another piece of art executed entirely in an European style. The design was the visual equivalent of code switching, long before the term was invented. But the resulting fusion of two different artistic styles gave rise to interesting architecture with a long life.

Hemmed into the straight and narrow

After a walk in the rain around the lake and waterfall in Lonavala, The Family asked “Should we drive to Amby Valley?” Why not? One can’t enter Amby Valley without prior permission, but there are many things to see on the way. One could easily drift away from the road and into interesting places, I imagined.

I had not really thought this through. The Lonavala area was considered to be a desirable location in colonial times, and much of the land was parceled out to individuals. The properties changed hands many times since the early 19th century, but they are still guarded by massive gates. Amby Valley incorporates many of these old properties after all.

In many places there were massive cast-iron gates guarding the property. Some were in worse repair than others. A few were mere suggestions to stay away. If the rain was not pelting down as hard as it was, I would have tried exploring at least one of these places. It had a break in the wall next to the gate with a well-trodden path leading in. In these old deserted properties the garden is often taken over by wild plants, and you can see flowers, insects, and birds in plenty.

I mentioned to The Family that there are unlikely to be vicious dogs roaming free behind broken gates and walls, but she was not to be moved. We were kept on the narrow road to the deep north by these gates and walls, and the notion of private property that they implied, however sketchy. On a drier day I might have been more tempted to wander in and photograph the decayed ruins of colonial era bungalows which probably are being eaten away by the weather inside. But this was not that day.

Other homes

Hurry declared that the leak had not been repaired properly, and he needed to go to a car repair shop in Vaitarna village. We agreed to go along. Next to the repair shop was a grocery store. The Family decided to buy biscuits. You can’t really have tea without a Marie biscuit or two, can you? The thin crisp things, with scalloped edges, were apparently invented in 1874 to commemorate Marie Romanov’s wedding to the Duke of Edinburgh. Far from the pomp and circumstances of that time, we took our biscuits and found a place which could give us tea to go with it. It had started raining, and I got a nice photo of a quiet street in a village.

We walked around a bit, taking photos of people and houses. The unplastered wall that you see in the photo below stood out from the rest. The Family stopped to take a photo. Strangely, the paint was peeling from the doors and windows. It had the odd appearance of being simultaneously unfinished and old.

The contrast with other houses could not be greater. Even relatively poorer houses, like the one that you see in the featured photo, had a better finished look. And there were some really neat houses in the villages.

The boy you see in the photo above stood at the door of his house and inspected us carefully. When The Family waved out to him he ran in. Tin roofs seem to be common here. Is it because of the heavy rains? They may be easier to repair than concrete when they spring a leak.

This house was my personal favourite. Bright and cheerful, with some lovely hibiscus in the garden. I also liked the field raincoat propped against the front verandah. In the Himalayas you see shoes lined up outside the house. Here it is the rain gear. Stands to reason. You don’t want to get water all over the floor.

Two views of Mumbai

Hokusai could take a perfectly symmetric cone and find thirty six wonderful and different views of it. Lesser mortals like us take more complex subjects and are happy if we can coax one or two nice shots from it. When it comes to Mumbai, I’m a bad judge. I love even the ordinary everyday views.

Whether it is photo of monsoon clouds over Malabar Hill taken from a speeding taxi, or a blurry photo of the central city taken from a plane as it circles in for a landing, I’m happy to have my mobile phone on hand to capture yet another view of home. To think that in a century from now the haphazard mess of towers built in the last fifty years might be under the sea!

Ruins

When you travel in the hills and mountains of India it is not uncommon to find the ruins from the late colonial era. The British tended to gravitate to the cooler regions of these higher elevations when possible. Often that meant that the administrative apparatus would go into very long breaks in the two warm seasons (summer and Indian summer). When the Raj collapsed, they sold what they could and moved back to the Old Blighty. What they couldn’t, slowly fell into ruin as the country reverted to its normal way of life.

Just past the bazaar in Mukteshwar I came to one such set of buildings: a late colonial barracks. Mukteshwar was perhaps at its bustling busiest in the 1920s. There had been continuous growth since the beginning of the 20th century until the Black Tuesday market crash in New York. Arguably, the punitive taxes imposed by Britain on its colonies in the aftermath of the crash led to the invigoration of the independence movement, and Britain’s eventual exit from India. But this past is a prologue to the sunny day on which I took these photos and wondered what could happen to this row of two-room apartments, each separated from its neighbour by just one wall. I suppose it will be torn down, and the stones reused to build something more suited to today.

Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of these old barracks was the miserly view they gave of the beautiful vistas behind them: the high Himalayas on one side, this lovely forest on the other. I left the ruins behind and followed the road, under the deodars and the firs, into a land full of the sounds of insects and birds.

No tiger in Mukteshwar

The tiny village of Mukteshwar (called Muktesar before 1947) has not changed substantially since Jim Corbett visited about a hundred years ago and met the brave little girl with the buffalo, before shooting the man eating tiger of Muktesar. You can do worse than follow his description of the place.

“Eighteen miles to the north-north-east of Naini Tal is a hill eight thousand feet high and twelve to fifteen miles long, running east and west. The western end of the hill rises steeply and near this end is the Muktesar Veterinary Research Institute, where lymph and vaccines are produced to fight India’s cattle diseases. The laboratory and staff quarters are situated on the northern face of the hill and command one of the best views to be had anywhere of the Himalayan snowy range.” The beginning of the story sets the scene. The Institute was relocated to this place in 1893. The population of the village remains small, but standing at 812 in 2011, has probably quadrupled since Corbett’s days. The number of resorts has increased substantially as word of the views have spread, but they are strung out along the road without crowding the bazaar.

“Accompanied by a servant and two men carrying a roll of bedding and a suitcase, I left Naini Tal at midday and walked ten miles to the Ramgarh Dak Bungalow, where I spent the night. The Dak Bungalow khansama (cook, bottle-washer, and general factotum) was a friend of mine, and when he learnt that I was on my way to shoot the man-eater, he warned me to be very careful while negotiating the last two miles into Muktesar for, he said, several people had recently been killed on that stretch of the road.” Corbett continued on foot the next morning, and reached Muktesar by early morning. Our drive took us a little more than two hours, allowing for a halt for chai. The road is good enough to do bettter.

“This was the first time I had ever climbed that hill, and I was very interested to see the caves, hollowed out by wind, in the sandstone cliffs overhanging the road. In a gale I imagine these caves must produce some very weird sounds, for they are of different sizes and, while some are shallow, others appear to penetrate deep into the sandstone.” I’d kept a look out for these formations described by Corbett, but nothing we passed seemed to fit. It is possible that the caves were dynamited to widen the roads. The only similar formation today is Chauli ki Jali, which is a steep rock face used by rapellers, and could not possibly have been an alternative route up.

“Where the road comes out on a saddle of the hill there is a small area of flat ground flanked on the far side by the Muktesar Post Office, and a small bazaar.” This description is still true, and corroborates my conclusion that the road is the same as in Corbett’s time, but without the caves he described. The flat ground is where we parked the car. Beyond the bazaar are the two famous guest houses of the place. By not taking the upper path I missed out on Chauli ki Jali and went instead to where Corbett has his breakfast. “[T]he khansama in charge of the bungalow, and I, incurred the displeasure of the red tape brigade, the khansama by providing me with breakfast, and I by partaking of it.” In the century since the Muktesar man-eater raged here, the Dak Bungalow has become a State Tourism (KMVN) guest house, accreted a number of cooks and waiters, and, as I found, is still so tied up in red tape that it takes a long time to fill in the paper work needed to serve a cuppa chai.

After a chai and toast, I picked up my camera, and followed Corbett, who continues, “Then, picking up my rifle, I went up to the post office to send a telegram to my mother to let her know I had arrived safely.” Meeting up with The Family, back from her jaunt to the ridge, we found that the sturdy colonial era house has changed in many ways in the century since Corbett was here. I am sure the paved forecourt is no more than a decade old, the solar panels are substantially more recent, the sign over the gate perhaps a couple of decades old, and the gate itself is half a century old if it is a day. Telegrams no longer exist; I had sent The Family one of the last, but that is another story. Nevertheless, the post-office is still one that Corbett might recognize if he were to reappear here.

“In rural India, the post office and bania’s shop are to village folk what taverns and clubs are to people of other lands, and if information on any particular subject is sought, the post office and the bania’s shop are the best places to seek it.” The shops have been remade in the last century, and the post office has probably lost its social standing. But the bania’s shop is still a place where people gather. I was amazed at how much sense Corbett’s description of Mukteshwar still made.