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A forgotten gem in the Pink City

A forgotten gem in the Pink City

A forgotten gem in the middle of Mansagar Lake in the Pink City comes to life.

The Jal Mahal was built at about the same time as the modern town of Jaipur in the first few decades of the eighteenth century The Jal Mahal was built at about the same time as the modern town of Jaipur in the first few decades of the eighteenth century
Who knows what Sawai Jai Singh II would have thought of the new look Jal Mahal when it opened to the general public in April, 2011. The iconic maharaja under whose aegis Jaipur was built, as was the palace, probably would have been a little baffled by its new-found sheen and definitely stumped by the discreet lights that give life to Chameli Bagh, the centrepiece of the pleasure palace. One thing's for sure though. He would have definitely approved of the sheer opulence and with good reason. Most restoration work takes forever to complete, and once done, the result is often not satisfactory. The Jal Mahal conservation project though, has mostly managed to buck this trend.

Jal Mahal
Another view of Jal Mahal
The success of this project can be attributed to Jal Mahal Resorts, an entity formed by leading industrialists of the Pink City which was leased the property for 99 years to develop into a green zone and hospitality destination. Jal Mahal Resorts has spent about Rs 50 crore on this renovation project which it completed in six years.

This controversial decision to give the task of restoration to a private firm has been much debated, but there's no denying how effective the conservation project has been. I set sail on a boat from the sandy banks of the Mansingh lake for a fiveminute ride to the Mahal on a scorching summer day, sweating in just the kind of weather that probably inspired the creation of this monument in 1734. The Mansingh lake had long been the dumping ground for the city's garbage, but a sealing of sewage pipes leading to the lake and a mammoth desilting operation - as much as 2m of filth was dredged out of the lake - had to be put into place before the palace could be restored to at least part of its former glory.

An artist at work
An artist at work at Jal Mahal.
Stepping in through a typical Rajasthani door, I came upon the main attraction of the new-look palace - its reinvention as a showcase of traditional Rajput art. A problem that has plagued the team of conservationists working on this project is the complete lack of any historical records of the palace or what it looked like in the early days.

This prompted the decision to use the palace to honour Rajput art, especially those found in other pleasure palaces of erstwhile Rajputana. This has resulted in a marvellous series of tapestries adorning the lower hall of the palace with colourful friezes celebrating the various seasons of the year, a part of the baramasah tradition of paintings depicting the spirit of changing seasons.

A detail from a painting celebrating the monsoon
A detail from a painting celebrating the monsoon.
There's some stunning original artwork here as well, the biggest and most fanciful of which is the panel called Monsoon Unfolding, celebrating the decadent lifestyle the powerful maharajas of the day enjoyed. It's quite a sight, stretched out over a long portion of the inner walls. As with all cultures with a predominately arid climate, the onset of the monsoon was a much longed-for event, and the palace's set of monsoon paintings, as well as those of the spring festival of Holi, are among the most colourful and sensuous of the lot.

Sourcing these from the various princely families of the state, and making good use of the local artisans, this is truly the heart of the new-look palace. The upper, open air pavilion of Chameli Bagh is a beautiful, if a tad fanciful, recreation of medieval Rajput and Mughal gardens. It's exquisitely landscaped with flowing trellises of marble interspersed with water fountains and local jasmine and frangipani flowers.

Chameli Bagh
A view of the Chameli Bagh
In keeping with traditional Rajput architecture, the Chameli Bagh is bookended by four pavilions called tibaris, an arena in which Jaipur's artists have traditionally flexed their muscles. While the Anand Mahal tibari is inspired by decorations found in the City Palace as well as the Amber Fort, the Raas Niwas tibari celebrates the scarcely-veiled eroticism of Krishna cavorting with his many admirers, another recurrent theme in classic Rajput art.

Raas Niwas tibari
A detail from the Raas Niwas tibari
The Gulabi tibari is a marvel in pink, recreating the designs of the Sarvatobhadra Pavilion of the City Palace, and the final one, the Badal Mahal, returns to the theme of the monsoon, replete with raindrops and fecund lily pools.

It's a commendable effort, and the greatest thing about Jal Mahal is that it's now open to everyone to admire, free of cost. Now that's quite a change from its resplendent past when it was the cynosure of royal eyes only.

Published on: Aug 04, 2011, 12:00 AM IST
Posted by: Navneeta N, Aug 04, 2011, 12:00 AM IST