If a palace converted to a luxury hotel is not really your cup of tea, here's a glimpse into some royal residences, famous and lesser known, where you can let your imagination run riot. Some palaces have been converted to museums and some continue to be used partially as the residences of royal descendants. In some palaces, come dusk, the Son-et-Lumeire brings alive halls and pavilions echoing with legends of romance, valour and sacrifice.
RANI PADMINI PALACE, CHITTAURGARH, RAJASTHAN
Indian history is replete with legends of queens who showed great valour when faced with the threat of invading enemy forces. One such story is that of Rani Padmini, also called Padmavati, the second wife of the Rajput king, Rawal Ratan Singh. In 1303, when Allahuddin Khilji caught a glimpse of the Rani, he wanted to take her by force and attacked the kingdom. Seeing no other honourable means to escape, the Queen and the women of kingdom performed a mass immolation, traditionally called Jauhar so that their men could unflinchingly martyr themselves in battle. The Rana Kumbha palace is said to be the site of the Jauhar. A reconstructed water palace of the Rani stands today as testimony to the aesthetics of those times.
PADMANABHAPURAM PALACE, THUCKALAY, TAMIL NADU/KERALA
Although it is located in Tamil Nadu, the palace is officially part of the Government of Kerala and about 60 km from Thiruvananthapuram. Named after the presiding deity of the royal family, the palace is presumed to have been originally constructed in the 14th century and many of the rooms of the now-standing structure were added on subsequently. This palace was the seat of the Travancore kings until the capital was shifted in 1795 to Thiruvananthapuram in today's Kerala. As Indian palaces go, this one is modest, sans the pomp and grandeur one would attribute to Indian palaces. It does have its share of intricate carvings on some pillars, wall murals and an array of artifacts on display. But the palace is noted more as a glorious example of Kerala's architectural heritage and the innate simplicity of traditional Keralan lifestyle. Do ask about about the black flooring you see there.
GWALIOR FORT PALACE COMPLEX, GWALIOR, MADHYA PRADESH
While the Gwalior fort has also seen its share of Jauhar and presumed to be the site where the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb ordered the execution of his brother, Murad, there is also a sweet little romantic story that resonates in these precincts. King Maan Singh Tomar was a great patron of music. The king eventually fell in love with a village girl from the Gujar community called Mriganayani and married her on fullfilling her condition that she be built a separate palace with water supply via an aqueduct. Mriganayani's palace in this fort is called Gujari. Do visit Maan Singh's Man Mandir Palace too. Tansen began his journey to being a great composer of Hindustani music, under Maan Singh's patronage and it was here that the musical tradition of Dhrupad began to flourish. The Son-et-Lumeire at the fort recounts, amongst other stories, the story of Maan Singh, Mriganayani and the music that evolved in those times.
CITY PALACE COMPLEX, UDAIPUR, RAJASTHAN
If there is one place that will dominate your visit to Udaipur, it would be the this one. Originally built by Maharana Udai Singh in 1553, the complex has lofty archways, ornate balconies and resplendent halls built in both Mughal and Rajput architectural styles. The museum houses a fine collection of miniature paintings, royal clothing, accessories and armour. Do visit the Mor Chowk with its intricate mosaic work featuring India's national bird, the peacock.
BAAZ BAHADUR'S PALACE AND RUPMATI'S PAVILION, MANDU, MADHYA PRADESH
While Mandu has a history that far pre-dates the legend of Rani Rupmati and Baaz Bahadur, it is this romantic story that has seeped into the folk songs of the region. Baaz Bahadur's love for music was rivalled only by his love for Rupmati. When Emperor Akbar's general, Adham Khan invaded the region in 1561, the defeated Baaz Bahadur fled, but Rupmati killed herself before being captured. Ahmad-ul-Umri's 'The Lady of the Lotus – Rupmati, Queen of Mandu' contains a brief recounting of the legend as well as poems of love and longing attributed to Rupmati. Rupmati's Pavilion and Baaz Bahadur's Palace in the complex overlook each other, separated only by the Rewa Kund reservoir. Also explore the other palaces in the complex, like Jahaz Mahal and the Hindola Mahal, not linked to the legend.
