Monday, January 25, 2016

Memoirs from Gujarat: Reliving Bollywood, one palace at a time

The sights and sounds of Gujarat constantly remind you of one or the other Bollywood movie. Filmmakers like Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Ashutosh Gowarikar, and Sooraj Barjatya, smitten by its picturesque locales and larger-than-life forts and palaces, have repeatedly taken recourse to shooting for their films in Gujarat, giving birth to such visual treats as Lagaan; Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam; Kai Po Che; Ram Leela; Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster; and most recently, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo.

This past December, my friends and I took the opportunity to explore the filmy charm and beauty of two such palaces in the Kutch area of Gujarat. The first palace on our royal itinerary was Vijaya Vilas Palace, which many will recognise as the British house from the movie Lagaan, and also Aishwarya's Rai's family home in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (refer to this video).

The kingdom of Kutch was established in the mid-12th century by the Jadeja Rajput rulers, who had migrated to Gujarat from Sindh and rules the kingdom for 800 years. Kutch later became a princely state under the British rule. Vijaya Vilas Palace was commissioned by Rao Khengarji III in 1920 as a summer resort for his son and heir, Vijayaraji (hence its name). Built in true Rajput style, the palace took a decade (1920-29) to be completed. Architects from Rajasthan, Bengal, Jaipur, along with the local Kutchi artisans and builders erected this marvel in red sandstone (which has yellowed suspiciously over the years, if I may add). Its huge pillared halls, domes, stained-glass windows, old-style furniture, plush interiors, and relics of a life lived royally (including a life-like stuffed tiger skin on display) make the palace a must-visit for all heritage enthusiasts. At its rear end are beautiful, sprawling lawns and water channels with fountains. The royal family of Kutch, who used the palace as a summer retreat until 2001, now reside there and run it as a private resort. Vijaya Vilas Palace Resort has its own private beach where visitors can rent out tents.





A little before dusk, we reached the nearby Mandvi Beach and watched as the sun sank beyond the western horizon (I wrote free verse about it earlier). It was so soothing that by the time we were done, it was quite late and we were told we might just be able to catch the last bus to Gandhidham. We hurried in an auto, stopping at every travel agency on the roadside to ask if a bus was leaving anytime soon. Luckily, we found one and heaved a sigh of relief. It was a luxury sleeper bus and would otherwise have been one expensive ride, but astonishingly, it cost us just ₹100 per person - exactly what we had paid in the morning for a 2-hour bumpy ride on a rickety old public bus. We were awestruck! Settling into an upper single berth, I looked out of the window into the bright moonlit night. The moon cast an eerie silver glow on the passing trees and bushes. I put on some music and lay there, quietly, for the two and a half hours it took us to reach our hotel.

Our second royal visit, a couple of days later, took us to the famous Prag Mahal Palace in Bhuj. Having expected the palace to be built in the western Indian architectural style, like the Vijaya Vilas Palace, I was surprised to find in its place a stunning specimen of Gothic architecture! Prag Mahal Palace was commissioned in 1865 by the then ruler, Rao Pragmalji II. Apparently he had a thing for European architecture, because he brought in famous Italian architect Colonel Saint Wilkins to design the palace, while the local Kutchi builder community was hired for its construction. The palace took a whole 12 years to build, but the Rao did not live to see its resplendent glory. He passed away in 1875, leaving the palace to be enjoyed by his son, Rao Khengarji, who later built the Vijaya Vilas Palace to be enjoyed by his own son, Vijayaraji. What a grand, loving family.

Prag Mahal palace is the first building in India to be built in the Neo-Gothic architectural style. It is home to one of the only two surviving colonial-era clock towers in the country, the other being in Bombay. Built in Italian marble and red sandstone, the palace shows off brilliant carvings and stucco work complemented by Rajput-style Jali work and carvings. Inside the palace are on display various artifacts used by the royal family during colonial times, such as palanquins, percussion instruments, furniture, stuffed heads of animals hunted by the kings, etc. My eye was especially drawn to the many cracked or rusted mirrors that lined the walls of various chambers. It was before one such old mirror, cracked and stained, that I took the picture that is my blog's present cover image. It isn't hard to tell how much I love it.


A rare picture of yours truly modelling for the camera in broad daylight.

Right across from Prag Mahal is 'Ranivas' or the residence of the queen, said to have been built in the 16th century. Both the palaces were severely damaged in the 2001 Bhuj earthquake, and even before repairs could be started, double tragedy struck when in 2006 robbers looted the palace of all its riches. It was much later, when Amitabh Bachchan seemingly took personal interest in its reconstruction, that the palace was declared a heritage site and restoration work initiated. It is open to visitors now from 9 am to 12 pm and 3 pm to 6 pm on all days except Saturday. The Ranivas, however, is still in a sorry state. On the left of Prag Mahal is Aina Mahal, which for the lack of time I couldn't cover in its entirety. But the entire complex was so beautiful and majestic that reproducing a few pictures here just wouldn't do justice to it. I have compiled some great shots of Prag Mahal and its surroundings into a short video, and I'm rather excited about it. Check it out below!
You can visit my Youtube channel for exclusive videos I've uploaded recently (including a short film I just made). Also head over to my Facebook page for latest updates on my travels and blog posts. I've got a lot more to share from my Gujarat trip, so stay hooked until I return. Ciao!
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