Datia, 40km north of Orchha on the road between Gwalior and Jhansi, is home to one of India’s most imposing 17th century residences.
Datia Palace was completed in 1623, and is known by a number of different names; Govind Mahal, Govind Mandir, Jahangir Mahal, Satkhanda Palace, Purana Mahal and Bir Singh Palace. Architecturally I thought this palace was just as impressive as anything that can be found within the Orchha Fort complex, and yet here there are hardly any visitors at all to what is an unforgettable building.
The palace was built by Raja Bir Singh Deo, who ruled over Orchha from 1605 to 1627. His chhatri is the largest of the fifteen chhatris to be found by the river Betwa in Orchha. It is situated high on an outcrop of rock in the center of the town overlooking Lala Ka Talab lake.
The palace is entered from the west with a wonderfully imposing facade with balconies, coloured tiles and paintings. I was greeted by the caretaker, who seemed to be the only person working at the palace. He was happy to show me around, although as a few more visitors arrived his time with me was very fragmented. There’s no entrance fee, but I think MP tourism is missing a trick by not promoting and investing in Datia a little more, you will see why shortly…
The start of my exploration of Datia Palace was initially somewhat disappointing. I navigated two dimly lit lower storeys, the sunlight was hardly penetrating the interior and I was thankful for the caretakers torch. I could see there was a maze of passageways and stairs shooting off in all directions, all mostly blocked so your route is predetermined.
As my eyes adjusted to the dark conditions, some of the splendour of this palace became apparent. The walls and ceilings were obviously once richly decorated, the best preserved was a complete surprise, a splash of vibrant colour in an otherwise mostly greyscale world.
This rasamandala ceiling is one of the earliest depictions of this theme among Rajput palaces. The scene painted in relief has been recently renovated by the A.S.I. maintaining the original colour scheme; carmine, ochre, white and black.
I was starting to think my Datia Palace experience might be restricted to merely exploring this cave-like environment, why else would there be just one person working here and no entrance fee ? But then the world opened up, the surprise of daylight as I entered the main courtyard with a spectacular tower-like seven storey inner palace.
The perimeter of the courtyard has three levels of rooms, connected to the inner palace by narrow bridges. These rooms and all their levels you are free to explore and get lost utterly within.
Datia Palace is one of the finest examples of Indo-Islamic architecture anywhere in India. The blend of Mughal and Rajput styles forms a typical feature of many of the Bundela monuments that still stand today.
The photography opportunities here are almost endless, with interesting play of light across doorways, columned passages, and the added bonus of nobody around to accidentally photobomb the scene !
Raja Bir Singh Deo, the ruler of Datia, was an avid builder of the times. He was responsible for the impressive Jahangir Mahal that forms part of the nearby Orchha Fort, and during his reign built over 50 monuments across the region.
Construction started in 1614 and took 9 years to complete, the palace is said to stand in testimony to the friendship between the Mughal emperor Jahangir and Raja Bir Singh Deo.
Bir Singh championed Jahangir’s cause against Akbar and even beheaded Abul Fazal, Akbar’s vizier, confidant and general. In return Bir Singh Deo was made ruler of both Orchha and Datia when Jahangir ascended the throne in 1605.
Remarkably, Datia Palace was never inhabited by a ruler, not even by Bir Singh Deo himself. Jahangir also never visited the palace, even though folklore says it was built specifically for such a visit. So the 440 rooms spread across 7 floors and built entirely from stone (no use of cement, iron or wood), which was completed just four years before Bir Singh Deo died, remained largely vacant.
In 1835 the palace was visited by Colonel Sleeman, a British soldier, and a report was published in the Datia State Gazetteer. The Colonel was curious as to why the palace was empty, and made enquiries. The locals replied that no present day ruler was worthy of a such grand palace, nor would one be comfortable living in a palace that had been built to house such a great king.
Just as I thought I had seen all that Datia Palace had to offer, the caretaker caught up with me and led me to a series of locked rooms. I love being led to a locked room in India, you just know something wonderful is about to happen.
Just as I had previously seen at Orchha Fort, the walls of this locked room were wonderfully painted, and in pretty good condition all things considered.
The caretaker left me to admire all that surrounded me, and to take a quick look outside on the balcony. He closed the door behind him, clearly not wanting anyone else to follow me in.
Datia Palace is possibly one of the best kept secrets in the region, perhaps overshadowed by the group of monuments in Orchha, and off the tourism radar. It’s a great shame, with a little bit of investment this palace would easily rival other counterparts in the area, and it has played a part in influencing latter day architecture in India.
Sir Edwin Lutyens, architect of New Delhi from 1912 to 1930, considered Datia Palace to be :
“One of the most interesting buildings architecturally in the whole of India”.
He was so inspired by what he saw at Datia that he incorporated aspects of the palace in the interior design of New Delhi’s North and South Blocks.
But perhaps one of Datia Palace’s charms is that it still largely remains abandoned by humans, in much the same way as it has been for the last 400 years.
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