New Delhi, India
September 10, 2010
The 51 km trip from Orchha takes about an hour and a half, and we enter Datia City shortly after noon. We learn later that this isn’t the best way to get to the palace; there’s a shorter, cleaner, straighter route that connects the palace to the highway. The route we’re on, we spend 45 minutes inching our way through a warren of narrow, cramped lanes and bylanes, crowded with hawkers, cows, goats, horses and horsecarts, and much more, all spreading across the hill on which the palace stands. The palace, when we reach it, is imposing in a half-forgotten, neglected way, its plaster peeling, its walls dark with patches of mould. The gateway has some lovely old paintings—flowers, birds, geometrical patterns, which we admire before stepping in.
The Veer Singh Palace is named for the man who built it. Veer Singh Deo was the most illustrious king of the Bundela dynasty (his cenotaph is in Orchha, along with another palace—the Jahangiri Mahal—that Veer Singh built). In 1620, to honour the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, Veer Singh Deo built the Veer Singh Palace. The palace has a total of 440 rooms and 20 courtyards, spread across seven storeys. The entire structure, when seen from the top, is in the form of a swastika.
All of this we are told by a young man, one of the caretakers at the palace. The Veer Singh Palace is open to the public, but no entry fee is charged. When we ask if it’s possible for someone to take us around the huge building, this young man is deputed, and he turns out to be friendly and fairly knowledgeable about the palace. The route he takes us on is initially all up, up, up. The stairs go through dim, even dark rooms (there are very few windows, most of them small) that smell faintly of bats. We emerge high up, at the fourth storey. Our guide takes us around, showing us room after room, all plastered but fairly plain, with decorative niches built into the walls to hold lamps. The pillars have finely carved brackets; there are carved stone screens at the windows, and the domes have traces of lovely tilework in blue and green.
Our guide shows us a room with an intriguing ceiling—plaster moulded and painted in the form of human figures, standing in a circle. We think this is rather pleasing, until he leads up upstairs, to the fifth floor. Here are two rooms, both kept locked. The first is shut off by a steel door of the sort that can be pulled back: at any rate, there is enough space between the steel rods for us to look in and admire the finely painted ceiling of the room. There are beautiful, perfectly preserved paintings here of birds and geometrical patterns. We drool over them for a while, before our guide leads us to the second room.
The door here is wooden. Our guide pulls the leaves apart—they’re still anchored together by a heavy iron chain—and invites us to peek in. Yes, there are some paintings on the wall. We can’t see much, but we politely murmur our admiration. This is when our guide grins shyly and says he can let us in here. One of the door’s leaves comes off its hinges—and we’re in, into what is definitely the best-preserved painted room I have seen in India. The walls are covered with niches, each with a vase of flowers or other decoration painted in it. There are paintings of men on elephant back; geometrical designs, arabesques, and other patterns that are commonly seen in 16th and 17th century Mughal art. I’ve seen similar designs in monuments like the tombs of Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khanan and Humayun in Delhi, but never have I seen these in colour: almost everywhere else, the plaster remains though the colour has vanished. Here, the colour is still there, vivid and beautiful.
And worth travelling all that way for. If you’re passing through near Datia, do stop by. The rest of the palace—even the modest Diwan-e-Khaas (Hall of Private Audience), with its geometrical inlay ceiling and painted walls; and the basic plan of the palace, on the floor of one of the outer courts—are interesting, even striking; but the painted room is in a class by itself.
From journal Palaces, Temples and a River