ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY indulge in the royal pleasures of Deogarh, a tiny fiefdom in Rajasthan with a fairy-tale castle, rugged forts, village jaunts and ancient cave shrines.
In another era, we would have ambled up the slope on an elephant’s back, swaying past bazaars before entering the regal gates of Deogarh Mahal. But given the century we found ourselves in, we resigned ourselves to the modest backseat of a taxi, secretly ruing that it wasn’t a vintage classic. The first thing that strikes you when you enter these precincts is its overwhelming grandness and antique appeal. Tons of stone and lime had been procured to create this massive ochre and white palace that served as the residence of Rawat Sangaji, great grandson of the legendary Chunda Sisodia, one of the 16 Umraos (feudal lords) of Mewar.
The history of Deogarh is inextricably linked to pride and honour. Story goes, when the powerful Rathors of Marwar consolidated their position by capturing the forts of Ajmer and Nagaur, they made Mandore their capital and decided to forge ties with the Sisodias of Mewar. Ranmal, fierce heir apparent to the Marwar throne came to Chittor with a wedding proposal. He hoped that the eligible heir to Mewar’s throne Chunda Sisodia, would agree to marry Rathor princess Hansabai. But destiny has its twists.
Since Chunda Sisodia was away, his father, Rana Lakha joked that the proposal could not have been for an old man like himself. When Chundaji heard this, his bristling Rajput pride forbade him from accepting a bride ‘spurned’ by his father. To avert a revenge drama between the two clans, old Rana Lakha agreed to marry the young Hansabai, but on the condition that Chundaji abdicates the right to the throne. In true Bhisma style, Chunda Sisodia renounced his birthright, left Chittor and shaped a new dominion for himself in the lawless lands north.
We sailed past the old katcheri (court) and stepped through an impressive entrance decorated with wall murals of horses into the inner courtyard. Niches, windows and doors were beautified by scalloped arches while walls studded with decorative mirrors twinkled in silvery collages of floral and peacock themes… We threw our bags and were off to explore the palace.
Stairways led up to bastions, balconies and pumpkin-shaped turrets in the terrace offering alluring views of the Aravallis. In an otherwise rugged corner of Rajasthan, Deogarh’s altitude (2100 ft) and location amidst lakes and forests made it comparatively cooler and a natural choice for a regal residence. A little gasp escaped our lips as we entered each room. True to its name Sheesh Mahal was a royal chamber adorned with mirrors and stained glass windows. Sunlight streamed in to impart a sparkling jewel-like radiance to the room. Named Ranjit Prakash, the room was dedicated to Ranjit Singhji (1847-1867) who oversaw the renovation of this section. His regal portrait adorned the bedroom wall.
The Maharana and Royal Suites opened in a profusion of low divans, cushions and carpets accentuated by stunning carved furniture, coloured glass and intricate mirror inlays with nature motifs and plush bathrooms; all of which added characteristic grandeur and enviable opulence. A maze of corridors led past rooms with themes from Lord Krishna’s life and the Mahabharata. A piazza displayed the royal marble throne while the Chitrashala or Artist’s wing showcased the distinct miniature painting style of Deogarh. A rear lattice screen looked like an uncanny prototype of the famous Hawa Mahal. Legend has it that Pratap Singh, younger son of Maharaja Madho Singh I of Jaipur and Princess Kundan Kunwar of Deogarh sought sanctuary here as a child, when his life was threatened by Jaipur’s scheming aristocracy. He built the Hawa Mahal in 1799 as a nostalgic reminder of his happy days in Deogarh.
We learnt that the bathroom in Room 201 was once an open arched gallery for Bijay Singh ji (1900-1943), who loved to bathe thrice a day, pouring a hundred pitchers of water each time. It is said that when he went to attend his son Sangram Singh’s wedding in Bihar, the journey stretched to seven days because the train had to keep halting for his daily triple ablutions! Being the first Rawat who went to Europe, Bijay Singh was so enamoured by their trains that he installed railway-style sash windows and a matching washbasin in his bathroom!
The Chundawats have inherited some eccentricities that continue to infuse Deogarh with quirky irreverence. We noticed the tongue-in-cheek “Duck or Grouse” warning on low doors and the crazy signboards that we passed earlier, “London Raining, New York Snowing, Deogarh Fine Weather, Only 3 km”. With a treasure of around 30 cars, we were taken around the garage and introduced to the sturdy army trucks named Thapero, Dhamero and Bhachero (a pun on Pajero). A fancy Austin had been renovated into Car-o-Bar (a bar on wheels).
It wasn’t long before we were summoned for an open-air supper on the terrace with wine and an arresting spread of Rajasthani fare. The kebab and tikka starters kept on coming until we realized our folly – we had forgotten to give the signal! Only after we removed the little flag carried by a tiny elephant curio on the table and put it horizontally in its trunk did we graduate to the main course!
The next day we set out on a rural ramble, preferring a jeep ride through the village instead of the horse carriage! We rolled past the busy bazaar and huts where women in colourful skirts and veils balanced columns of water pots on their heads with graceful ease, groups of old men in colourful turbans enjoyed their smoke and royal cenotaphs stood in quietude. We halted to watch a blindfolded ox merry-go-around a strange contraption; it was the traditional method of oil extraction from oilseeds. The blindfolds were to ensure the ox didn’t get dizzy!
We headed towards Seengh Sagar, the erstwhile royal hunting lodge overlooking a lake, another family property 5km away. Gazing at an old map and the album that documented its renovation, we could only marvel at how the ruins of this lake fort had been transformed into a swish villa with a central courtyard entwined in creepers, a pool, open-air dining and three lavish bedrooms (named after musical ragas) with enticing bathrooms. Warm décor, silk furnishings, and attentive staff to take care of every need, Seengh Sagar blends luxury and solitude in the midst of nature. Another experience in the wilderness was the tented camp at Deogarh Khayyam. The woods are a haven for several species of birds and post-monsoon, the moats and lakes brim with water.
A trip to Deogarh wouldn’t be complete without visiting the desolate ruins of Anjana Fort and the Anjaneshwar Mahadev cave temple. According to Shatrunjai Singh, “Anjana in Rajasthan means a rock with a water hole, though most wrongly deduce that Lord Hanuman’s mother Anjana performed penance here.” Strangely, a huge rock near the entrance bore a bizarre resemblance to a monkey’s face! Shatrunjai ji explained “Sixteen maharajas have taken Samadhi in the fort… All of them lived as austere bramacharyas and were given the status of kings and permitted to keep elephants, a royal perk! Two were live samadhis; which means they could decide when to descend.” That was our cue to leave…
We drove to the ancient cave shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva. A large step well signaled the 9th century temple tucked in the rocky hillside. We bent down to avoid the low ceiling studded with tiny bats to reach a wide inner chamber where a lone linga was decorated with flowers and statues of nandi nearby. Outside, it was dusk and the air was thick with the continuous twitter of birds flying to their nests. We clambered into the jeep once more to return to our palace for another night of royal pleasures. A buffet feast simmered on a long table as we supped to the tune of haunting folk songs on a moonlit night. After being royally pampered, we slipped under the quilted coverlet preparing ourselves for the heartbreak of returning to the humdrum of city life as commoners.
Located 135 km from Udaipur, Deogarh is strategically located near Kumbalgarh (85 km) and Ranakpur (100 km)
Deogarh Madaria Devgarh, Rajasthan 313331
Ph 9928834777 http://www.deogarhmahal.com
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 1 September 2013 in the Sunday supplement of Deccan Herald.