An English Palace in the Desert

Once we found ourselves at a loose end in Bikaner, we decided to spend the rest of the day in its palaces. Since most of them have now been turned into hotels it is not hard to do. Our first destination was lunch at the Lalgarh Palace. It is part of the complex designed by Samuel Swinton Jacob as commissioned by a regency controlled by the British crown while Maharajah Ganga Singh was a minor. The reason given was that the Junagadh Fort was not suitable for visits by modern (read British) monarchs. In a fit of economy, the regency set aside a budget of merely 1,00,000 rupees for the commission, but by the time the first wing, Laxmi Vilas Palace was built, more than a million rupees had already been spent, and Swinton Jacob had received India’s top colonial honour for his services. Corruption had been a fact of the British Indian administration since the days of Clive.

The Lalgarh Palace and its famous indoor swimming pool hosted a stream of European dignitaries, especially for Bikaner’s annual hunts. The Maharajah invited the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King George V and Queen Mary) for a hunt in 1905. Later that year he received his Kaiser-i-Hind, four years after his architect. This honour came cheap. The stream of visitors included the viceroys, Lords Curzon, Harding, and Irwin, and even Georges Clemenceau. The walls of the corridors running from the pool are lined with tiger and cheetah skins, and heads and antlers of the rare swamp deer. Older palaces don’t have them; I suppose this is an English affectation picked up by the later Indian royalty.

The Bikaner family is used to commoners living in this wing of the complex, so they turned it into a family-owned hotel. We were merely the latest riff-raff to walk its corridors and be greeted by its very own Stevens. When we balked at sitting in a closed hall all by ourselves, he suggested lunch overlooking the garden. We were happy to eat al almost fresco, as he produced a stream of dishes from the kitchen. The food was nice enough, but not terribly memorable. The tour of the palace he gave us was much nicer.

We’d sat at a table strategically placed between an open courtyard and an internal garden. The courtyard showed us that this wing of the palace was built in the Indo-Saracenic style that Swinton Jacob had adopted, but much toned down. I suppose that when Maharajah Ganga Singh took control of Bikaner he pruned the budget instantly. One Laxmi Vilas was enough. This had more of the austerity that a typical stately English home would have, at least in the imagination of a Julian Fellows or his ilk.

Stevens was proud of the palace. When he led us to the immense Darbar hall (whose closed doors you can see in the featured photo) he proudly told us that the etched glass had been imported from Belgium, and that a fully caparisoned elephant could enter with the Maharajah atop it through the door. He led us across the main darbar, where scaffoldings for a wedding was being set up, to the other door across it. “A railway line ended here, to bring visitors,” he told us. The platform and the lines have now been removed, and the space is used as a playing ground for children who read in a school on the far side supported by the princess. The paintings on the wall all seemed rather muted, except one which The Family took a photo of.

Stevens quite approved of us having a break between courses. “That’s what the princess also wants,” he told us. After a look at the pool and hunting trophies and the darbar hall, he suggested dessert. We decided to walk in the garden after, and he said he would get us a coffee there. You may have already seen some of the photos of the lovely flowers in the garden; I’ve posted them in the past week. These views show the private wing which the once-royal family retains; that’s the head on view down the small pool. The diagonal view shows the elephant door from the garden. Our coffee arrived, and we took our time sipping it in the shade of the lovely trees in the garden. Stevens had made our lunch into a very pleasant time we would not easily forget.

Indo-Saracenic Roccoco

The minor but influential state of Bikaner entered a spree of building palaces in the late 19th century CE. Samuel Swinton Jacob, an architect from Bombay, and later, Jaipur, was responsible for a series of extremely ornate palaces built in the characteristic Indo-Saracenic for Maharaja Rao Ganga Singh. They are mostly accessible to the public now, since they have been turned into hotels. I’ve never before been in a car which drew into a portico as ornate as the one that belongs to Laxmi Niwas Palace (photo above). The madly decorative sandstone work throughout this building would force me to call it roccoco if it was not so clearly Indo-Saracenic.

