We make our way through narrow, crowded alleyways flanked by shops selling myriad wares. The aroma of sweetmeats wafts in the air and there is a flurry of activity all around; yet, paradoxically, the mood seems relaxed as our Innova pushes past the melee to come upon the grand subject of our interest – the Datia Mahal.
As the day in December dawned, the rays of a mild sun pierce through a thin veil of mist to cast its warm glow gently on this magnificent eastward facing structure. It is an imposing architectural beauty, even as it stands desolate, uncared for and apparently forgotten. The seven-storey Purana Mahal , originally called Bir Singh Deo Mahal after its founder, or simply Datia Mahal in Datia, is about 40 km from Orchha, on the Jhansi-Gwalior route. It stands testimony to the friendship between Mughal Emperor Jehangir and Bir Singh Deo, the ruler of Datia, a part of the region then known as Bundelkhand. Fortunately for us, B.S. Rajput, caretaker of the Mahal, doubles up as guide as we begin our tour of the large building, ducking our heads at times to avoid the fragile films of cobwebs, thriving here and there for want of proper care. Two of its seven floors, we learn, are built underground and closed to visitors.
The palace perched atop a rocky outcrop, encircled by a fort wall and overlooking the Karna Sagar Lake, is visible from trains passing through the Gwalior-Jhansi railway line. Built entirely of brick and stone with no cement or iron to hold it together, it is one of the finest examples of the blend of Indo-Islamic architecture. The building, in the design of the Swastik, with its restraint and emphasis on a classical and symmetrical plan inspired none other than Sir Edward Lutyens, architect of New Delhi. For a man whose impressions of Indian architecture were not flattering to begin with, he was so overwhelmed by Datia Mahal that he chose to visit other edifices in India before he embarked on designing New Delhi. He incorporated aspects of Datia Mahal in the interior design of New Delhi’s North and South Blocks.
Datia Mahal is only one of very few palaces and fort structures in north and central India that boast a spectacular amalgam of Indo-Islamic architecture though examples of such fusion are found in several temples in the regions. The palace is marked by a large courtyard at the core, in the centre of which is the 40m-high, five-storey tower, housing 440 rooms and several courtyards. It has a ribbed dome atop which is a lotus petal-shaped shikhar, typical of Bundela architectural style . While the arched doorways and dome are characteristic of Mughal architecture, the sculptures and paintings of birds, animals and flowers are suggestive of the Rajput style. Paintings executed with vegetable and other natural dyes, exquisite and intricate in design, adorn the walls and ceilings of several chambers of the top three floors of the palace. Some paintings have evidently withstood the test of time, being discernable in good measure. The palace windows are a beauty in themselves, veiled with elegant stone lattice work, each motif different from the other. The play of light and shade in several areas of the palace is scintillating as we walk down its labyrinthic corridors, embellished with ornate pillars and arches. The balcony of each floor accords a stunning view of the city of Datia dotted with temples, shops and residential areas, while from its terrace, the city’s Fort can be seen in full view with its royal quarters and temple.
Bir Singh Deo, the ruler of Datia and an avid builder of the times, laid the foundations of Datia Mahal in 1614. Bir Singh championed Jehangir’s cause against Akbar and beheaded Abul Fazal. In return, Bir Singh was made the ruler of Datia. The palace complex was built to mark Jehangir’s visit to the place. Fortunately or unfortunately, the visit did not take place and it still remains a mystery as to why no ruler ever lived in the Mahal. When Datia became an independent estate, offices became established in the palace premises.
As we step out of the portals or this marvellous structure, there is just a single thought in my mind: a good scrub, splashes of copious water inside and outside, some illuminations, and lo, Datia Mahal would stand majestic and magnificent in all its former glory!