Datia Palace – Of Friendship, Mystery and Inspiration

The Delhi Durbar of 1911 was a major turning point in Indian urban history as it was during this event that the decision to shift the capital of Imperial India was taken. With Delhi now being crowned the capital, it was decided that a ‘New’ Delhi would be developed with sprawling avenues and majestic buildings.

Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, a reputed architect was chosen for the job. The 43 year old immediately set out on an inspirational train journey through the heartland of the country carrying along with the baggage of skepticism and little appreciation for Indian symmetry and aesthetics. He was heavily influenced by classical European composition which the focal point of his layout plans for New Delhi. He maintained that the design was meant to demonstrate the superiority of western art, science and culture in India. Little did he realize that one palace was going to change all this.

While travelling from Jhansi to Gwalior, Luytens saw two great palaces of Datia and was so impressed that he got off the train to visit them and returned for another visit. He was so impressed with Datia Palace’s blend of Hindu and Islamic styles that the fusion made its way in the design of New Delhi’s North and South blocks along with the palatial Rashtrapati Bhavan.

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Location of Datia

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Datia Palace, also known as Vir Singh Deo Mahal or Govind Palace is one of India’s most impressive palaces from the 17th century. Built essentially as a solid square fortress with very few openings to the outside the palace was hardly inhabited. The inside presents a marvelous geometric organization of space on several levels. Apartments inside have been built in such a way that there is proper cross ventilation and sufficient light without affecting privacy.

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Within the solid square there are four quartered squares with corner towers and a large courtyard at its core. The five-storied central tower (115 feet high) houses the royal apartments connected to the four corners with narrow bridges.

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The five storied central tower of Datia Palace is one of the most innovative architectural statements among the palace buildings in India. According to experts, it is an expression of power and the authority of Vir Singh Deo, an exceptionally wealthy ruler of his time. According to Giles Tillostan, ‘the Govind Mahal’s tower, on the central plot, could therefore be regarded as a secular version of a temple shikhara. And just as in the temple ritual all action is focused towards the central point, so the dynamics of the Govind Mahal is focussed on the tower – it is the hub of the palace, visually a dominant feature, and the resident not of a God or the image of a God but of a King, and a king with a pretension to divinity’.

Vir Singh built the Datia Palace for his friend, Jehangir who could not come and stay. In 1627, he decided to gift it to his son who was the first ruler of Datia. Bhagwan Rao however never lived in this great palace. He lived nearby in a smaller palace, which is ruined now. Bhagwan Rao’s son Subha Kiran built his own palace at Datia on another outcrop. Subha Kiran’s son Dalpat Rao (1683 – 1707) established a fort/palace in the middle of the present Datia town. So, mysteriously this palace was never lived in !

The domed towers of Datia Mahal were once covered lavishly with cuerda seca glazed tile decoration. Compared to other architectural masterpieces of the time, here the glazed cueda seca tiles have a greater range of colours and floral designs.

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Cuerda Seca is a technique used when applying coloured glaze to ceramic surfaces. In this technique, waxy resist lines are used to prevent glazes of different shades from merging into each other during firing. The technique has its origin in Central Asia from the second half of the 14th century CE. From Safavids to Timurids to Ottoman Empire, the technique was used profusely for tile decoration. The introduction of different coloured glazing is seen in the buildings of Samarkand from this period.

Vir Singh Deo while accompanying Jehangir in different battle expeditions had received wide exposure to various art and architectural techniques in Samarkand and Persia. While building the Datia palace, he introduced many of these ideas creating one of the best examples of Indo-Islamic architecture. Call it a symbol of his friendship or a display of his status and power, Vir Singh in Datia Palace, has left us with a wonderful palace that is a treat to our senses.

Two large water bodies were constructed to the west and south of the palace. The western talav, which is called the Lalaka Talav has water, while the southern talav has turned into an open field. The talavs not just cooled down the palace in summer but also supplied water. These talavs also provided lovely views and cool place to serenade.

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The southern talav was once a wide expanse of water with a little pleasure palace, Badal Mahal attached to it. A photograph by Lala Deen Dayal (1870 – 90) shows Govind Mahal and Badal Mahal beside the talav.

Courtesy – British Library

Vir Singh Deo was a man of great taste. His taste for visual aesthetics is evident right from the entrance to the private apartments inside the palace. The murals painted on the spandrels of the main entrance depict human faced sun images on both corners above winged dragons. Both the winged dragons bear noble riders chasing gazelles through foliage. The panel is undoubtedly one of the best in South Asia for its display of fevered energy and force. Above the scene is the painting of a seated Ganesha flanked by two horse riders.

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There is an extensive use of Mughal motifs stylistically reconfiguring in Bundela guise. The 17th century Bundela murals marked a transition phase, blending local style with Mughal cosmopolitan style, imagery and aesthetics. Inside the palace, there are richly layered expressions of local and cosmopolitan themes resembling closely the murals at Orchha Palace, Vir Singh Deo’s capital.

The net and star vaulted ceiling of Maharaja’s bedroom, Maharani’s dressing room and adjoining balconies are lavishly painted with Ragamala series replete with floral imagery in natural colours.  With graceful appearance, sinuous shapes and lilting movements the murals of Datia exhibit a sophisticated approach to natural form.

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Vases (guldan) in particular draw special attention. Illustrated in Araash technique, the vases taper from a wide curved base towards a narrow flaring rim. Long stems and leaves splay out from the vases’ lips in a vivid fan like pattern.

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The rasamandala ceiling located in the tripartite chamber on one of the palace’s lower ceremonial floors is one of the earliest extant depictions of this theme among Rajput palaces. The scene painted in relief was recently renovated by the ASI maintaining the original colour scheme – carmine, ochre, white and black. The circular composition is laid out around large flowering lotus resembling the moon that bathed the ecstatic dancing Krishna and his gopis in its light.

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The palace was visited in 1835 by Colonel Sleeman, a British soldier and administrator. A report published in Datia State Gazetteer states that when the Colonel asked the local maharaja’s servants why the Govind Mahal was abandoned they replied that no present day ruler was worthy of a such grand palace nor would one be comfortable living in a palace that had been built to house such a great king.

This suggests that Datia was already weakened around this time as a political power. Today, the Datia palace is in a desolate state with very few tourists visiting it. Though imposing in its structure, it takes an effort to imagine that only a century back it was a source of inspiration for New Delhi’s colonial architectural identity.

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

 

12 thoughts on “Datia Palace – Of Friendship, Mystery and Inspiration

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  1. Excellent write up, Jitu ji. It really is a good stuff. However, I have been visiting Datia since 2000 and Maharaj Sahib Ghanshaym ji, the decedent of the ruling family, is my personal friend. Since you have covered the palace of Raja Bir Sing Deo, I may cover the Chhatris and the Talab, if you permit.

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