The first two photos in the gallery above are details from the portico (I liked that door to a guard’s changing room tucked between pillars). I could see two shades of sandstone. One, the dull pink one was probably Jaipur sandstone, which is still widely quarried and used. I wonder where the deeper red sandstone came from. The sandstone carvings that you see here are as elaborate as some of the more elaborate wood carvings I’ve seen from northern Gujarat. Bikaner had been a courtier at an imperial court since the time of Akbar, and Maharaja Ganga Singh, who would go on to serve in Flanders during World War I, was already an influential adviser to the Viceroys. The state was wealthy due to its enterprising merchants, and the Maharaja wanted to spare no expense for this palace, built between 1896 and 1902. Interestingly Swinton Jacob was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind during the time this palace was coming up, a few years before the Maharaja got his.

We sat in the inner courtyard and sipped our teas. It was served stylishly, and accompanied by interesting biscuits from the hotel’s bakery. We’d found other interesting tidbits in Bikaner’s bakeries on our walk around the town. As The Family nibbled on a biscuit, I took a few photos. The corridors on the upper floors were completely covered with carved sandstone jalis. Perhaps this was a zenana, a place for the women of the palace. The Maharaja’s grand daughters had left behind this tradition of women being tucked away out of sight, but it is yet to die away completely around Bikaner.

The Family was deep in a conversation about her plans for the next week, so I took the time to wander away along one of the corridors. Heads of Barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii) were mounted on the walls, flanking the doors of every apartment. They did not come from the game reserve of Tal Chhapar, I thought. Barasingha require immense amounts of water, and even a hundred and twenty years ago this area was a parched desert. One of the men at the reception told me that the chandelier hanging from that amazing ceiling was imported from Belgium. So were the doorknobs! That was the era of another globalization, when people could pick and choose their luxuries from around the world.

Walking, waking

When The Family told me I was looking like a couch potato, sprawled across a sofa, remote in hand, binge watching Network, I realized it was true, and I wasn’t really enjoying myself. I’d stopped going out in the wave of omicron infections which swept the neighbourhood. But that had passed in two weeks. It was time for a walk again. So, after finishing my meetings in the afternoon I went out for a walk from Kala Ghoda to VT through the small lanes that thread the old business area of Mumbai. Right at the start I realized that the city was recovering well from the pandemic. The stock exchange and the high court must have just closed for the day, and the streets were filled with brokers and lawyers having a small celebratory snack.

Business was starting up again. The numbness after the horrendous second wave seems to have disappeared after third. The city is almost fully vaccinated, and the lesson that vaccines protect effectively has been learnt. A new shop was being built in this road behind the stock exchange. I looked at the moon gates under construction. They looked incongruous in the four-storeyed Art Deco building called Seksaria Chambers. As soon as you look up you see the clean sweeping lines, the beautiful geometric detailing, the simple but elegant rectangular windows of this 1930s era style. Some changes have accumulated on the upper floors: box grills around windows, ugly air conditioning units, but unlike the street level, the architecture is still visible. Just across the road is a building in which the grand sweep of the Arts Moderne style of Surya Mahal is hidden behind boxy windows tacked on later. Interestingly, the architects in Mumbai often used corrugated metal to protect against rain. That feature is still visible at the top of the buildings.

I went around the stock exchange on a road which is lined with more Art Deco on one side and the old style traditional architecture on the other. Fort Chambers C has a delightful terrace grille just above the street level. Just across from it is a nameless but wonderful old building. I often stop to admire the structure: cast iron beams and pillars bear the load of a superstructure made from wood and sheet metal. The metal has been worked to reproduce the look of traditional wooden fretwork. I wish this modernization of the traditional style had been worked out fully. But, like its contemporary cousin, Art Nouveau in the west, it was arrested by the new construction techniques that were invented in the next decade. Just before the style died, it began to take on the more minimal looks that you see in the balconies just across from it (the last photo in the set above). This T-junction in the road is one of my favourite places to stand and muse about the turns that architecture never took.

This area is deserted enough in the evenings for guerilla artists to constantly try something new. The last months have been quiet, though I did find one piece of street art which I hadn’t seen before.