AGRA FORT PALACE, AGRA, UTTAR PRADESH
While the Taj Mahal garners eyeballs at dusk, a more romantic view can be had from the palace inside the Agra Fort. The fort was built by emperor Akbar, completed in 1573, but the palaces inside have been razed and rebuilt depending on who occupied it. Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan was imprisoned here by his own son, Aurangzeb. From the exquisite white marble Musamman Burj, a splendid view of the Taj Mahal can be had. This balcony is rumoured to have been where Shah Jahan died, gazing at the Taj Mahal. Do visit the Jahangiri Mahal and the Khas Mahal too. The structures are an interesting mix of Hindu and Islamic architecture.
FORT PALACE COMPLEX, ORCHHA, MADHYA PRADESH
Orchha is the land of the Bundelas, a community of Rajput warriors renowned for their great sense of asthetics. It is a region rich with the architectural heritage of numerous temple towers, pavilions, cenotaphs and palaces. Admire the intricate trellises and the fine wall art in the Raj Mahal. The Sunder Mahal is now an Islamic pilgrimage spot. The Jehangir Mahal is by far the most imposing of the structures, built in Mughal style to commemmorate the victory of Mughal emperor, Jehangir over King Vir Singh Deo. The Son-et-Lumeire shows at Orccha include the Jehangir Mahal, the Raj Mahal and the Cenotaphs – do check the timing as it differs by season of the year.
LEH PALACE, LADAKH, JAMMU & KASHMIR
If you feel breathless when you look up at the imposing facade of the Leh Palace and the Victory Tower flanking it, it may not necessarily be altitude sickness. It could be awe. The Palace nestled atop a hill was built by King Semgge Namgyal on similar lines to the Potala Palace of Lhasa, Tibet. The nine-storeyed palace is in ruins and currently undergoing restoration, but there are some spectacular views to be had from the top.
THIRUMALAI NAYAKAR MAHAL, MADURAI, TAMIL NADU
Built in 1636 by King Thirumalai Nayak and presumably designed by an Italian architect, what remains today of this once-magnificent palace is only a courtyard and a few pavilions. But this is enough to give an insight into the amalgam of the two styles incorporated here – Islamic and Dravidian. The most striking feature of the palace - the 13 metre tall pillars, using a unique plaster of shell lime and egg white for a smooth finish. The pavilions are exquisite in their stucco work depicting celestial beings and winged beasts. If you stay for the Son-et-Lumeire at 6.30 p.m., do take along mosquito repellent.
MARBLE PALACE, KOLKATA
A permit is required in advance from the West Bengal Tourism office, to see this neo-classical residential building. A walk through the Marble Palace, built by Raja Rajendra Mullick Bahadur is a fascinating way of acquainting oneself with the ways of the opulent Bengalis of the 1800s. It has a wonderful collection of art, sculpture, furniture and bric a bracs and the name seems to have come from the profusion and variety of marble used in its construction. Since this is also a private residence, some areas may be off-limits.
MAHARAJAH'S PALACE, MYSORE, KARNATAKA
The Mysore palace, after being damaged many times over, was finally reconstructed based on the design by British architect, Henry Irwin in the Indo-Saracenic style in 1912. It is the seat of the Wodeyar dynasty of Mysore. During the spectacular 10-day Dussehra festival in September/October, the Palace and the city come vibrantly alive. Pick up an audio-guide and saunter through the various rooms with their exhibits. Absorb the grandeur of the Courtyard, the Private Audience Room, the Public Durbar Hall and the Marriage Hall. On weekends and festival days, the Mysore Palace is illuminated in the evenings. Do drop in at the Jaganmohana Palace and Art Gallery also in Mysore, whose structure predates the Maharaja's Palace. It now houses a wonderful collection of exhibits collected by the Mysore royal family including art by Raja Ravi Varma and Svetoslav Roerich.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the April 2012 edition of Culturama)