Faded grandeur is an over-used term, but it is truly apposite in Jhalawar. First the grandeur. Gagron Fort towers over the confluence of two rivers, its massive rounded outer walls seemingly impregnable. From the outside, it would not be a surprise to find it on the Welsh border, forming part of the line of defences. Inside, the little that is left is plain and unadorned save for endless unwanted graffiti. But it has Unesco World Heritage status, and work is in hand to restore it to something approaching its former glory. We were the subject of much unabashed interest as one of the Maharajah’s guards showed us around. Women perched on a rooftop under repair, men mixing concrete and even a few donkeys turned to stare at us. But only the women asked for a photo.
The true meaning of faded grandeur became clear when we went through yet another set of town walls to visit the old palace in Jhalawar. The city of Jhalawar was founded in 1791 by Jhala Zalim Singh, who was the Diwan of the Kota district under the Maharajah of Kota. He developed the town into a military cantonment so as to safeguard the region against the attacks of the Marathas, which found favour with the English as they too were fighting the Marathas at this time. Later, the British handed over Jhalawar to the grandson of Jhala Zalim Singh, named Jhala Madan Singh. He became the first Maharajah of Jhalawar in 1838. His wife committed sati in 1845 by throwing herself into his funeral pyre in 1845 next to the temple in the grounds of Prithvi Vilas which rather upset the British who had sought to abolish sati in 1829.
The initial tour of the ‘museum’ housed in the outer part of the palace left us wondering why our fellow guests had spoken so highly of the place. However, we were clearly mistaken, as when we read the guide handed out to us it advised us that ‘There is no better alternative except museum, to look into reflections of roots of Indian civilisation, importance of History and culture. Let us visit the Museum to enjoy our glorious Post!’ If only they’d given us the guide at the start of the visit, we’d have known better.
Fortunately two men with a set of keys were summoned, and door after door was unlocked for us. The palace is in a state of considerable decay. Bird feathers, bits of dismembered birds and rubble littered the outside walkways and rooms, and the stairs were thick with bat droppings and what looked like rat shit. The building itself is crumbling almost before your eyes. But on the first floor, the rooms leading off a courtyard were full of beautiful murals on the walls. One room had once been tiled entirely in small mirrors, sections of which crunched underfoot as we made our way gingerly through, Sara wishing she had something more protective than sandals on her feet. Another room, shrouded in darkness, had a series of brightly coloured portraits of the Maharajah’s ancestors. You could see where painted and mirror tiles had been prised off the walls. We learnt later that the Maharajah’s grandfather had given the palace to the state on the proviso that it be used for government offices. They were apparently responsible for a lot of the vandalism but they had now moved out. A little restoration work has begun but there is a long way to go.
After several reviving lime sodas and another delicious lunch, we set off again, this time to visit some temples. Near Jhalarapatan (the old town) the Chandrabhaga river meanders its way through jungle vegetation (palm trees and all) and the surroundings look distinctly south Indian. The Chandrabhaga temples are a small group built between the 6th and 14th centuries out of red sandstone with now weathered carvings. The short drive to Jhalarapatan took us through some arid countryside, through a humble village outside of which a local dog was enjoying feasting on a disembowelled sheep alongside the road, about the only active creature in the blazing mid afternoon.
Jhalarapatan itself is fortified by walls and is commonly known as the City of Temple Bells. There are apparently some 108 temples within this township, though we saw only two on our walk through town and heard no bells. The most celebrated temple is the 10th to 11th century Surya Temple that has a tower of 100 feet and is decorated with numerous sculptures. This was closed of course, and due to a mass of auto rickshaws, street vendors and telephone poles and wires, a decent photo was impossible. Anyway, we gave the locals some good entertainment, with these two funny white people in their silly trekking clothes and hats strolling through town. A lot of good natured calls of “hayloo welcurm” mixed in with some suspicious glares (“what are these people doing in our town?”). Clearly not many visitors come here.
The Maharajah shared some of his family photo albums with us. It’s incredible to be able to map your family history back for so many generations, and to have pictures that capture history in the making. Shooting parties and pig sticking groups with their lances captured in the family’s hunting grounds. The Nawab of Tonk sitting on our balcony (he used to love staying in our room). We saw his grandfather at meetings in 1947 and 1948 when the Rajput Princely States were negotiating (under duress) giving away their independence and agreeing to accede to the Indian Union. There is a photo of his grandfather deep in conversation with his good friend the Maharajah of Bundi, the dashing air force officer. Lots of grave and unhappy faces giving away their privileges and centuries of history to join a political entity many of them did not want. Finally a picture of the Maharajahs in Kota Palace signing the accession agreement with Jawaharlal Nehru and it was all over. If they had known that in 1971 Indira Gandhi would take away their privy purses and their remaining privileges and threatened them with jail and worse, would they have taken the same course in 1947 and 1948? Much as the Raj is decried by many today, both in India and in the UK, there are many who feel that things were so different then and not as bad as those against all aspects of the British Empire would have us believe.
More pictures below.