New Delhi, India
September 11, 2011
The foundation stone of the fortress at Kota was laid in 1264 AD by Maharaja Jait Singh of Bundi (Bundi, by the way, lies across the Chambal river). Before this, Kota had been under the power of the Bhil tribals; Jait Singh wrested it from them and founded Kota as we now know it. Since the 13th century, the fort has seen a lot of additions – especially in the 17th century.
We bought our tickets to the City Palace Museum at the ticket counter outside (Rs 100 per foreigner, and Rs 70 per Indian visitor, for entry to the museum and Bada Mahal; a further charge of Rs 50 is levied for a still camera, and Rs 100 for a video camera). To the left of the ticket counter, a doorway leads into the central courtyard of the palace complex that forms the museum. The courtyard walls are painted over with vivid murals; in the centre is a square sunken water tank where the maharaja would, once upon a time, take a ritual bath on festive occasions.
A lady docent beckoned to us to enter the first gallery – its doorway faces the gateway of the palace. This one, though rather badly lit, turned to be an interesting mix of odds and ends – dusty palanquins and carriages; chessmen and chaupar sets made of silver and ivory; enamelled and jewelled silver chairs and cribs; astronomical and astrological instruments such as an armillary instrument, a sundial and a water clock; massive old locks; medieval manuscripts; the seals of the state of Kota, and quaint ‘modern’ conveniences – an early 20th century ice cream maker, a washing machine, an old table fan, and so on.
At right angles to this hall is another maze-like series of corridors and rooms that form the rest of the museum. The first gallery is a weapons and armoury section, replete with swords, daggers, guns, shields, armour and an assortment of other weapons – including, interestingly, a lot of concealed arms: for instance, a pistol hidden in a horsewhip or an elephant goad. Also included in this display is an odd exhibit known as a Mahi Marathib, a regal insignia that was awarded to the maharajas of Kota by the Mughal emperor as a mark of favour for Kota’s loyalty and valour. It’s a strange-looking piece, a massive gilt-headed fish with a body made out of drapes of deep orange silk. The Mahi Marathib would be carried along during ceremonial processions.
Beyond the weapons gallery are a series of galleries containing old black and white photographs of the maharajas of Kota: on hunts, posing with their British friends and associates; in stiff studio poses; playing polo, and posing for photos with the Kota cricket team after it defeated the Mayo College cricket team (this was one of my favourite photos – though they’re wearing regulation cricket gear, boots and all, the men also wear turbans and flaunt impressive moustaches – typical Rajasthan style!)
Also part of this section is a small gallery devoted to the Kota School of miniature painting; they’re mostly very fine, highly detailed paintings of the maharajas of Kota or their Mughal associates, but every now and then, you come across something different – we, for example, saw a delightful painting of a sadhu getting drunk amidst a group of women in a zenana.In the basement is a small, sad and moth-eaten collection of stuffed animals – tigers, leopards, gharial, deer and so on – shot by the maharajas over their many years of hunting.
Next to these galleries, on the ground floor, is the Sheesh Mahal (literally, the ‘palace of glass’), its walls and ceiling beautifully embellished with murals, niches, and lots of glass – in the form of tiny mirrors and coloured glass inlay. The Sheesh Mahal was also known as the Raj Mahal, since this is where the raj tilak – the traditional coronation of a maharaja – would take place. Off to the left of the Sheesh Mahal is a locked door which leads upstairs to the Bada Mahal, the private chambers of the maharaja. You may or may not wish to see this (I’d suggest you do; it’s worth a look). Tickets for the Bada Mahal are separate from the tickets for just the museum.
A docent at the Sheesh Mahal verified our Bada Mahal tickets, then unlocked the door and led us upstairs to the royal apartments, through a wonderfully cool baradari (a pillared pavilion) and past a vestibule decorated with mirrorwork and paint, its white marble dadoes covered with carving. (If you’ve been to the Taj Mahal and noticed the lovely carving there, this might seem, at least at first glance, very similar. Interestingly, though, there’s a big difference: the Taj, since it is a Muslim tomb – and Islam forbids the depiction of living creatures – only has flowering plants and some clouds in its motifs. Here, because the maharajas were Hindus, the plants and flowers are interspersed with birds, butterflies, even riders on horses!)
Right at the top is the room in which the maharaja stayed. This room surprised me, because it was so dark and dingy – this might be an effect of the fact that the large windows are now kept permanently closed. Almost every square inch of wall and ceiling is painted with vivid scenes from mythology and the history of Kota. A few of the personal effects of Umed Singh, the penultimate ruling maharaja (he died in 1940), still lie in this room. Most striking is the bedstead, with its solid silver legs, on which he used to sleep; and the silk quilt that he covered.
Our docent, before showing us out of the maharaja’s room, pointed out a couple of other interesting details: the wooden door to the room is inlaid with ivory; and the floor of the ‘vestibule’ leading into the room is plastered with ground cowrie shells mixed with lime.
From journal Kota: More than Saris and Stone