I make the mistake of leaving Jhansi this evening. When I arrive at Datia, I have a hard time finding a place to stay. There are here a handful of hotels but they are all booked. There are multiple weddings happening in town. Wedding parties have taken up all the rooms. At 9 pm, I find an opening.
‘I have a double room but it will be expensive,’ tells me the owner.
‘Can you reduce it for single occupancy?’ I ask hopefully.
‘Wait till 11 pm. If it is not taken by then, you can have it for Rs. 400,’ he quotes in strict business fashion.
Only a man in his most desparate moment will take a room as this at that price. I move on. I make enquiries and find myself standing at the entrance of a dharamshala. It is close to the railway line that passes by town. As can be expected, it is a badly maintained place. There is no cheer in it. On the rough road of travel, happiness often depends on attitude and acceptance. Embrace whatever comes your way as a new experience. But first, will I get a bed?
‘Paper dena hai kya?’ asks the caretaker of the place. I don’t understand this question until later. Apparently, there is some sort of government exam going on in town. Students have come to Datia to sit for the same.
‘Are you here to visit the temple?’ he continues his questioning. Yes, Datia has a couple of famous temples but visiting them had never been important to me. I am wondering if my request for a room will be rejected if I say no.
‘Yes, temple and other sights in town,’ I reply vaguely.
‘Okay. I’ll put you down for a pilgrim in this column,’ he scribbles into the large ledger.
Meanwhile another guy walks in and checks out a bed. He comments, ‘Badiya.’
But everyone knows exactly what it is really. There is no doubt about that. I hardly remember how much I paid for this stay. I think it is a ridiculous sum of Rs. 30. I order rotis and aloo ghobi at a place next door. The guy puts so much chilli in it that it is hotter than anything I have eaten even in Andhra. When morning comes, I have some slices of bread, an apple, pack up my bags and head out to see the sights of Datia.
My first stop is a temple, the Siddhapeeth of Shri Peetambra Devi. Apparently an important temple that draws pilgrims far and wide, I find nothing interesting here. I have darshan, wander around in the courtyard among the many shrines and take a walk around its large modern tank. From here I make enquiries about visiting the palace down the road. Someone tells me that the entrance is by a small lane where I have to turn left at the BSNL tower. One thing leads to another and I am misdirected to quite another palace. This palace is an unexpected surprise. It is far more impressive than the one beside the main road.
This palace known as Jehangir Mahal was built by Raja Bir Singh Deo in the early part of the seventeeth century as a tribute to Mughal Emperor Jehangir. It is a seven-storeyed building whose central ribbed dome can be seen from a long way on approach. The walk uphill is by a narrow lane lined with houses old and new. Poles support a mesh of electric and telephone lines. The sky this morning is a clear blue. The palace stands splendidly on the hill overlooking town.
What is so unique about this palace is that it is neither a palace restored to its original grandeur nor a crumbling ruin left to oblivion. It sits somewhere in between telling me of its grand past and its tenacity to withstand the onslaught of time. Its walls may have lost their original colours but wear the shade of time. The facade is an impressive collection of jharokhas, pillared balconies, projected chhatris, jali screens, running chhajjas and corner domes pointing their finials to the blue sky. This is typical architecture of Hindu royalty of Central India. Faded colours on the spandrels of the entrance arch and in the chini khana speak of its once glorious days. One look at the facade, I am in love with this palace. Moreover, the crowds of tourists and foreigners who come to Orchha are strangely missing at Datia. Truly, this palace is one of the hidden treasures of India.
How do you really explore the interiors of such a large palace under the weight of a backpack? You don’t. I walk up to the first floor, find a dark chamber and stash my backpack in an arched recess space. Suddenly I feel relieved.
Once inside, I am in a world apart from modern day India. I feel transported to the 17th century in a strange silence. The palace is deserted but for me. Imagine having the whole palace to myself! I wander corridor to corridor and room to room. I climb up narraw stairways to higher floors. I walk across narrow open balconies with low parapets of red sandstone. I admire the design of jali screens. I admire the symmetry in the design, how one corner dome mirror another or how one chhatri reflects its counterpart across the courtyard. Open terraces appears here and there as perfect accompaniments to airy rooms and balconies.
In the central part of the palace is the main building on many levels that finally end in the central dome with corner chhatris. This building can be accessed by bridging terraces which on a lower level appear as pillared corridors. The levels of the main building sport bracketed balconies and chhajjas. Often walls are topped with a line of floral motifs, as if inspired by fort crenellations but in fact much more elegant in design. There are simply unending variations of perspectives in this palace. Devoid of all furniture, decoration, people and sound, this has been a study of Indian architecture at its best. I hope the palace stays like this forever. I hope it does not fall into commercial tourism. The medieval air that it preserves so well is really the essence of its magic.