In the first half of the 20thC the Maharawal decided to stop living in Juna Mahal, perched just below the top of the 1500 feet Dhanmata Hill, overlooking Dungarpur. He moved to his spacious 19thC Udai Bilas Palace, a mile away on the shores of Garb Sagar Lake. It had been the longest continuously inhabited fort palace in India and leaving it must have been a wrench, but it would have become an impossible place for any 20thC lifestyle, let alone a maharajah’s. In 2014 it was included in the World Monuments Watch list because of its historic and artistic significance and the concerning state of its decay.
The approach is unpromising. It looks a wreck, the cheeriest sight being the splashes of brilliant colour by the caretaker’s derelict looking quarters. He had a welcoming smile and big brown eyes and he proudly sported his crisply ironed blue shirt with “Dynamic Security’ embroidered above the breast pocket. Manners, and my confidence in Divendra’s itinerary, encouraged me to persevere.
Dungarpur was founded by Rawal Veer Singh, the eldest son of the ruler of Mewar, after he had driven out and killed the local Bhil chief – Dungariya – in 1258. The building of Juna Mahal was started and continued over the next 500 years. It is constructed with white stone. The local blue/grey Pareva, was used to pick out balconies; jaalis (screens) and the window surrounds.
Including the two basement levels, there are seven storeys served by only a single, narrow, deep-stepped staircase designed to make access more difficult for intruders. We climbed to a sunny courtyard that recently had benefitted from whitewash. Three storeys of balconies lined one side; there was a large shading tree and bas-reliefs of charging figures on horses and elephants set into the walls. I looked up. I hoped the climb would be worth it for those with replacement knees. We set off.
Being lucky enough to have first generation knees I reached the next floor quickly. Divendra had been right to bring us here – he reliably gets things right. He is also the master of managing expectation and nothing had led me to expect this. There I was standing in the middle of what I think had been the Durbar Hall, surrounded by brilliantly executed, vibrant, detailed, amusing, legendary murals and ceilings. That the ceiling was propped up by tree trunks did nothing to detract from the ‘WOW’ factor.
This proved to be only a taster. On each floor there is a slightly different theme; different materials and different colour palates. Leading from each central big room there are side rooms.
There are collections of portraits of previous maharawals…..
There are rooms with a lot of mirror and glass inlay (and more poles keeping the place together) ….
There is an entire floor, the maharani’s, with mirror inlay…..
There is a room depicting troops and battles and a map of Dungarpur…..
There is the red and green storey…..
There is a little side room where the doors of a built-in cupboard are made with exquisitely painted panels of animals and birds….
In fact every way one turns, every way one looks there is a panel depicting yet another scene, animal, or god. Coaches are pulled by deer as well as horses; men ride boar.
The most publicised paintings are those hidden in a cupboard in the Maharawal’s bedroom. The cupboard doors are ‘Only Opened for Adults’ and conceal a complete illustration of the Kama Sutra. I imagined an old maharawal saying to his concubine of the afternoon –
” Four down, two across. ” As though it were a crossword puzzle.
And as one climbs each floor one gets an enticing view of the derelict stables and increasingly wonderful views of the town. What a place. It is extraordinary. The World Monument Watch is right, but it must not take its eye off this particular ball. Juna Mahal should not be allowed to go.
All too soon it was time to leave and we started down the stairs. I looked through doors in case I had missed a room. Behind one door was a cupboard with heaps of discarded account books. Another door led to a room where a painter was restoring a painting inside a cupboard. He smiled when I told him how much we had loved our visit. I wished him luck –
“You’re doing wonderfully well. We’ll return in a year or two and see how you’re getting on.””
We walked in single file, to avoid being flattened by motorbikes, through the narrow streets of the old town back to Udai Vilas. A man lying underneath his tuk-tuk, with his legs sticking into the road as he inspected its suspension – do tuk-tuks have suspension ? – had his ankles run over by another tuk-tuk. He extricated himself and sat up crossly but apparently not terribly worse for wear. The offending tuk-tuk whined off up the hill without pausing. A woman was shelling fresh chickpeas in front of her shop and insisted I tried a handful. They were delicious. Other vendors seemed less friendly and I wondered whether they were worried in case we carried The Virus. A small boy watched the world from above.