In the aftermath of the Revolt of 1857, as power equations shifted and control got consolidated with the British crown, the rulers of India’s many princely states found a novel way to iterate their (old) glory. This was done in the most ostentatious manner possible, by making grand palaces. This last phase of palace building lasted all the way from 1874 till 1943, ending with the construction of Umaid Bhawan at Jodhpur.
To start with, after the Revolt of 1857, there was active encouragement from the British to get the Royals out of old traditional mahals or palaces in the center of the cities. This was, of course, to undermine the old symbols of authority and power and also move the ruler as far away out of the city and so its people, as possible. The Indian rulers, who were getting increasingly inspired by the Victorian and Edwardian elite happily embraced this idea. Grand European style residences, with vast lawns, away from their old forts (the need for large estates meant moving out of old quarters) were commissioned. While this ‘shift’ had many far-reaching consequences - it did leave behind some spectacular grand palaces.
We take you on a journey through some of the most marvellous colonial-era palaces in India -
Jai Vilas Palace, Gwalior
One of the earliest examples of this palace-building exercise in India is the Jai Vilas Palace in Gwalior. Construction began in 1874, barely 17 years after the Revolt and the shift in the British policy towards Indian rulers. The palace is an eclectic mix of European architectural styles – the first storey is Tuscan, the second Italian-Doric and the third Corinthian, thus defying classification.
It was designed and built by Sir Michael Filose and had been commissioned by Maharajadhiraj Shrimant Jayajirao Scindia Alijah Bahadur, the maharaja of the erstwhile Gwalior princely state. Among the many stunning features of the palace is the 100-foot-long Durbar Hall, whose two 12.5m-high, 3.5-tonne chandeliers are said to be the largest in the world.
Cooch Behar Palace, Cooch Behar
The Cooch Behar palace, built by Maharaja Nripendra Narayan, is also known as the Victoria Jubilee Palace since it was built in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Built in Italian Renaissance style, on 1,400 acres of land, it is believed to have been inspired by Buckingham Palace due to its scale and setting. The palace had fallen into disrepair and was ultimately taken over by the Indian government to be restored. It is now a museum.
Laxmi Vilas Palace, Vadodara
Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara is believed to be one of the largest private residences in the world. It was constructed in 1890 in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, and was commissioned by Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III, ruler of the former princely state of Baroda. With more than 180 rooms, it is known for its Durbar Hall, one of the most magnificent in India.
Jagatjit Palace, Kapurthala
Jagatjit Palace was the home of the royal family of Kapurthala in Punjab. The palace was started in 1900 and construction was completed in 1908. Maharaja Jagatjit Singh, who commissioned the palace was a Francophile, which is why its design was influenced by the palaces of Versailles and Fontainebleau in France. The maharaja brought on board a French architect M Marcel to make his dream a reality. It is built in Renaissance style with a sunken park in front of the Durbar Hall. Today the palace functions as a Sainik School.
Ujjayanta Palace, Agartala
The Ujjayanta Palace in Agartala was built between 1899 and 1901 and served as the residence of the royal family of Tripura till the integration of the state into the Union of India. Built on the banks of a lake, it was commissioned by Maharaja Radha Kishore Manikya. The palace was originally a royal residence and then the seat of the Tripura Legislative Assembly till 2011, when it became the Tripura Government Museum.
Amba Vilas Palace, Mysore
Mysore Palace or the Amba Vilas Palace is one of the grandest royal palaces in India. It is the official residence of the Wodeyars, the royal family of the erstwhile princely state of Mysore. Indo-Saracenic in style, the palace exhibits an eclectic mix of Rajput, Islamic, Hindu and Gothic influences.
The original wooden palace burnt to the ground during the Dussera festivities of 1896. The then ruler, Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, commissioned British architect Henry Irwin to design a new palace. Construction started in 1897 and was completed in 1912. Even though the Dussera festivities had led to the destruction of the original royal residence, the festival is still celebrated with great pomp, and the Mysore Palace is gloriously lit up during this time.
Rambagh Palace, Jaipur
Rambagh Palace in Jaipur has had multiple avatars before it became the residence of the Jaipur royal family. The first building on the property was the home of the wet nurse of Prince Ram Singh II in 1835, and it was converted into a royal hunting lodge in 1887. It was only in the early 20th century that Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob designed a palace on this site. In 1931, it became the principal residence of Maharajah Sawai Man Singh II and a number of royal suites were added. The palace was the residence of the Jaipur royal family till 1957 and is a luxury hotel today.
Indian Princes and their flamboyant lifestyle may be a thing of the past, but they have left us with this glorious heritage in the form of their old grand palaces.