I arrive at the Enquiry Counter at the railway station at Ajmer. There is no one at the counter. The staff are chatting away in an inner room. These don’t care for giving service to the public. After an impatient wait of ten minutes, I enquire with another passenger standing near me.
‘The next train to Delhi is at 1 pm. It may pass through Narnaul but I can’t be sure,’ he says. I would have thought there is a more frequent train service between Ajmer and Delhi. I have to put up with a long bus ride instead.
I walk to the bus station. It is quite a walk from the train station. I get a direct bus to Narnaul. It would be a six and a half hour ride. It costs Rs. 187. I arrive at Jaipur at half past ten. It is too early for lunch but I think it is a good idea to eat something here than starve to a late lunch. The bus idles at Jaipur for half an hour. I head to a familiar place across the road. I have idli and sambar. I ask the waiter to hurry.
I read a lot on the bus, that same familiar book I had purchased in Bodh Gaya. I nap for a while and for the rest of the ride I look to the passing scenery. The only reason I am going to Narnaul is to visit a water palace. I am not sure if it is a well-known building. I have at times been to places looking for something that no longer exists.
Just before entering Narnaul town proper, I see a road sign the clearly says, “Jal Mahal.” A good distance to the right away from the highway is a dome surrounded by smaller domes. That must be the one I am after. But I am not ready to get off the bus at that point. My backpack is tucked away in the luggage rack. I had loosened my boots for the long ride. My books are unpacked. I am sipping from my water bottle just when I notice the sign.
So I get off at a junction some 3 kms away. I wait in a packed jeep. In time, I arrive at the turn to Jal Mahal. It is a quiet walk of a kilometer to the monument. I like the experience of visiting places like this – away from the busy tourist trails and surrounded by a quiet countryside. The aura of Indian history seems to live in these seemingly dead places. The dust of these dry plains seem to wear the imprint of medieval cavalry. The air seems to swirl with the scent of courtiers and courtesans.
Jal Mahal was built by Shah Quli Khan, the governor of Narnaul during the time of Akbar at the close of 16th century. In a manner reminiscent of Sher Shah Sur’s mausoleum at Sasaram, it is set in a large tank many feet below ground level. The difference is that at Sasaram the tank is filled up with water; here the tank is completely dry. A gateway that appears to be a guard house is the main entrance from the northern end. A stone bridge with sixteen bays leads to the main monument. The stone vaulting in the arcaded bridge is admirable.
The central building stands on a platform some 20 feet high. I wonder if this is a solid structure of stone bricks. The monument is a square with a central dome. It is flanked by four smaller domed chhatris that surmount corner rooms at the four corners. On the ground level, all the rooms are linked by a corridor. Corner rooms are double storeyed. Each of the four sides come with an semi-domed entrance porch like an iwan. These porches and the main dome contain beautiful paintings. Red is the dominant colour. On the outside, it is really the dome and its accompanying chhatris that add to the romance of this building. With water in the tank and rippling reflections, I can only imagine its glory in the days of its creation.
About 300 meters away there is a tomb. I ask around. I am told that it is the tomb of Shah Quli Khan. I walk towards. A boundary wall encloses some loosely clustered village huts and houses. The tomb is at the far end across fields. But as soon as I enter by crossing the wall, four dogs run towards me. It takes only one dog to start barking. Others will follow. I wait to see if the dogs will relent but things only get worse. After a minute, eight dogs are on the scene and the countryside echoes with their barking. The quiet afternoon ambience is shaken rudely by this commotion. I leave the dogs alone, get back to the main road and walk towards the main village. I will have to find another way to the tomb.
Walking through the village, I come to a tank. It is decorated with open pavilions of small domes and bangla roofs. Women are washing their clothes here. Boys are having an afternoon dip. Only a wall separates me from the tomb now. I climb over it. The dogs are not in sight at this end. I pass a ruined tomb with the dome still standing. Heaps of fallen bricks overgrown with weeds crowd the interior. A peacock is quietly standing inside watching my every move. I leave it alone and approach Shah Quli Khan’s tomb.
The tomb is octagonal. It stands on a plinth which interestingly has brackets. This beautiful stone monument is primarily of grey granite with highlights and insets in red sandstone. The dome appears to be of plastered brickwork and restored from the original one. There is nothing else to do here but return to the bus stand ar Narnaul and look for a bus to my next destination.