I stopped to pick up a coffee before walking on. Some months ago I’d photographed a restaurant which I thought had closed forever (photo on the left above). Now it has opened again. The place has a new signboard, and every surface has been repainted. I take it to be a hopeful sign. The city seems to be coming back to life.

Walking on I came to an older part of town, perhaps half a century older. The two parts are separated by a Parsi memorial in the center of a cross road. On Sundays the junction becomes a cricket ground. Now it was a place full of hawkers and scooter repairmen. I threaded between them to take a photo of one of the Parsi sphinxes around it. I’d never noticed before that its flowing moustache and beard hide a receding chin.

This the older part is Bora Bazaar, an area built before the spaces around it were cleared for the new construction during the cotton boom caused by the American civil war. Today I was not interested in the monumental offices and government buildings that came with the boom. Instead I looked at the homes built by the newly rich. In the 1880s, as F. W. Stevens and his ilk were developing the Indo-Saracenic style (you can see a bit of it in a dome of the GPO in a photo below), the native Indian architecture had already started on the upward expansion that Mumbai still retains. Four and five stories became more common as the traditional stone was replaced by lighter brick. These brick walls still carried the lovely ornate wooden box balconies that you see across western India. Notice the beautiful traditional roof line in the photo, raised high above the street. The regular rows of simple rectangular windows on the side face are innovations adopted in the city from the British. This was a lovely new style, which I wish had developed into the 21st century. The wooden window frames migrated for a while into Mumbai’s Art Deco style, but eventually disappeared as pre-fab elements became available.

The roads were beginning to empty out. The pandemic mentality is not completely gone. People still go home early. A last chai, a vada pav before the commute, and then cross the road to CST to catch a train; that’s the to-do list for most people. I could just walk back home. This had been better than binge watching an inane serial.

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.

Post-Delhi Durbar architecture

Architectural styles adapt very fluidly to weather and techniques. This adaptability is so abundantly clear when you compare the architecture of 19th and early-20th century Mumbai to contemporary fashions in England. The Gothic Revival in its late Victorian guise transmuted into the iconic Indo-Saracenic style buildings of Mumbai. I think of this as F.W. Stevens using the medieval sources of inspiration of George Barry, transplanted to India, rather than the details of his style. The sea-front around the Gateway of India was realigned for the visit of George V of England. The buildings in the immediate neighbourhood were built in the 1910s and 20s, and were influenced by the Edwardian style, in the same way that Stevens adapted Barry. The detail that you see in the featured photo marries the Edwardian spirit to an update of the late Maratha style of construction from a century earlier. Notice also the flat terrace, a very Indian feature.

The exuberance of the sea front disappears in the row just behind it. On good days you may call this row harmonized . On bad days you might call it industrially repetitive. I walk through this road now and then with my take-away latte, admiring the solidity of the buildings. To me it appears to be an Edwardian reworking of the basic Victorian style, but quick and commercial. Floors of Gothic arches alternate with the classical. Symmetry is a driving motive. The decorative elements of the Edwardian style are entirely missing. The houses in the row are distinguished mainly by their colour. Notice the top floor; the unadorned cornices for some protection against the rain, and the simple sloping roof, are the only nods to the local weather. I am glad that this style covers only two roads. A city full of these houses would be oppressive.

The last picture show

When I finally liberated myself from film, fifteen years ago, I started carrying my new digital camera in my pocket everywhere, having told myself that I would continuously take photos of everyday life. The two years when I did this gave me a bunch of photos which are very interesting to look back at. The pandemic seems to be another blow to movie halls. In the late 1980s the easy availability of video killed off a whole bunch of movie halls. Some came back this century as multiplexes. Now the post-pandemic streaming services are another blow. I wonder when, if, movie halls will make a come back now.

The intimacy of movie halls makes them ideal sites for superspreading. That’s something we always knew; remember the times when it seemed like everyone in the hall was coughing? The post movie crush in the lobby and roads outside are another place where distancing is impossible. What will masking, distancing, evolve into five years from now? I don’t think five years will be sufficient for vaccines to reach everyone in the world, not if the rich nations (the US, EU, Canada) continue to oppose a temporary waiver of global intellectual property rights on SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.