Hello and hello !
For a while I thought my hibernation would last even longer but then Aligarh happened ! So here I am !
I had been invited by the wonderful Urmila Singh to visit the heart of Western Uttar Pradesh. It was the tilak ceremony of her grand-nephew. She knows my interest in things old and traditional, and Inayatpur Baghera, the village near Aligarh, where her nephews own 75 acres of land and the village home itself, is old and traditional and feudal.
I was overwhelmed by the warmth shown to me by the entire family. The nephews, Vipendra and Dipendra Singh, the nieces, Sunita, Archana and Rachana and their families had opened their home and their hearts to me. And to many others. We all stayed in their house, had beds or mattresses to sleep on—we ate, talked and laughed late into the night and queued for bathrooms—the classic Indian shaadi ka ghar– rapidly disappearing from our cities. I enjoyed every moment of it!
During the ceremony we were introduced to Shri Umesh Singh who is a zamindar from Veerpura, another village near Aligarh. Umesh Singh is a large gentleman, with a luxurious, Rajput-style moustache and a diamond in his ear. His dress at the ceremony- starched, very white kurta and pyjama, is ubiquitous in this part of Uttar Pradesh. I do wonder how on earth they get them so white and I cannot. Turns out they all have dhobis. Remember ? I said traditional and feudal ?
Umesh Singh is kind, gracious and hospitable. When he heard of my interest in old havelis/houses, he offered to take us himself not only to his home in Veerpura but also to Gabhana palace and his cousin brothers’home in Morhaina. These names I have never heard of –they are tiny places in the same region and have these hidden treasures. He invites us to have lunch in his village home and I am so very excited !
Aligarh city is a hole in the wall—but the countryside is something else.
It is the Uttar Pradesh that I have seen only from train windows in my journeys across the state. These are the plains of India. Miles of flat land divided in sections, large and small. The skies, this time of year, also flat and a bluish white. The sections of land are mostly cultivated. Harvested wheat lies in stacks, many of them blackened by this year’s inclement weather. This is what feeds us in our cities and I am thankful. There are clumps of trees at intervals- mango, babool(acacia nilotica) and beir(Indian jujube), the last now obsolete in our cities. I am happy that foolish people have not planted the fast growing Eucalyptus instead. Remember, traditional ? Thank God !
The newly built highway connecting Aligarh with Delhi is good. It is this that curves and leads us to Gabhana. After about 35 minutes of driving Umesh Singh points to a building in the distance, perched at an elevation amidst a cluster of low houses. Yes, the building so far only in my imagination has materialized. It is a palace- straight out of Rajasthan. This is the fort palace of Gabhana.
The palace has a traditional Rajasthan-style, intricately carved gateway in pink sandstone.The double chatri also typically Rajasthani. It’s wings, colonial in style and painted pale yellow and white sit a little uncomfortably with the main structure.
The classic Rajasthani door with small balconies with chatris-
The palace and the land surrounding it are now divided into two—each side owned by two parts of the family. Our host today is Dipendra Raj Singh and his wife, Saranga and daughter, Stuti.
Clad in a ghee- coloured khadi kurta and pyjama , Dipendra Singh meets us on the staircase and leads us to a verandah on the first floor. Built, as Indian havelis often are, it has a courtyard at the bottom, surrounded by verandahs which lead to rooms. The floor of the verandah upstairs is of red-oxide, rich and glossy with age. Morah chairs and a table lie in the centre—perfectly in harmony.
We go into a sitting room. It is large. Its sofas are covered with white slip covers(I wonder idly what the upholstery is like) and Belgian glass chandeliers hang overhead. We meet Dipendra’s wife, Saranga, a lovely lady in a crisp cotton sari, her head covered with her palla and a tilak on her forehead. Saranga and Dipendra Singh are gracious. We are served cold ‘Tang’. I am immediately transported back to our days in Beijing when I was introduced to ‘Tang’ imported by our embassy from HongKong. It used to be a fabulous,’foreign’ drink for me. We have all moved on and there is Tang everywhere in India. But I was sipping it after years and liking it!
The sitting room-
Dipendra Raj says no one quite knows when the oldest part of the palace was built but it is about 250 to 300 years old. The newer part, however, was built by his grandfather, Dev Raj Singh and his elder brother, Laxmi Raj Singh. It took five years to build and was completed in 1917.
From the drawing room we walk into a large dining room-
A beautiful, old tapestry from the home of Saranga Singh in Ramgarh, Champaran.They are not sure of its origin- it is obviously old English or French–do any of you have an idea ?
Stuti, Dipendra Singh’s daughter, has taken it on herself to restore their part of the palace. It was in very bad shape, she says, and was crying for maintenance. She will make it into a homestay–and I would love to visit ! The palace with its nooks and crannies is beautiful and, when you get onto the roof, on three sides you see just flat Uttar Pradesh landscape !
A view from the roof-
The corners of the large roof has rooms on its four corners–meant to sit in during the monsoon rains or the winter sun. The Singhs are adding bathrooms to three and making a pantry in one to serve guests later.
A room on the roof with a gorgeous view-
We climb down a flight of stairs(a different one this time)to the ground floor and enter a very large hall. It is beautifully elegant with groups of old chairs. This used to be the ‘katchehri’ or courts during the time of Dipendra Singh’s grandfather.
Their zamindari, bestowed by the British, at that time included 60 villages and big tracts of land. Infact, the revenue generated in the 1930s was approximately Rs 70,000–a large amount if guaged by todays standards
An exquisite room on the other side of the courtyard has hand painted walls and a dome-shaped ceiling. the paint is peeling and the Singhs are trying to find painters from Rajasthan to restore the patterns-
Just as I stop gaping we are led to the sheesh mahal–a room of mirrors ! And I thought only Amer fort at Jaipur had a sheesh maahal ! The walls and ceiling covered with elegant patterns inlaid with thousands of mirrors-
Back again on the first floor we are taken to the old part of palace. This one is a large room, later converted to a sitting room with a painted stucco fireplace and a teak panelled mirror-
In an alcove sit two pieces of stone carving which, the Singhs say, were found when the original palace was being constructed. They have to be atleast 800 years old- it must have been part of an ancient temple -and I have to say, Oh my God !
Then we go down yet again by a different staircase to yet another courtyard. This courtyard has the puja ghar-
A beautifully carved doorway in the same courtyard. I marvel at the attention paid to detail-
Father and daughter-
Through all of this I realized that the palace was beautiful and, more importantly, it continues to look beautiful because its rooms have been left alone–have been kept exactly as they were. No addition of glossy marble floors or white and gold plaster statues that destroy a perfectly nice home.
The Singhs are sensible and good education shows — there is humility and they take pride in their home and heritage—and I am thankful as are many others like me !
Thank you, Urmila Singh for taking me to Aligarh.
Many thanks to Umesh Singh for being wonderful and making these visits happen—and finally, thank you Dipendra, Saranga and Stuti Singh for kindly opening your home for all of us to see!
Do visit when Gabhana opens up for guests to stay. You can see that it is going to be memorable and it is only about a two and a half hour drive from Delhi. I will keep you posted !
Hope you have very nice, happy days ahead ! ‘Bye until next time !