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Reviving regal glory

A blast from the past... Photo: Gustasp and Jeroo Irani  

It was rumoured that the former pleasure palace was haunted; that, as dusk descended on the glittering city of Jaipur, ghosts would frolic and flit in the Jal Mahal. In truth, the edifice that once floated on the mirror-still Man Sagar Lake had become a forlorn bedraggled reminder of its once-regal past; the infamous watering hole of drunks who were oblivious to the stench that rose from the swamp in which it was mired.

Fast forward to the present. The floodlit 18th century water palace now rises from the midst of a blue lake and is bathed in an amber glow as dusk mantles the city and the call of roosting birds waft on the fragrant night air.

A ride back

As our carved wooden barge drifted away from the palace jetty, we felt the pull of a magical past and imagined that we heard the sound of flirtatious laughter, the tinkle of ghunghroos, the flourish of trumpets and the rustle of silks emanating from the sun-warmed edifice. And was that the maharaja seated on a gold throne as though sculpted into it?

The illusion was complete... thanks to the Jal Tarang project, a 100-acre mixed-use tourism infrastructure project by Jal Mahal Resorts Pvt Ltd that brought the resources of the Rajasthan Government and the private sector together in a unique partnership. Jal Mahal Resorts spent Rs. 20 crore and the Government another Rs. 24 crore on bringing the lake, dubbed an environmental disaster, to life; cleaning and dredging two million tons of toxic waste and oxygenating it. The city's sewage still flows into the lake but it is treated by an eco-friendly system, as is the rain water that once carried in its wake 300 tons of plastic a year! Today fish leap in the limpid waters, birds nest on nesting islands and a flock of flamingos recently flew over the water body.

It was no ordinary face-lift, we realised, as project director Rajeev Lunkad related his extraordinary journey of transformation, peppered with highs and lows even as the iconic Jal Mahal glowed in the distance like some exotic extraterrestrial galleon that had strayed into the lake. An architect with a passionate interest in cultural history, Rajeev plunged in at the deep end in 2005 when an agreement was signed granting Jal Mahal Resorts a lease to develop 100 acres along Mansagar Lake and restore the historic edifice.

The government-private initiative happened because Jal Mahal is an unlisted monument, which the powers that be deemed had no real historical value and was ruined beyond redemption. (“If the country has say, 10 listed monuments, it has 10,000 unlisted ones,” said Rajeev, “and there is tremendous opportunity for the private sector to contribute to conservation in the vast spectrum of unlisted monuments.”)

Rajeev and his development team recruited experts from around the world and harnessed the skills of local craftsmen and masons like Bajrang Lal Kumavat, who has been associated with the restoration of Samode Palace and the famous Patwon ki Haveli in Jaisalmer among other vintage monuments. His walnut-brown face glowed with the purity of one who lives in the past tense. “I can build the Hawa Mahal today,” said the unlettered mason-cum-restorer with quiet pride. It would be a remarkable feat for Kumavat has studied neither architecture nor engineering in a formal sense but has the expertise because he was born into a family of masons.

Equally unassuming was Mohan Lal Soni from Shekhawati, an artist who has worked on miniature paintings all his life and has painted the frescoes on the roof of one of the pavilions of the Jal Mahal's terrace garden. What bound all of them – from art and architecture historians, architects, conservationists, specialist in lighting design, environmental engineers, master craftsmen and humble stone masons and artists — was an overriding passion for a pioneering project that would breathe life into a wasteland and restore an iconic monument to glory.

But ultimately much work still has to be done in terms of bringing Jal Tarang, a green leisure destination, from the drawing board to vibrant life. An amphitheatre, a craft market with handicrafts from all over India, boutiques and art galleries, cultural performances and lakeshore dining along a tree-lined promenade have been envisaged. Two high-end resorts are also planned so that tourists staying at these hotels will plunge into the colour and buzz of the Rajasthani metro as soon as they step out of their luxe sanctuaries.

At the heart of the experience will remain that jewel of a palace, Jal Mahal, built around 1734 by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II (1688-1743). Here the sounds of duck hunting parties, firework displays and elaborate music and dance festivals used to reverberate across the marble monument that throbbed with life. In its heyday, the palace was strewn with silk pillows and glowing carpets, the courtyard and corridors were shaded with rich awnings.

Today the hallways, corridors and archways have been decorated with paintings in the miniature style (digitally blown up to cover entire walls) while frescoes adorn two of the pavilions in the romantic terrace garden atop the monument.

We moved through the five themed galleries including a 34-ft long painted mural of the Jal Mahal and its surrounds shrouded in the dark mystery of the monsoons... The Scented Chamber where visitors experience the traditional fragrances of Rajasthan; other themes centred around water, Rajasthani festivals and, finally, the Gardens of Pleasure give you a glimpse of what awaits you on the rooftop terrace.

Called Chameli Bagh and inspired by the courtly gardens of the past, the white marble rooftop garden is fragrant with frangipani and jasmine and bordered by chhatris and elegant tibaris or pavilions, which showcase the best of Jaipur's traditional decorative arts... all were created by master artisans who have been working on them for over a year.

As we stood looking out of the terrace garden, all our senses were engaged by the sights and sounds that enveloped us: the view of the muscled Aravallis that rimmed the entire canvas, the lake that resembled shards of glass, the magnificent battlements of Amber Fort snaking up the hill, a minaret tipped with light that stabbed the night sky... Finally, we were riveted by the Jal Mahal, a maharaja's fantasy, with moonlight dappling the ancient stone. Such is the power of royalty that this, their ultimate playground, enchants and plays forever on the imagination.

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2020 6:07:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/reviving-regal-glory/article2232948.ece

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