In the beginning (well, about three hundred years ago, because of the Indian climate and lots of foreign invasions) the Maharaja’s palace was an appealing confection of slightly rickety woodwork towers, placed bang on the street, with pretty balconies and latticework screens, from behind which princesses could enjoy the sights and smells of the city around them. (Where were the Maharajas, you ask? The more able sort spent most of their time traveling, either to wage battles or to see first-hand to the well-being of their subjects. Rather like modern CEOs who spend very little time in their corner office.)
These types of palaces were called “Rajwadas,” the word “wad” meaning a ruling clan.1 The bigger the palace, the greater the prestige of the ruler. Inside, however, the rooms weren’t much different from the rooms in a common home; there were just lots more of them. Still, it cost quite a bit to build these woodwork palaces, since their architects, an immigrant guild of highly specialised Moslem builders, liked to work with imported materials such as Burmese teak.
Later on, the interiors of the palaces became more ornate. At first, just the woodwork–the doors and the visible structural beams–were painted, but eventually the walls were too. Here is an example of one such wall painting–which includes a painted picture frame. If you look closely, you will notice that the subjects are European. They seem to be a bunch of soldiers enjoying a drunken revel. Could the artist himself have been eye witness to such a scene, or was he inspired by a European print that he could now purchase in the marketplace? The design of the palace interiors registered, however innocuously, creeping changes in the external environment.
As the Europeans got in tighter with the Maharajas, as the Maharajas let them have access to their little ones, to educate them and fill their heads with European ideas, the old styles of palaces just wouldn’t do anymore. They were too intimate, not imperial enough. But still, East and West sat together somewhat uneasily, with the young princes being told that they had to behave in the European way at some times and in the Indian way at others. It led to a rather schizophrenic existence, perfectly captured by the “mullet” palace of Makarpura.
East and West eventually arrived at a more harmonious co-existence, however, heralded by the Indo-Saracenic palace, a favourite of Maharajas throughout India, and the style that you’re mostly likely to encounter today. It was an invention of British architects, who combined elements from many cultures–Hindu, Islamic (“Saracenic” comes from “Saracens,” a medieval European term for Moslems) and European. The result was fantastical.
The Indo-Saracenic palace, unlike its predecessors, was placed apart from the city, surrounded by vast landscaped grounds that emphasised the distance between the ruler and the ruled. The Laxmi Vilas palace in Baroda/ Vadodara, for example, boasts two hundred and ninety-three thousand square feet of living space set amidst a seven hundred acre park. The cost of building these palaces was stratospheric, since not only the materials but also the workmen and designers were imported.
It’s interesting that this style became popular just as the Maharajas were being transitioned from real to symbolic heads of state. The more imposing the palace, the more impotent the ruler within. No wonder these palaces came to be identified in the popular imagination with sybaritic, oriental excess.