We cannot call it the emulate of Amber Fort or the sublime honeycomb façade of the Hawa Mahal, but early in 2012 another consequential regal 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 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 odor from myriads of the lotus flower which covered the surface of the water.”
Inside, the galleries have been painstakingly restored, their walls rendered to dado height in gleaming plaster work, 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 Rs.50 entry charge is the headily perfumed Chameli Bagh, or jasmine garden, at its heart. The exquisite floral frescoes, filigree, enamel and mirror work 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.
If we talk about the modern Jaipur , the principal achievement has probably been the clean-up of this once-fetid, polluted lake. Two million tones of toxic dregs and slag were drained from it, increasing its depth by a metre. The result is a cistern that teems with fishes breathing fresh.
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