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TIME OUT

Summer symphony

TANUSHREE PODDER

Built by Raja Surajmal to ward off the summer heat, the Deeg palace complex is an engineering marvel.

PHOTO: TANUSHREE PODDER

Exquisite: The palace complex at Deeg.

THE trip to Deeg happened by chance. I was on my way back from Bharatpur to Delhi when I crossed a signboard proclaiming the presence of a "Jal Mahal" (Water Palace) nearby. Forever the romanticist, I couldn't resist taking the diversion. Sometimes, impromptu decisions can be quite rewarding and this one was definitely so.

There were some grumbling voices within the car as it bumped and hopped over huge craters and mud tracks but all our concerns were promptly forgotten the moment we spotted the exquisite palace looming at a distance. Like a fairy castle it stood, reflected in the surrounding water, casting a spell on the passers-by.

Imposing structure

We were surprised to find just about half a dozen people around the place. It was a Friday and so the ticket window was closed, said Moti Singh, our guide, as he led us to the first palace situated just above a large, step well. Gopal Bhawan, flanked by two small pavilions on either side, is the largest of all the palaces. The two striking pavilions are known as Sawan and Bhadon, named after the Indian seasons. A white marble bench runs through Sawan while a black one occupies the prime place in Bhadon.

While we were walking towards a marble edifice, Moti Singh narrated the history of the palace. "Deeg was the capital of the Jat kings before they shifted to Bharatpur. The place is mentioned as Dirgha or Dirghapura in the ancient texts," he intoned. "Raja Badan Singh, who came to the throne in 1722, built a palace here but due to its strategic location and proximity to Agra, Deeg had to face repeated attacks by invaders. It was then that his son, prince Surajmal, began the construction of a fortress around the palace around 1730. The fort had massive walls and a deep moat to keep away the raiders."

Deeg was a site of a legendary battle between the Jats and a combined Mughal and Maratha army of 80,000 men. Emboldened by his victory, Raja Surajmal began making forays into enemy territory. After eight years of success in his forays, Surajmal had the audacity to attack the Red Fort in Delhi. The Jats plundered the Red Fort and carried away masses of valuables including an entire marble building, which was dismantled and numbered. The palace was then reconstructed at Deeg and stands elegantly amidst beautiful gardens. Elaborately filigreed gates, stone slabs, ornate beams, and marble jaalis from Mughal constructions have been used in various parts of the palace. A fine marble swing, rumoured to have belonged to Nurjahan, was also brought here as a war trophy from the Mughal court. The swing stands at a vantage position overlooking the gardens.

Beating the heat

Raja Surajmal built the palaces and the fountains to ward off the heat during the treacherous summer months. Deeg is in Rajasthan and it is a terribly hot and dusty desert town. The palaces form a quadrangle. At its centre is a well-laid garden with walkways, decorative flowerbeds, shrubs, trees and numerous fountains which cool the place considerably during summer. Two huge water tanks, Gopal Sagar and Rup Sagar, on either side also helped considerably to bring down the temperature and create a romantic ambience. The entire complex, sprawling with palaces and gardens, is a marvel of engineering skill. While the palaces are not as massive as the fortified Rajasthan palaces, they surpass them all in the grandeur of conception and their beautiful detail.

I was fascinated by the design of Keshav Bhawan, the monsoon pavilion. A single-storeyed baradari placed on an octagonal base, it stands right next to the Rup Sagar tank. The edifice has five arches along each side which seem to divide it in to several parts. An arcade runs around the interior of the pavilion over a canal with hundreds of fountains. The walls of the canal are pierced with hundreds of minute jets that spew coloured water. The spray of water from the fountains and the jets create a monsoon-like ambience which is enhanced further by a unique technique that produces thunder-like sound all around the pavilion. Hundreds of metal balls placed strategically on the channel surrounding the roof are set rolling with the water pressure which results in a thunderous effect. The ambience in a desert town must have been quite significant for the Jat kings and their queens.

Beautifully proportioned

The Deeg palace is one of India's most superbly proportioned buildings, and is splendidly preserved. The Jat rulers were influenced by the magnificence of the Mughal courts of Agra and Delhi. The design of the gardens has been inspired by the Mughal Charbagh. There are hundreds of fountains scattered all over impressive gardens, which spew out coloured water during the festive season. Moti Singh led us to an enormous water tank, with thousands of holes in its side walls, feeding the hundreds of fountains in the garden. Bullocks were employed with large leather "buckets" to draw water to the tank through a complex pulley system. "Small cloth pouches with different organic colours were manually inserted into the holes in the reservoir wall. When the water flowed out through them passing along an intricate network of pipelines, the fountains began spouting coloured water. It is an incredible sight. You must come here during `holi' to experience the sight. This is the only palace with fountains that throw up coloured water and use this technique. The palaces were used by the maharajas till early 1970s," Moti Singh told us. "You can see their personal belongings in the main palace but for that you will have to come again. The palace is closed today," he ended.

Once more

We came back to Deeg the next day and saw Moti Singh leading a group of tourists towards the palaces. In his place we found an equally loquacious guide in Ratan Singh and made a beeline for Gopal Bhawan. After gawking at the huge swing fans, chaise lounges, scores of priceless antiques, a stuffed tiger, and elephant-foot stands, we made our way to the King's bedroom. The enormous black granite bed of the Maharaja had been plundered after a battle. It had once served as a part of Parsi death rites, functioning as a platform for washing dead bodies. The macabre vision of the king sleeping on it made me shudder. Noticing my expression Ratan Singh said, "Rajas were daring people." He led us through the personal effects of the Jat kings with reverence, pointing out the trophies with pride.

The sun was at its nadir as we waved our goodbye to the guide, casting a last look at the fabulous summer palace which had once served as a haven for the Jat Maharajas.

Quick facts

The nearest airports are at Agra (70 km) and Delhi (200 km).

The nearest railhead is Bharatpur junction (35 km).

Deeg is five hours by road from Delhi, two hours from Agra and one hour from Mathura.

The hot summer months are definitely not a time to visit the place. The best months are from October to March. However, visiting the palaces during the festival of Holi will show the fountains at their colourful best.

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