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Vinai Vilas Mahal – Rajasthan
Immediately upon arriving I was greeted by not one, not two, but three waiting guides, eager to show me around. An empty parking strip backed right against the outer palace wall was shocking to see. Neighboring palaces are replete with concrete gardens full of tour buses sitting idly by as the massive groups of tourists wait in line to pass security or to purchase tickets. All one has to do in Alwar is show up, take their pick of tour guide, and within minutes you can be standing within the walls of the palace. Tourists who curiously venture to Rajasthan’s northeastern city of Alwar will be met by a sprawling splendorous City Palace. Vinai Vilas Mahal (as it is known locally) has certainly seen better days. It’s ramshackle appearance pails in comparison to the more widely visited palaces of Rajasthan. Yet, there is a perplexing amount of beauty to be seen if one can look past the street dogs lounging among bits of crumbling plaster exterior.
Unfortunately, I arrived on Friday; the only day of the week when the palace’s museum was closed. Housed on the upper floors, the museum holds a rich collection of rare Persian, Arabic, Urdu, and Sanskrit manuscripts as well as an array of Indian armory weapons and a copy of Mahabharata, painted by the artists of the Alwar School. Aside from the latter, these are items easily seen among more prominent attractions around the state.
The main courtyard of City Palace perfect for cricket matches
Construction of Alwar’s City Palace began under Raja Bhaktawar Singh, sometime in the 18th century. A blend of Rajput and Mughal architecture was used to create an imposing building nestled within the neighboring Aravali hills. First floor rooms stretching as far as the eye can see are now relegated to government offices. Dimly lit interiors are fueled by the unsightly collection of haphazard telephone and electrical wiring spanning the exterior walls. Classic scalloped doorway arches are blocked by peeling painted wood doors and the infamous over-sized Indian padlocks.
Vinai Vilas Mahal is enclosed around a large tank accessed by steps at the left end of the main facade only a few feet from the parking area. The overlooking terrace and adjacently located Moosi Maharani Chhatri are the real highlights here. Symmetrically placed chhatris, or dome-shaped pavilions, and ghats line the tank. Bright pea-green colored stagnant water inside the tank blindingly contrasts with the multi-hued exterior palace walls. Cooling winds whip through the hillside providing comfort under the sun’s rays. The far outer wall resembles a snapshot of Varanasi’s innumerable ghats, two stories of palace rooms standing tall above the steep steps leading gently into the water tank.
Also overlooking the tank is a marble and sandstone cenotaph (or memorial) named Moosi Maharani Chhatri. It is here that Bhaktawar Singh’s mistress, who immolated herself on his funeral pyre, is remembered. Steps lead up from the sandstone base to the ornate marble monument. Finely decorated marble arches hold up the dome decorated with a battle scene featuring elephants and horses. At the center of the floor, the former maharaja and his mistress are represented by two pairs of marble feet, strewn with flower petals. Locals know of a small circular hole nearby where water can be drawn to wash the marble feet as a pooja offering. Small ghee candles mixed with flower petals are leftover offerings from the numerous visitors.
Alwar’s pick-up guides lack the finesse of their busier and more experienced colleagues working with greater numbers of daily foot traffic. Harsh, difficult to understand, uninterested, and moving too fast, guide service at Vinai Vilas Mahal is best left unused. Guests are free to roam the property without interruption after passing the initial hard sell for a guide. Exiting offers to tour Alwar’s other attraction, BalaQila Fort, are numerous.
What was once one of Rajasthan’s larger and more impressive forts, Vinai Vilas Mahal has been left to deteriorate under the unforgiving Indian weather. A lack of funds, unsupportable tourism to the area or a yin yang combination of both could be partly to blame. Roads to the city are not in great condition making what should be a short drive from Delhi or Jaipur, a journey of several hours. Travelers with a keen interest in history, specifically the palaces of Rajasthan will definitely appreciate the beauty which remains of Alwar’s City Palace. Put aside the guide book images of perfection to find yourself immersed in dazzling architecture seen only at a handful of North India’s remaining fortresses.
Entry Fee: Free Museum: Rs 3 Open Daily except Friday 10-4:30