In the city of Jammu, overlooking the Tawi River is one of India’s most spectacular palace complexes, forlorn, forgotten and endangered. This is the famous Mubarak Mandi, from where the Dogra rulers reigned over their sprawling kingdom.
For over 200 years, they lorded over an area that stretched from the Pir Panjal mountain range in the north, the plains of Punjab to the South, the Line of Control in the west and Ladakh in the east. This palace complex tells the story of Jammu like no other – of its golden days and troubled past.
‘Dogras’ refers to a group of people who speak the Dogri language, one of the many western Pahari languages spoken in the Jammu region as well as parts of Himachal Pradesh. In the 17th century, the region was ruled by a number of petty Dogra chieftains, one of whom was the founder of the Dogra or Jamwal dynasty of Jammu & Kashmir. It was Raja Hari Dev (1656-1692) who conquered neighbouring principalities and turned Jammu into a prominent kingdom.
According to Rajdarshani, a historical account of the Jammu region written by 19th century historian Ganeshdas Badenra, it was Raja Hari Dev’s grandson Raja Dhruv Dev (1707-1733) who moved his residence from the old palace in the Purani Mandi area of Jammu, to a new, more spectacular location overlooking the Tawi river, which is today called Mubarak Mandi.
Over the years, the palace grew as additions were made. New palaces were constructed during the reign of his son and successor Raja Ranjit Dev (1733-1781 CE). However, Ranjit Dev was a weak ruler and real control of the kingdom was vested with his powerful Prime Minister Mian Mota.
In 1783 CE, the armies of the Sukerchakia Misl, one of the many Sikh confederacies or misls, sacked Jammu, burning down a large part of the palace. This ushered an era of mayhem, of palace intrigues, factional wars and tussles, all of which ended only in 1808, when Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh conquered Jammu and made it a part of his kingdom.
However, Maharaja Ranjit Singh went on to bestow the territory of Jammu as a jagir to Kishore Singh, a distant relative of Raja Ranjit Dev. It then passed to his son Gulab Singh, whose reign marked a new phase of Dogra rule in Jammu.
As a vassal of the Sikhs, Gulab Singh along with his General Zorawar Singh (also known as ‘India’s Napoleon’ for his conquests in the Himalayan region) extended the boundaries of the Sikh Empire to include Tibet, Baltistan and vast swathes of Ladakh. As a reward for his services, Gulab Singh was made the Raja of Jammu in 1822.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh died in 1839 and his kingdom fell into disarray. By this time, the East India Company had also entered the scene and the diplomatic relations that Maharaja Ranjit Singh had maintained with the British were broken. The events that followed resulted in the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845-46).
In this war, the Sikh forces were led by Raja Lal Singh, who was also a Dogra. Lal Singh was blamed for aligning with Gulab Singh and betraying the Sikhs by supplying information and even receiving instructions from the British. The war ended with the Treaty of Lahore (1845-46), according to which the Sikhs lost Jammu, Kashmir, Hazara (present-day Pakistan), the territory to the south of the Sutlej river and the forts and territory in the Jalandhar Doab area between the Sutlej and Beas rivers, to the East India Company.
It was after this that the Treaty of Amritsar was signed between the British and Gulab Singh in 1846. Through this, the politically ambitious Gulab Singh broke away from the Sikh Empire and literally ‘bought’ all the mountainous country with its dependencies, east of the Indus river and west of the Ravi river. This included the Chamba region but excluded Lahul in present-day Himachal.
Gulab Singh paid a sum of 75 lakh Nanakshahi rupees (Sikh currency at the time) to the British and was granted the title ‘Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir’.
Interestingly, Gulab Singh had originally been assigned the region near what is today’s Balakot in present-day Pakistan. But unwilling to deal with the rebellious tribes there, he exchanged it for land near Jammu. While Gulab Singh had built several mansions in the Mubarak Mandi complex during his reign, he decided to move his capital to the Kashmir valley, handing over the palace complex as well as the Jammu region to his son Maharaja Ranbir Singh.
Maharaja Ranbir Singh of Jammu & Kashmir, who ruled from 1856 to 1885, renovated and enlarged the Mubarak Mandi palace in 1874, and it is under him that it took its present form. It is also during this time that the ‘office space’ or administrative offices around the palace was enlarged substantially, dwarfing even the royal residences.
Maharaj Pratap Singh (1885-1925) too built several buildings here, the most prominent being the Rani Charak Palace in 1913, which he built for his favourite Queen, Rani Charak, who according to legend was a beautiful shepherd girl from Birpur village. Later, she is believed to have dominated both the king and his kingdom.
By this time, the Mubarak Mandi palace comprised 25 buildings spread across 12 acres! It had a covered area of more than 4 lakh sq ft, which houses buildings like the Darbar Hall, the Sheesh Mahal, the Pink Palace, Royal Courts buildings, Gol Ghar, Nawa Mahal, Hawa Mahal, Toshkhana and the Rani Charak Palaces. Built in different periods of time, these monuments are a spectacular mix of architectural styles and construction techniques.
The workmanship brings out the best of Rajasthani, Mughal and European styles, a melting pot of influences where Gothic arches coexist with Mewari jharokhas.
The large complex also continued to remain a hotbed of intrigue. For example, on 28th April 1898, a grand durbar was held in the palace, followed by a display of fireworks. However, just 15 minutes later, the part of the palace that housed the offices went up in flames. Thankfully, the fire was contained before it could spread to other parts. Investigations revealed that it was no accident and, unfortunately, the culprits were never caught.
Mubarak Mandi’s glory days ended suddenly in 1925, when Maharaja Pratap Singh’s nephew, Hari Singh, became the next Maharaja of Kashmir. He refused to stay in Mubarak Mandi and moved to the Hari Niwas Palace (present-day Raj Bhawan in Jammu). Hari Singh took no interest in Mubarak Mandi and in fact seemed happy to surrender it to the Indian government in 1947. This complex has since housed office of the Jammu & Kashmir state government.
Maharaja Hari Singh’s odd dislike for the seat of his ancestors has perplexed many and the answer for this can be found in the memoirs of the famous radio singer Malika Pukhraj, who was a very close friend of Maharaja Hari Singh. According to Pukhraj, when Hari Singh was the crown prince and lived in Mubarak Mandi, his aunt, Rani Charak, hated him and tried to get him killed several times. Also, he believed that his first wife Lal Kunverba, who died during childbirth, had been poisoned on orders of Rani Charak. The Mubarak Mandi complex held painful memories for Maharaja Hari Singh, who began to hate it.
After Maharaja Hari Singh moved out, the complex served only as the Royal Court and Secretariat of the Jammu kings until it was taken over by the state government after India’s Independence. Today, only one part of the complex is open to the public – the Dogra Art Museum that has 800-odd rare paintings from different schools like Kangra, Basohli and Jammu. It also has some other treasures including the gold-painted bow and arrow of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, handwritten manuscripts of Shahnama and Sikandernama, both of which are in Persian.
For a long time, the once exquisite Mubarak Mandi has been is in a state of deep decline but there is some hope that the palace complex will see better days as the governor of Jammu & Kashmir recently gave the go-ahead for the restoration of the complex.