The architecture of the 347-room Umaid Bhawan palace of Jodhpur (originally known as Chittar Palace and commissioned in 1925 by Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur) comes under the scanner in Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhawan, The Maharaja of Palaces. With detailed captions by historian and hotelier Aman Nath, this coffee-table tome presents a spirited defence of the palace’s architecture and the fact that its roots are in Hindu and Buddhist architectural styles, rather than British imperial sensibilities, as is often alleged.
The Umaid Bhawan has been criticized for being “a British-civic monolith” and “Indo-Nouveau”, among other things, but the authors suggest otherwise. They trace the history of events and the influences that led Henry Vaughan Lanchester (HVL) who was granted the commission, to design and conceptualize this “Hindu-temple-mountain palace”.
Panoramic view: (left) The Rotunda under construction; the finished structure as it stands today.
Unlike his counterpart Edwin Lutyens (who through “diplomacy, charm and subtle conniving” earned the commission for the government/Viceroy’s House—now Rashtrapati Bhavan—from under HVL’s nose) HVL’s “personal convictions would not let European classical elements intrude on Indian cultural traditions”. And given the Jodhpur royal family’s history with the Mughals, there was no way Indo-Saracenic architecture would be adopted.
HVL, who had travelled through India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and South-East Asia as the appointed honourable director of civic surveys in 1915, was exposed to the temple-mountain palace form and it is possible that when he was invited for discussions with Maharaja Umaid Singh, images of “the monumental facades of the Shaivaite temple-mountain palace” in the city of Angkor, in Cambodia, flashed through his mind. The authors are not clear about how much of the Shaivaite tradition, as well as the importance of No. 9, was understood by HVL though both concepts have been incorporated in the architecture of the palace.
Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhawan Palace: The Maharaja of Palaces: By Aman Nath, text by Fred R. Holmes & Ann Newton Holmes, photographs by Amit Pasricha, India Book House, 172 pages, Rs2,500.
The book dwells not just on the history of the building but also tells us why this palace was conceived; how the structure evolved; how the decorative motifs were adapted in Art Deco style; and touches upon the lives of the royal family of Jodhpur.
For those fascinated by Indian royalty, the book is worth collecting. Anecdotes and trivia about the family and its history fill the pages: The maharaja paying an advance of £2,600 (around Rs2, now) to HVL’s firm when the deal was done; photographs of the floor plans and the construction site; and a painting of the maharaja laying the foundation stone (which now lies beneath the swimming pool).
Ten gatefolds open up to showcase larger photographs with intricate details, which add to the beauty of the book, although it would have been great if one of them had been used to juxtapose images of the Angkor Wat with the Umaid Bhawan.