A makeover of Neermahal, the palace set in the midst of the Rudrasagar Lake in Tripura, is set to change the fortunes of the community in the vicinity

The only two lake palaces of India are a picture in contrast. While the Lake Palace at Lake Pichola in Udaipur in West India is now being run as a luxury hotel and the lake surrounding it has brought immense prosperity to the entire area, at the other end of the country Neermahal or the water palace in Tripura with a lake drained of precious water and weeds all around it, tells a tale of gross neglect.

In fact, few in the country even know that Neermahal, which is set in the midst of the Rudrasagar Lake about 50 kilometres from Agartala, the capital of Tripura, is only the second such lake palace in the country.

But now times for this palace, which was built by King Bir Bikram Kishore Debbarman of the erstwhile Kingdom of Tripura in 1930 as his summer palace, may change yet again.

A grandiose plan has been drawn up for it restoration and revival. With this the fortunes of the majestic lake that surrounds it as also the communities who live off the lake are expected to take a turn for the better.

Secretary (Tourism and Urban Development) in the Government of Tripura, Ashutosh Jindal said the “State Government has decided to develop Neermahal as a mega destination. A consultant is being engaged for preparing a detailed report for sending to Ministry of Tourism and for development of this tourist property.”

“The State Government is also taking initiative to reclaim the water area as far as possible -- the district magistrate of the area has been assigned the responsibility of carrying out a detailed demarcation of the water area and making efforts to reclaim it, he added

A technical committee has also been constituted to assess if the palace (Neermahal) needs retrofitting and renovation. Based on the assessment of the committee, work will be taken up by Public Works Department, the official said.

But why is it that Neermahal, despite being so beautifully located, could not become like its counterpart in the western end of the country? The palace can be accessed through a boat. But everything in the area appears run down. The boats are rickety and appear unsafe; the 5.3 square km Rudrasagar Lake is shallow and full of silt, the 24-room Neermahal itself is surrounded by weeds on all sides and its dilapidated building shows that much needs to be improved.

Piecemeal initiatives in the past have not yielded the desired results. Subhash Devnath, in-charge of Neermahal Palace, said about one lakh tourists visit the palace each year. A light and sound show was installed here in 2003 by a Finnish company at a cost of Rs 1.20 crore, but the system has been lying disused for the past nine months now. It developed some fault and there was no one to repair it.

The Neermahal had boasted of three generators way back in the 1930s as the king wanted his summer palace to be well lit. However, now only the platforms on which they stood remain and so is the case with the walls which have been stripped off the precious stones which once bedecked them.

It was the untimely death of King Debbarman, the locals insist, which prevented Neermahal, in which the Hindu and Muslim architectural styles were assimilated, from finding a pride of place in the annals of history.

In the past five decades, the administration’s compulsion to keep the local farming communities happy has also led to a degradation of the area since much of the water collected in the Rudrasagar Lake is drained off after every rainy season to enable paddy cultivation.

As secretary of the Rudrasagar Udbasti Fishermen Samabye Samity Limited, Melaghar, Satyaban Das said: “It was in 1960 that a decision was taken to have agriculture around the lake along with fishing. The agricultural land was distributed among 600 families but it was not a permanent decision and now we believe it was not right.’’

The reason, as Mr. Das puts it, is that while the earning from tourism (primarily from boat rides) during 2011-12 was Rs 24 lakh, only about Rs 18 lakh was earned through fishing. As for agriculture, he said rice farming is done on an area of 1465 acre around the lake, which reduces to a mere 360 acres in the dry season. In all, paddy worth nearly Rs 2 crore is cultivated, but the loss on account of tourism is huge when the potential is considered on the whole.

While planning a road around the Rudrasagar Lake, which would provide a defined boundary to it, the Tripura Government has also taken to development of two resorts on its banks with a total capacity of around 180 rooms.

As Tapas Kanti, manager of Sagar Mahal Tourist Lodge, who has spent 15 years in the area said, “Neermahal was given its name by none other than Rabindranath Tagore. Its tranquil ambience in the lap of nature appeals to people all around. But it has been sacrificed at the altar of populism. Time has come to restore it to its old glory as that would also help the impoverished masses in the area.’’