Is it a Gothic castle? Or a fort? In the pre-dawn darkness, the cluster of conical towers jutting into the sky at the end of the roughly hewn stone steps I am climbing play with my senses. It takes me a few seconds to re-focus on my goal, the 800-plus Jain temples of Palitana. Stacked atop the Shatrunjaya mountain in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district, these golden sandstone and marble temples are one of the most beautiful architectural complexes in the country. Balancing atop the craggy mountain, in a gravity-defying formation, the temples were constructed over 900 years, starting in the 11th century, and are one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Jains. The 3,000-step climb to the top of the hill is a test of faith. Otherwise an austere religion, these temples have intricate carvings, ornate stained-glass windows and stunning domes painted in gold and jewel shades. While believers troop inside to pray, I walk around the narrow, winding stone-paved alleys, being reminded of medieval European towns, trying to discover a pattern in the mind-boggling maze. I stop only at the edge of the fort-like wall circling the complex, to marvel at the dusty plains below and the fading Shetrunji river snaking through the rugged landscape. Nearby stands Angar Pir dedicated to a Muslim saint who is said to have protected the complex during Muslim invasions.
My next magical rendezvous is in Bhuj, in the heart of Kutch. It’s hot and dusty, covered in a haze. In front of me is a huge bell tower, about 45 ft tall, and a palace, which looks straight out of an old European town. I wonder if it’s a mirage. Amid the monotones of the Rann, I am surprised to find a palace designed in Italian Gothic style! I am at the Prag Mahal built by Rao Pragmalji in 1838, with Corinthian pillars and carvings with floral jaali work. The style, I am told, is European but the materials are a fusion of Indian and Italian – sandstone from Rajasthan blended with Italian marble. The palace was designed by Colonel Henry Wilkins at a cost of `31 lakh at the time, and the artisans were paid in gold coins.
Next to Prag Mahal is a much older palace, built in the 18th century. The Aina Mahal, or the Palace of Mirrors, is a veritable treasure trove. Built by Maharaja Rao Lakhpatji, this two-storey building is sure to have been one of the grandest edifices of its time. Everywhere I look, I see a thousand dazzling mirrors and glasses fitted in golden frames and placed on marble walls. Even the king’s bedroom is filled with mirrors, and the doors fitted with ivory carvings. While there is ample use of Belgian and Venetian glassware, one can also see local glass sourced from Mandvi.
If Bhuj has its spectacular palaces, neighbouring Mandvi, with its famed beaches and port, is no less grand. Its fascination for opulence and a blend of Western and Eastern styles can be seen in the smaller Vijay Vilas Palace, built in 1929 as a summer retreat for the crown prince. Sparkling in red sandstone and replete with domes and stained glass, the palace stands out with its jaalis and jharokhas.
Moving from Kutch towards Rajkot, I cross the princely state of Gondal, which once ruled over four towns and 173 villages. And this is where I discover the grand Naulakha Palace. Now a hotel, the 18th-century palace takes my breath away with its courtyard of ornate pillars, stone carvings and spiral staircases. Walk into the durbar hall and you can see massive chandeliers and mirrors. But it is the king’s varied collection that leaves you spellbound – from silver caskets and brassware to porcelain dolls and miniature paintings. Amid all the splendour I find a curious collection of 200 bird eggs from across the world gifted by a father to his daughter, the Maharani of Gondal.
They say you save the best for the last. And finally we are in erstwhile Baroda to see the masterpiece – the Laxmi Vilas Palace, built in 1890 in red sandstone and marble in Indo-Saracenic style by Maharaja Savajirao Gaekward III. Said to be four times the size of England’s Buckingham Palace, it could be the largest palace in the world. It had everything – from a school to a mini zoo inside, and even a railway line to bring the children from the school to the palace. A magnificent stepwell has pride of place on its sprawling 700-acre grounds. The building that houses the museum was once a school for the king’s children. Imagine for a moment that you have your very own private train that chugs you from school to back home!
Words: Lakshmi Sarath