Throughout the 1990s I lived in Pune, pursuing my career in archaeology at Deccan College. The college, now a deemed university is an architectural gem built in the neo-Gothic style. I did not know about its architect as my exposure and interest in colonial history was limited.
But while writing this post which has no connection with Deccan College directly I discovered its colonial architect. Henry Saint Clair Wikins (1826-1896), a British administrator, who served East India Company, was its architect. Wikins was an accompanied draughtsman and artist too. His designs were remarkable for their fitness and beauty. Wikins was also the architect for Bhuj’s Prag Mahal, a gem of palace architecture of Colonial India. So I became nostalgic while establishing the relationship between the institution which made me what I am today and an architectural splendour of Bhuj, a historic city on Gujarat’s desert corridor.
I visited Bhuj first in 2003, two years after it had faced a devastating earthquake killing thousands of lives and demolishing hundreds of buildings. The city was completely ruined. Then after I visited Bhuj on many occasions, but it was only 2008, for the first time I stepped into its palatial buildings.
The most remarkable among these was the Prag Mahal, a palatial building of neo-Gothic architecture, designed by the same British officer who had also designed my college in the 19th century. Prag Mahal is named after Pragmal ji II, who had commissioned its construction in 1865. The building was built in the Italian Gothic style. Rao Pragmal ji II belonged to the Jadeja or the Yadu Vamsha scion of the Rajput lineage. In the words of James Tod, who visited Kutch for the first time in 1819, the Jadeja rulers of Kutch are the most conspicuous branch of the Yadu – Vanshi race and comparable to the Maharanas of Mewar, the most illustrious Rajput rulers of the Sub-continent.
Though the building was commissioned by Pragmal ji II, it was completed after his demise during the minority of his son Khangarji. The palace was constructed at a cost of 31 lakhs by an array of Italian engineers, architects and artists. The local Kutchi builder community, the mistris of Kutch were also involved in its construction.
One of the key attractions of Prag Mahal is its Drabar Hall of 12 m high with broken chandeliers and classical statues and with tiger skins and mounted trophies on the walls, stuffed lions and art deco figurines. The hall is surrounded by wide verandas supported by Corinthian pillars depicting European plants and animals. Another key feature is the 45 feet tower with a clock, from where the entire Bhuj city can be seen.
The next was the Aina Mahal, an 18th century Palace in Bhuj. Its builder was Rao Lakhpatji (1741 – 60), who seized the throne from his father Rao Desalji at the age of 34.
The Aina Mahal was however commissioned to Ram Singh Malan, who was assisted by local builder community (the mistris of Kutch). It is said that the beautiful Venetian glass used in the Hall of Mirrors had been brought from Venice by Ramsingh himself.
Ramsingh was from Saurashtra. He was a talented artist and designer. His skills were however never utilized by the Saurastrian royal families. But the brave sailor and dreamer took a chance to visit the unknown Europe. On his way to Europe, the young man lost his way due to a storm only to be rescued by a Dutch boat. Mallan reached Holland, where he stayed close to 18 years and acquired several European artistic skills.
Destiny brought him to Rao Lakpatji, who financed his second tour to Europe to perfect his skills in glass making and iron founding. Upon return, Ramsingh set up a glass factory at Mandvi. He had also mastered the art of stone carving in European style and clock making.
The Hall of Mirror is remarkable for its white marble walls covered with mirrors and gilded ornaments, and the floor are a pleasure pool lined with tiles, designed by Ramsingh himself. The hall is surrounded by a series of fountains operated by an elaborated system of pumps below a Venetian chandelier. The hall is filled with royal objects including Hogarth engravings, celestial globes and finest Kutch embroidery. These prove the global spirit of Bhuj 200 years back. Lakpatji was a visionary king. He was a poet. He encouraged other poets to his court. He also invited girls to sing and dance. The palace was badly damaged in 2001 earthquake.
The walled city of Bhuj is surrounded by 5 gates including the darbar gate. Mahadev gate was however the best preserved, displaying the artistic work of Kutchi mistries. The gate also has a fine stone masonry arch.
The royal chhatris were yet another group of landmark buildings of Bhuj, built in the centre of Hamirsar Lake. Built in red and golden sandstone some of the cenotaphs display fine carvings of Kutchi craftsmanship. The most outstanding is the chattri of Rao Lakpatji. It was a creation of Ramsingh Malan. The monument is surrounded by a series of sati stones of Lakpatji’s consorts, who had given their lives in funeral pyre.
The other historical landmark of Bhuj city was the Bhujia hill fort, built in the 18th century. The fort had witnessed major battles between the Raos of Kutch and the Mughal army and also the Islamic invaders from the neighbouring Sindh. However, the fort is restricted for visitors as it is occupied as a bastion of Indian Army.
After spending a day I left Bhuj for Ahmedabad but its visual treat I will cherish forever.