Hello, hello ! The sun is warming up– I need to sit in the shade of our neem tree when toasting in the last of the winter sunshine-that is how I know. And when walking around Lucknow’s Qaisarbagh area yesterday I had just a cotton salwar-kurta on- no sweater-oh dear-it seems as though summer’s almost begun !
Here are some photographs and an account of a visit I made some time back–it never stops amazing me how much there is to discover in and around your own city…
From the road to Rai Bareilly, about 45 kms from Lucknow, a particularly nondescript turning to the left takes you along a narrow, bumpy apology of a lane. Just when you think that your insides won’t be able to take any more jostling, you turn left onto a much better road. Another turn right, you jostle some more as you pass a cluster of shops, small houses, a ‘thandi beer ki dukan’- no desi tharra dukan here- and you see what you are waiting for –an elaborate gate with a glimpse of a palace beyond.
This is Shivgarh palace in the middle of nowhere. No one driving along the cluttered Rai Bareilly road can ever guess that such a beautiful building lies in the tranquillity of the countryside, actually just behind all that clutter, so close to Lucknow!
A store house of energy and niceness in Lucknow, also called Jyotsna Habibullah, had organized a lunch in this palace—this is how some women and I got to visit this place. I, for one, might never have known of its existence otherwise.
Shraddha Singh, the bahu or daughter-in-law of the house, greets us on the portico. She is dressed, as many women associated with Rajasthan or the royalty of Rajasthan are, in a pink chiffon sari, the palla covering her head. We get a fragrant marigold garland each and I immediately wrap it around my wrist so I can constantly get whiffs of the perfume.
The palace is now a guest house. We are shown a couple of the bedrooms. They are large and the floors and furnishings quite new. The family, however, does not live here. But you cannot quite tell. Servants move around quietly as they serve us tea and snacks-paneer pakoris and mutton shami kababs. I eat one of each. They are hot and delicious. Shraddha, we discover, lives in Lucknow and has come here well ahead of us to supervise arrangements.
Shraddha in the durbar hall-
I hear the 60 pillars are made of marble from Carrara. Now that I know- I look more closely: they are a glossy, cream/beige with darker striations, the ends are elegantly and simply carved. I wonder how many hands touched this marble as it made its way from Italy. They are smooth—you want to reach out and touch them, and touch the green of the garden and trees that the arches frame perfectly.
Raja Bharkandi Mahesh Pratap Singh built this palace in 1942, the design a replica of Lalgarh Fort, Bikaner. His family were Gaur Rajputs. Gaur was the ancient name for Bengal where Mahesh Pratap’s family were placed some centuries ago before they moved to Uttar Pradesh in search of more land. And how much of it they acquired –culminating in this Shivgarh talukdari granted to them. His grandson, Rakesh Pratap and Shraddha’s father-in-law, and his wife, Mandakini Prabha head the family now.
The durbar and dining halls are large and guests can have all their meals catered to from the well-stocked kitchen. In fact, we ourselves had a splendid lunch with chicken biryani, a mutton dish in a fragrant white gravy and another chicken dish. The vegetarians had very good gatte ki sabzi and a couple of other dishes and of course, fresh chapattis and raita- all served by efficient staff.
Mahesh Pratap’s ancestors built the very first palace which lies to the north. It is more a haveli, I find, and built in the late nineteenth century. A school sponsored by the Singh family runs on the premises.
Inside, the ceiling is covered with finely painted flower and vine motifs. It is in need of restoration but it is beautiful! Shraddha tells me they plan to restore it soon and make it into a venue for hosting weddings or soirees. There is very little light so I am unable to get good pictures.
A second palace stands adjoining the first. It is also a haveli but a much larger one-
The courtyard of the haveli with what must have been a pond in the centre-
We finally return to the main palace. A fascinating troupe of musicians from the village of Shivgarh and a colourfully clad dancer entertains us. It is pure- straight out of village traditions, and without any urban or hindi film affectations. I loved it !
We climb the stairs on one side of the palace to the first floor. An NGO , Saksham, has its offices on this floor. The warm Aarti Kumar is in charge. They work in the field of neonatal mortality and one of its projects has been funded by the Bill Gates Foundation. Inspired by Sri Lanka they have painted it brilliant yellow and blue. It looks stunning- a palace section with a modern touch !
We climb to the roof from where I get a view of the Uttar Pradesh countryside in the front and a view of the two adjoining, older havelis at the back.
View to the front- it occurs to me that, unlike Lucknow, there is obviously no water shortage here-the lawns are very green- as is the coutryside beyond-
– and to the back-
On one side of the gate, Shraddha points out, is a Shiva temple, also built at the same time the palace was.
Almost adjoining the oldest palace is a hamam. It was built for the women folk to bathe in. The hamam is a square, stone lined water body with pathways built across and a beautiful chatri in the centre—a changing and relaxing area-very elegant and stylish.
Another small temple lies between the hamam and the palace. The women of the family, Shraddha says, would first bathe, then pray at the temple before returning to the palace. The path leading to the hamam is overgrown. The vegetation makes the place even more intriguing.
The chatri at the centre of the hamam- photo provided by Shraddha-
A part of the chatri at close quarters-
As far as I am concerned I don’t think I would need to look too far to go for a break if I could spend a couple of nights in this beautiful palace. I could bathe in the hamam, pray at the temple. With my soul taken care of, I could enjoy the chicken biryani and mutton in a fragrant white gravy without guilt !
Thank you, Shraddha for showing us around. You will see us at the palace again, soon.
And thank you, Jyotsna, for organizing this trip and introducing us to this beautiful place !
For those of you in North India–make the most of what is left of the winter-I mean try and just laze in the sunshine or shade outside ! And for my friends in the west–hang on–spring is about to arrive–another month and a half is not that bad !
The Lucknow Sanatkada Festival will take place from the 6th to 10th of February. It is one of the nicest festivals I have been to and it takes place in the Safed Baradari, the monument from 1850 built by Wajid Ali Shah. They have a page on facebook-do take a look- and come !
See you soon!