In his memoirs Dastan e Ghadar, which has been translated by me from the original Urdu into English for Penguin Random House, Zahir Dehlvi paints a beautiful picture of Alwar, its Maharaja and life in the palace as one of his courtiers.
This description aroused such a curioisity in me that I made a trip to Alwar last year.
Zahir Dehlvi writes, “The pomp and majesty of this small state had no peer in all of Hindustan. At least, none that I had seen or heard of.
Maharaja Sheodan Singh Bahadur, the ruler of Alwar, had set up such a splendid assembly that even that of Abul Hasan Tana Shah [of Golkunda, famed for the majesty of his court] would have paled in comparison. The masters of every skill and accomplishment were gathered here. None of them had any equal in their art anywhere in Hindustan or abroad.”
We went to Alwar with my mind full of Zahir’s tales. The Alwar City Palace or Vinay Vilas was built in 1793 by Maharaja Bakhtawar Singh and saw an amalgamation of Rajput and Mughal styles making it a majestic specimen of indian architecture.
It’s a prominent landmark and we easily got there, but that’s where the ease of mind dissappeared.
This beautiful palaces where once the Maharaja would sit on his masnad with his courtiers on either sides where the arbāb-i-nishāt̤ [dancers and musicians] each at the peak of his/her profession would entertain the gusts was now a district administrative office also housing the district courts.
So the first view I had of the palace were typists, lawyers, litigators, copiers with zerox machines, cycle stands and of course the infamous betel stains, without which we indians can’t seem to function and not the “fairy-like houris, shining stars of the firmament, who had voices like lightning who were elegant from top to toe, and it seemed as though a veritable garden of beauty and grace were flourishing there.”
When the courtiers entered the darbar of the Maharaja there would be “a two to two and a half yards wide, one-foot high platform made of rose petals in front of the masnad. Around 20-25 seer of mukaish (thin metallic strips used for embroidery) were mixed with the rose petals. A mechanical silver device was kept in front of the masnad. The Maharaja would turn it towards a person and press the button, and a fine spray of saffron or red would bespangle the person’s white dress and throw handfuls of rose petals and mukaish on the courtiers. Whichever fortunate courtier was thus honoured, he would get up and present his salaam to the Maharaja. From head to toe, everyone would shine, their beards, turbans, dresses and faces luminous with the silver.”
Instead I found shabby wooden desks , piles upon piles of dog-eared files, harrased people running around for justice and stoic government officers.
Maharaja Sheodan Singh (1845-1874) was a connoisseur of beauty and his museum was famous for its unique articles. Zahir describes a unique sword made by Ibrahim Shamsher Saaz whose blade was encrusted with gems and pearls. Its uniqueness lay in the fact that when one picked up the sword all the pearls would gather at the hilt and if one were to use the sword to strike, the pearls would run down the blade and start shining.
I was eager to visit this museum and asked for the way. To my utter shock and dismay I was directed to a small passage with a public urinal which though it had a door was open.
I recoiled in disgust and asked again. I was told that the staircase was at the side of the lavatory. Holding my nose I climbed up the dirty steps into another office with files and clerks. From here we were sent to another flight of stairs. These were broader and in a better condition and we finally reached the museum. The museum is a treasure house of medieval manuscripts, paintings, armoury, edicts and curios from our glorious past. Some balm for all the dirt outside was provided by the sight of these.
On our descent from there we guided to Moosi Rani ki Chatri which is just outside the palace and can be accessed by stairs from within it. After all the squalor of the palace I didn’t expect much but it was a sight for sore eyes.
A double storied marble and red sandstone cenotaph it was built by Maharaja Vinay Singh (1815-1857) of Alwar, in memory of his predecessor Maharaja Bakhtawar Singh and his wife Maharani Moosi who committed ‘sati’ [self immolation]. It’s pretty marble cusped arches and glorious painted dome ceiling is a stark reminder with a small marble memorial to the self immolation of a queen.
The colour of the water from the adjoining Sagar Lake, the beautiful green of the Aravalli hills which form the backdrop this cenotaph despite its tragic history is very striking.
As we had to go back through the palace compound I left with an ache in my heart at our utter neglect and disregard of our glorious heritage.