It may not rival the Amber Fort or the sublime honeycomb façade of the Hawa Mahal, but early in 2012 another historic royal palace in Jaipur opens to the public for the first time. Built perhaps as early as 1734 by the city’s founder, Jai Singh II, the Jal Mahal – “lake palace” – had lain derelict for the best part of a century. Now it stands serene in the south-west corner of the man-made Mansagar Lake, its pale ochre façades reflected in the glassy waters.
From the city, it looks like a solid square two-storey structure, an octagonal-domed chhatri or gazebo at each corner. But there is trompe-l’oeil at work, for the building is actually nothing more than four narrow galleries built to encompass a tiny islet and mounted on an arcade of columns that stand on the lake bed. It was designed as a place for duck-shooting, kite-flying, picnics and fireworks, a place to “[sleep] off their noonday opiate amid the cool breezes of the lake, wafting delicious odour from myriads of the lotus flower which covered the surface of the water”, or so James Tod of the British East India Company wrote of another Rajasthani lake palace in his Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan (1829).
Inside, the galleries have been painstakingly restored, their walls rendered to dado height in gleaming araish plasterwork, burnished with coconut oil and inscribed with lines of black kohl. Above hang huge, digitally enlarged reproductions of miniature paintings from museums across Rajasthan.
So far, so interesting. But what really justifies the modest Rs50 (60p) entry charge is the headily perfumed Chameli Bagh, or jasmine garden, at its heart. Mitchell Abdul Karim Crites, the US-born, Delhi-based architectural historian and heritage crafts specialist whose clients include the Eastern Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, has designed an ornate formal parterre based on a Persian charbagh, a form of foursquare garden intended to replicate heaven on earth.
Each of its four quadrants contains a curvaceous pattern of cushiony chamomile lawns edged in glistening white marble, encircled in frangipani and jasmine, with a lotus pool at its centre. The design may be original but it incorporates many intricately replicated details from the pavilions and gardens at Jaipur’s City Palace, the Jaigarh and Amber forts. The exquisite floral frescoes, filigree, enamel and mirrorwork in the chhatris, for instance, and the way the marble fountains, cascades and channels have been carved so that the water both glitters and sings as it ripples over them. For this was a palace of pleasures where water, light, sounds, scents and imagery combined to delight the senses.
As far as modern Jaipur is concerned, the principal achievement has probably been the clean-up of this once-fetid, polluted lake. Two million tonnes of toxic silt and rubbish were drained from it, increasing its depth by a metre. The result is a reservoir that teems with fish, while herons, egrets, grebes, cormorants and black-winged stilts have returned.
That said, there is work to be done. The landscape around the quay where you board shallow rowing boats (their elaborately carved animal figureheads based on 18th-century designs) that ferry visitors to and from the palace is, for the moment, little more than wasteland, a putative building site on which the developer, Jal Mahal Resorts, hopes to build two hotels, a convention centre, craft bazaar, amusement park, food court and “ethnic village”. It undertook the restoration of the Jal Mahal both because it would make a selling point and a picturesque outlook and as a condition of the lease granted by the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation.
The publicity material highlights “the first time the public and private sectors have joined hands to revive a heritage site in Rajasthan”. But while contracts were signed in 2005, the project has been mired in controversy and litigation, the chief contention being that the leased land constitutes part of the lake bed and cannot be used for any purpose but water storage. So for the moment, the Jal Mahal is the only phase that’s complete.
Jal Mahal, Jaipur, www.jaltarang.in, is due to open on February 4