The ancient city of Datia located at a little distance from Gwalior is considered to be one of the most sacred kshetras of India. This historical city is mentioned as Daityavakra in the Mahabharat and is titled as Laghu Vrindavan (Little Vrindavan) for its numerous Shree Krishna Temples. It is also home to the Shri Peetambara Peetha, one of the most famous temples dedicated to Baglamukhi Devi.
Besides, the ancient history and spiritual importance that draws people to this place, Datia has many interesting structures built by Raja Bir Singh Deo (also pronounced as Vir Singh Deo), the ruler of Orchha State. Now, the story is that Akbar had captured Orchha from the then sitting king Madhukar Shah and made it a tributary state. The growing rift with his son Jahangir (Prince Salim) who blamed the Vizier (Wazir) Abul Fazl of poisoning Akbar’s mind against him would set in motion events that would define the history of India.
Jahangir felt that Abul Fazl stood between him and the throne and decided to seek help from Raja Bir Singh Deo who was favourable towards him. Abul Fazl was supposed to pass through Datia and took up the hospitality offered by Raja Bir Singh Deo. However, things turned unpleasant quickly and Raja Bir Singh beheaded Abul Fazl and sent his head to Jahangir. Tormented and anguished over the death of his confidante, Akbar sent an army to capture Raja Bir Singh who joined hands with Jahangir officially and quelled the challenge.
Jahangir and Raja Bir Singh had their share of anxious moments after their outrageous act when Jahangir was imprisoned by his own general and was rescued by one of Raja Bir Singh’s sons. Jahangir finally ascended the throne and made Raja Bir Singh Deo, the ruler of Orchha State.
To cement their friendship, Raja Bir Singh Deo built the opulent Datia Palace (known by many names – Govind Mahal, Govind Mandir, Purana Mahal, Jahangir Mahal, Satkhanda Palace and Bir Singh Palace) in the prevalent Mughal and Rajput style of architecture. The construction of this palace began in 1614 and was completed in 1623.
This palace sits atop the Datia hillock overlooking the Lala ka Talab. The palace has seven storeys of which two are underground, has more than 440 rooms and several courtyards. The palace is built entirely of brick and stone without any support of wood and iron which makes this construction all the more incredible as it has stood the test of time and the ravages of the weather. It appears that the reason for its strength is the use of a mixture of lentils, jaggery and oil as mortar.
The palace has a three-layered space with the palace tower in the centre, ring of halls in the middle and a fortified outer layer. The building in plan is designed in the form of the sacrosanct swastika often called to as char bagh or mandala though the maze of passages and courtyards would make it difficult for one to decipher its actual design and layout. The idyllic setting for this impressive structure is a visual treat.
The entrance gate has intricate paintings and carvings on its sides with a beautiful painting of Lord Ganesha in the middle flanked by horses and elephants. There are painted creepers and flowers typical of the style of art and painting seen in Madhya Pradesh (perhaps Bundeli Kalam) on the gate. The entrance gate has balconies over it on each floor level with the latticework on the last floor.
The caretaker is most helpful and takes you through the dimly lit lower storeys which doesn’t have much sunlight. There is a network of passages and stairways in all directions typical of buildings of such grandeur. The third floor has a stunning painted balcony with a bird’s-eye view of the town. The walls and ceilings are remarkably well preserved probably because of very less visitors and lack of sunlight.
The richly decorated Rasamandala ceiling has colourful flowers and petals and dancers dressed in the traditional garments depicting the folk dance of Rai placed in a circle around a huge white flower in colours of carmine, ochre, white and black. It would appear that this balcony might have been where the celebratory events and festivities would have taken place.
The sprawling courtyard gives you a glimpse of the towering five storeyed structure. This imposing structure has one of the largest chhatris seen in Bundelkhand. There are three levels of rooms seen from the perimeter of the courtyard connected to the inner palace by narrow bridges. Narrow flight of steps hidden in the walls leads you to the fourth floor which has chhatris (domed pavilions) in all the directions.
Another narrow flight of steps leads you to the fifth floor which has a large room perhaps a banquet hall. All the passages leading to the central tower are adorned with carvings and murals. The arched openings, brackets and domes are the features of Mughal architecture while the vibrant Bundela paintings and the stone latticework are excellent examples of the Rajputana architecture.
This palace is one of the fifty-two that Raja Bir Singh Deo built during his time which is often called as the zenith of the Bundela style of architecture. Strangely though, no one from the illustrious family has ever lived here! The splendour of this palace has to be seen and experienced to be understood.
Though an unsavoury incident led to its construction, this palace is undisputedly a magnificent example of the architectural ingenuity of the Bundelas. It is indeed unfortunate though that this spectacular structure is overshadowed by the glory of the monuments at nearby Orchha. Datia is a marvellous city that can be developed into a heritage treasure trove but has sadly been relegated to obscurity.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)