A bustling town of Datia, near Orchha, stands out as a mini-Vrindavan with more than a hundred of Krishna temples. It shines proudly as if it were the testimony of its king’s devotion to Lord Krishna. The little town is also mentioned in Mahabharat as Datiyavakra and also boasts of a few temples dating back to the era of Mahabharat.
At the end of these hundreds of glittering Krishna temples, adorned with a crown like structure, stands the grand Bir Singh Palace overlooking the city of Datia. Contrary to the image of the town, this palace is the specimen of the Indo- Islamic architecture that stunned even the best architect of the British Empire, Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens. Sir Edwin is said to have implied the style of such architecture combining Hindu, Muslim, Gothic and Persian style while designing most of the buildings of the newly built capital ‘New Delhi’.
The impact of Sir Edwin’s tryst with the Indo-Muslim architecture can be seen in the buildings of North and South blocks of New Delhi including the grand structure of the Parliament building of India.
Named as Bir Singh Palace after its builder, this palace is an example of his taste for architectural creativity. Very few people are aware that it is a modified replica of Orchha’s Jahangir Mahal.
The sole reason you must visit this place is his architecture that would make your jaw drop.
The Govind Mandir Palace; A Saga of Friendship
Legend says that the King Bir Singh, a friend of Jahangir and king of Orchha, was the one who helped ‘Salim’ (Jahangir) to win against his brothers and become the emperor of Delhi. The Mughal Emperor was later invited to the Kingdom of Orchha. And Bir Singh, the then king of Orchha, wanted a best place to welcome his best friend.
The preparations started and the workers were given a task to build a beautiful palace right opposite to the king’s palace. In a short period of time that was given to them, the workers had built the Jahangir Mahal of Orchha. The emperor was welcomed there with a grand celebration on his arrival. Though Jahangir stayed there for just a night, he appreciated the beauty of the palace.
Bir Singh, who expected a better architecture that can do justice to the greatness of the King, ordered the construction of the other palace at Datia.
The palace was then built using the aesthetically meaningful designs of both Hindu and Muslim style of architecture.
The Aesthetic Architecture and the Mandana Paintings
This seven floored building is standing sturdily for centuries without any support of wood or iron. And this makes the architecture of Bir Singh Palace a unique one. This might be the tallest building constructed solely using stones and bricks. The building derives its strength from the ancient mixture of lentils, jaggery, and oil which worked in place of cement during that time.
The main building is constructed on the raised platform of a hill on the bank of Kama Sagar Lake giving it the privilege of being the tallest building in the town. The huge compound at the entrance was probably made for the welcome ceremony of the royal guests.
The entrance gate is carved and adorned with intricate paintings and carvings. A colourful image of Lord Ganesha guarded by horses on each side is something are the prominent features. But the most unusual one observed only in this palace in the whole of South Asia id the ferocious painting of a human-faced Sun accompanied by the flying dragons on both the sides.
Apart from the paintings of Ganesha and the horses, the painted delicate creepers and flowers (Locally known as ‘Mandana’ paintings) also beautify the marvellous entrance gate of the palace. The paintings can mostly be seen in almost all the households especially during the festivals. The Lakshmi Narayan Temple of Orchha is the top class specimen of the aesthetic imagery of Mandana paintings, and looking at these paintings made me imagine if the original gate was beautified with such paintings till its top.
The gate is further beautified by the balconies over it on each floor, with the last floor having a complete latticework suitable for the royal ladies to peep through.
As I climbed the stairs to reach the main building, I was told to go along with a torch-man before I bang my head on the walls somewhere. The first two floors literally had nothing but small rooms that didn’t get light from anywhere due to the close exteriors and the basement location. We kept passing by the empty floors with closed doors leading to the dark passages that served as the arsenal of the palace.
The Palace is a kind of maze but you can get through it if you follow the next paragraphs.
After the complete darkness of the first two floors, the third one welcomes you with a painted balcony and a sprawling view of the town. This is the only accessible painting because the top floor is not open for the visitors. But remember to take a left turn towards the entrance side in order to reach this balcony from the open area.
The ceiling exhibits finely painted colourful flowers and petals with a huge wheel of ‘Stucco’ (embossed painting usually with human figures) Art showing the Bundeli dancers. The dancers are shown to be dancing around a huge white local flower in a circle. The ‘Rai Dance’ is the traditional folk-dance of the Bundelkhand region which is usually performed during the festivals, auspicious occasions, and celebrations. The balcony probably symbolizes the moment of celebration while welcoming any guests at the entrance that can clearly be seen from here.
Once you enter the courtyard area you would be able to see the 5-storied tower almost touching the sky with its Indo-Islamic style central dome. This tower gives it the look of a temple and probably signifies the status of its dweller who is venerated like God. This might also be the reason this palace is called ‘Govind Mandir Palace’.
