Historic blend

Published : Mar 23, 2007 00:00 IST

The palaces in Datia and Orchha prove that the assimilation of Islamic and Hindu styles is not an invention of the British.


Edwin Lutyens, who designed New Delhi, did not have many good things to say about Indian architecture, but somewhere in between the scorns a few words of admiration slip past for Bir Singh's palace at Datia in the erstwhile Bundelkhand region. Even to his disapproving eye, Datia's blend of Hindu and Islamic styles was acceptable for its restraint and emphasis on a classical and symmetrical plan.

The Datia Palace, about 35 metres tall, is perched on a mound and overlooks the Karna Sagar lake. It is deceptively simple - a square form with a central tower rising about five stories high. The simplicity of form slowly leads to a labyrinth-like experience. The constant shift in the location of the staircase, the multiple and changing views of the building through connecting verandahs and balconies, and the views framed through beautiful brackets and oriel windows make it an architectural delight.

Bundelkhand refers roughly to the region bound by the Yamuna in the north, the Narmada in the south, the Chambal in the west and the Ken in the east. The important rulers of this region were the Chandellas, who broke away from the Pratihara Rajputs and established their capital at Khajuraho and later at Mahoba. When the Chandellas lost power and their sway over the region in the 13th century, the Bundelas established themselves at Kundar, one of the important Chandella cities.

In the beginning of the 16th century, Rudra Pratap Bundela found that picturesque Orchha also provided protection from the relentless attacks of the Mughal army and shifted his capital to Orchha. Rudra Pratap's sons Bharati Chand and Madhukar Shah built a fortress and a palace on the small island created by the Betwa river. However, the ravines, the dense forest and the protection offered by the landscape were not enough to keep the Mughal army away for long. Madhukar Shah's son Ram Shah turned out to be a weak king and was eventually deposed by Jehangir. Since then the rise and fall of Orchha was entangled with the history of the Mughals.

Akbar and Jehangir, or Salim as he was known earlier, had a love-hate relationship. Akbar's long reign made Salim impatient and impelled him to rebel. As a result, he refused to obey Akbar's directive to attack Mewar. After an unsuccessful attempt to seize the treasury at Agra, he crowned himself an independent ruler at Allahabad. It was at this time that Akbar sent for Abul Fazl, his close confidant and author of Akbar Nama, for advice. On his way from the Deccan, Abul Fazl was intercepted in the mountainous region west of Datia near Shivpuri by Bir Singh, an errant chieftain related to the Orchha king, and killed. His severed head was sent to Salim, who had wished so because he was suspicious of Abul Fazl and considered him a thorn in his relationship with Akbar.

Akbar was anguished at Fazl's death. His army could not capture Bir Singh, who hid in the surrounding forests. Fatigued by the turn of events and his long reign, Akbar eventually reproached with Salim and died in 1605. Not surprisingly, when Salim became the emperor all his loyalists were rewarded. Among them was Bir Singh, whom he appointed king. After his ascension, Bir Singh built a grand new palace in Orchha and named it Jehangir Mahal.

Bir Singh was a prolific builder. Apart from Jehangir Mahal, which came up in the early 17th century, he built the Lakshmi Narayan temple and the palace at Datia. His buildings eagerly took to fusing Hindu and Islamic styles; the templates and models of such hybrid buildings were already available to him. The free mix of domes, symmetrical plans, and surface decoration were well elaborated in Akbar's syncretic architecture and was exemplified in Fathepur Sikri. Rajput kings, too, explored this fusion, which was best exemplified in Man Singh's palace at Amber and the Govind Dev temple at Vrindavan.

Indeed, a sprit of tolerance and experimentation pervaded the 16th and 17th centuries. Akbar wore a tilak on his forehead and also encouraged Rakhi ceremonies. According to the Mughal historian R. Nath, he even commissioned the text "Allo Upanishad", which combines Sanskrit and Arabic and extols Allah. Even provincial rulers like Sultan Ibrahim of Bijapur assumed the title Jagatguru and patronised all art forms. This assimilation and adoption provided the larger template for many rulers to follow suit, including rulers who were not so favourably disposed to the Mughals.

Madhukar Shah, the fearless Bundela who consistently opposed the Mughals, built the Chaturbhuj temple atop a small mound in Orchha. This temple is unusually laid out. It is massive with small spires at the four corners and a large spire in the centre. The mandapa in front of the sanctum sanctorum has a large dome. The plan, externally, appears square, but internally it is more cruciform. The space it encloses resembles the nave of a church rather than a compact temple interior. The walls of the temple are decorated not by sculptures but by a series of arch niches that are typical of Islamic structures.

The Raj Mahal built earlier by Rudra Pratap Singh and completed by his sons resembles the palaces built by Rajput kings, as the one in Amber. It has multiple courts with the surrounding walls decorated by ornamental stucco work and arches. The interiors are extensively painted. The spaces, too, are divided into private and public groups. Behind the Raj Mahal rise the chatris or domed pavilions of Jehangir Mahal.

Bir Singh's Jehangir Mahal is different from his Datia place in layout. It is more spread and elaborate. It has distinctive-looking chatris in the corners and presents a strong and simple symmetrical appearance to the outside. This distinction is also perceptible in his cenotaph. On the banks of the Betwa stand a series of 17th and 18th century cenotaphs of the rulers of Orchha. Amidst this group of cubical structures with temple-like spires, Bir Singh's cenotaph alone has explicit Islamic features on it.

His experiments extended to the Lakshmi Narayan temple, which appears more like a fortress and reflects an unusual mix of styles. Minaret-like towers are located at the corners and the sanctum sanctorum is turned to be in alignment with the diagonal entrance, which is designed so as to align with Jehangir Mahal.

Jujhar Shah, one of the last Bundela rulers, strengthened the fortifications of Orchha. This infuriated Shah Jahan, who dispatched an army to rein him. After a hide-and-seek battle, Jujhar Shah was defeated and killed. Before the army left Orchha, it was ordered to demolish the temples. With that the glorious period of Orchha ended. It became so insignificant that Captain W.A. Pogson's A History of the Boondelas, published in 1828, hardly has any description of Orchha.

What makes Datia and Orchha significant to contemporary architectural history is that they decisively prove that the assimilation of Islamic and traditional Hindu architectures is not an invention of British architects. It precedes the 19th century Indo-Sarcenic architecture. The seeds of such integration lay in Mughal architecture, which was itself an assimilation of many styles. Ebba Koch, the architectural historian, has observed that Mughal architecture was flexible towards regional building traditions and a style synthesising many heterogeneous elements such as the transoxanian, the Timurid, the Indian, the Persian and the European.

The rulers of Orchha deftly adapted and experimented with the hybrid architectural style that was prevalent then. To them it was a political necessity, besides being a choice of style and a route to experimentation.

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