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.