If you would carefully observe, the tower seems to be standing at the centre of the design of ‘Swastika’, L shaped construction meeting at the centre point under the tower creates the design of a ‘swastika’.
However, there are no direct stairs to reach the tower’s floors and one needs to find the hidden gates in the walls in order to climb up.
Further, from your right-hand side, the narrow steps hidden in the walls would lead you to the fourth floor. The floor resembles an ancient Indian game of ‘Chaupat’ or ‘Pachisi’. The tower is connected with the domes built in each direction with a narrow bridge.
If at all inhabited ever, the king could have approached the queens residing in each dome(Chhatris) from his dorm in the centre. The architecture would have helped the king in choosing a queen’s dome without giving any hints of his movement to the other queens.
Other narrow stairs from the left end corner would lead to the 5th floor which is nothing but a room that can accommodate a number of people. The passages leading to the centre tower are intricately carved and the exquisite murals and frescos on the interior walls make this building the finest specimen of Bundelkhand architecture.
The hidden accesses to the different floors really made me shout for some help. Moving in the palace wasn’t different from cracking through a maze.
Stucco Art and Cueda Seca Tiles
While the interior of the tower has the Stucco art which is essentially made using the mixture of lime, mud, acrylic fibers, the exterior has the Cueda Seca glazed tiles.
Unlike its usual forms, the domes of Datia palace has the brighter and more vibrant colors and more intricate designs on its tiles. No other architecture during that era had the use of these tiles in its beautification. Cueda Seca is a technique where a waxy layer is used while coating the ceramic tiles in order to prevent the mixing of the colors in the design of the overlaid paint, especially during the firing. The technique was prevalent during the Safavid, Timurid and the Ottoman Empire and has its origin in Central Asia. A few specimen of such art belonging to the same period can be seen in Samarkand.
Clearly, Bir Singh was exposed to such fine techniques while accompanying his friend Jehangir during his Central Asian and Persian expedition. This can be seen as his tribute to his friendship with Jehangir or just a gesture to please the Emperor by finely weaving the laces of such beautiful arts in this place.
Apparently, the artists were either brought it from Central Asia or the India artists from Orchha were specially sent to learn this art.
The 6th and the 7th floors are closed for the tourists as its restoration work is in progress. The rooms are supposed to be the personal bedroom of the Maharaja and the dressing room of the Maharani. The top floor is an open dorm that served as a watchtower.
Thus, the palace can serve multiple purposes ranging from being a royal rest house, arsenal, soldiers’ quarters and even as a watchtower.
Mysteriously Unoccupied despite its Grandeur
As I mentioned earlier, the palace was supposed to be occupied at least for a night by Jehangir. However, Jehangir could never make a visit to Datia. Later on, Bir Singh gifted this palace to his son Bhagwan Rao, the first ruler of Datia, who also couldn’t stay here. Bhagwan Rao lived in a smaller palace which is completely in ruins now and all his descendants made their own palatial forts and never lived in the palace.
The locals believe that no kings were so great and worthy enough to do justice to the grandeur of the palace and thus it always remained unoccupied.
The Dilapidated Condition
With most of the tourists taking rounds of Orchha, Datia is almost forgotten. Only a handful of tourists, who come for the blessings of Pitambara Devi in Datia, visit this palace.
The government/ ASI seem least interested in completing the restoration work started years back. Due to its ongoing work most of the tourist return without seeing the top floors.
I hope that the increment in the number of tourists and travelers would force the government to pay a little attention to this neglected building left in a dilapidated condition.
- If you have read this blog then there is no need to opt for the guide who usually gives misleading information and may also leave you in between in order to approach the foreigner visitors.
- It is advisable to take along an attendant with a torch as you might get confused with the pathways in the palace.
- There is nothing extraordinary that a guide can show you apart from what is in front of you.
- Don’t forget to have a glimpse of the majestic Kama Sagar Lake from the intricate jaali work of the top floors in the southern direction.
- The building in the center of the lake is Badal Mahal which is now converted into a small temple.
- And you can see the ancient royal buildings and Lala Sagar Lake in the west.
- It would take you at least 3-4 hours if you really wish to explore the palace.
- Sonagiri, the hill coated with a number of white Jain temples are located just 15 km away from Datia and must not be missed.
- The trains moving to and fro Gwalior and Jhansi mostly stop at Datia. But most of the superfast trains do not stop here.
- Direct buses run almost every hour from Jhansi and it can take 1.5 hours to reach Datia.
- If you plan to commute by train then quickly move with the locals at the rickshaw stand and get in for the old bazaar center for just 10 INR.
- If you request and bargain a bit, they can drop you near the palace in 20 INR (sharing auto).
- Datia can be kept as a one day visit either from Orchha/Jhansi or from Gwalior.
- There are hardly any proper stay options here apart from dharmshalas.
- Winters and Monsoons are the best seasons to visit Datia, however, commuting can be difficult during monsoons.