At first glance, Karauli appears to have been a serene pit stop for a marauding history – a whole town that marching armies forgot to raze or hoist to power. No tempestuous rises and tragic falls here. No terribly famous men either. Medieval Karauli, history’s sideshow, was silently ruled by a line of ordinary kings who believed they were descended from that hallowed cowherd, Lord Krishna. They were the Yadav clan of mercurial Rajputs, who refused to use ‘Singh’ as a surname. According to a chronicler, Karauli found ‘Singh’ a trifle insensitive to the affairs of the cow. The name that did seem appropriate was ‘Pal’, which implies ‘protector of cows’.
Karauli’s little story began in the 14th century, when one Arjun Pal founded the town. It was never a glorious empire, but at one point comprised considerable real estate. During the reign of Akbar, it was incorporated into the Mughal Empire. Later, it was subjugated by the Marathas and, in 1817, taken under British protection. Then something interesting happened in 1838. Karauli’s king, Harbaksha Pal, died without any progeny. A relative, Pratap Pal, was raised to the throne. At this juncture, the dead king’s queen suddenly declared that she was pregnant and, a few days later, circulated reports that she had given birth to a prince and the legitimate heir to the throne. The British promptly appointed a commission to enquire into the legitimacy of this child. It’s not clear how the Englishmen went about it, but the commission reported that the queen’s rumours were absolutely false. She was so ashamed at being found out that she left Karauli and settled in Bharatpur nearby.
In the annals of Karauli, such machinations were par for the course, though. If there is one thing that this erstwhile princely state might have been famous for, it is the curious inability of its incumbent kings to sire descendants. Remarkably, in the 19th century, at least seven consecutive rajas succeeded by adoption. However, Karauli achieved respectability with the British rulers in India during the events of 1857. For the support he gave the Englishmen during the insurgency, King Madan Pal got the salute of honour for the Raja of Karauli raised from 15 to 17 guns.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
In 1906, the Imperial Gazetteer of India recorded: “Viewed from some points whence the palace is seen to advantage, the town (of Karauli) has a striking appearance. It is surrounded by a wall of red sandstone, and is also protected on the north and east by a network of ravines. The streets are rather narrow and irregular, but since 1884 most of them have been flagged with local stone, and they can be easily cleansed as natural drainage is excellent. Indeed, Karauli is one of the cleanest towns in Rajputana.” Today, the walled city, with the bastioned fort looming large over the crumbling chhatris along the River Bhadrawati, evokes a prosperous past. But, much like many small North Indian towns, the increasing neglect of Karauli’s poorer areas points to contemporary reality. To move around within Karauli, there are autos. For places around Karauli, jeeps and Sumos can be hired for around â‚¹600-700 per day (extra for long hours) plus diesel costs.
The City Palace
Start off with the City Palace, which you’ll enter from the Ganesh Gate. Just ask for ‘Rawal’, as the palace is known locally. When I visited the palace the then caretaker-in-chief, Ram Swaroop Sharma personally welcomed me, escorted me, and replayed the past of Karauli for me: “...this is the pond where Holi was played while the ranis watched from up there. Here is the Moti Mahal where the dancing-and-singing programmes were organised – note how Darbar (the king) could keep an eye on the main entrance at the same time. Here is the portrait of Raja Gopal Das – Akbar made the trip to the Utgir Fort to implore him to lay the foundation stone of the Agra Fort...”.Arjun Pal founded the palace, along with the town, in the 14th century. However, little or nothing of the original can now be seen. What you do see is the structure erected by Raja Gopal Singh in the 18th century. He chose to adopt the Delhi style of architecture – the abundance of red sandstone in Karauli made this rendering easy. The more embellished additions came in the 19th century. White and off-white stones have been used very becomingly, painted upon with bright blues, reds, browns and oranges. From the terrace atop the palace, you can see the town laid out by the Bhadravati below, and the ravines and hills beyond. The labyrinthine pathways through the palace and the many stairways climbing up and down should afford you a happy half-day.
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The Diwan-i-Am, the hall where the king met the general public, has exquisite floral patterns in bright colours on the walls and ceiling, as well as painted wooden doors. The upper floor has jaali work on the walls, from behind which ranis could observe the goings-on below. The coloured glass jharokhas of the Rang Mahal, with their one-way visibility, made for beautiful purdahs. The mirrored walls and ceilings of the bedrooms must have been medieval kinkiness. Or perhaps this is where the kings retired for some self-reflection. Barah-dwari, the women’s dance hall, is lined with moustachioed portraits of the kings of yore.
In a royal move to avoid paying taxes, the palace was gifted to the Madan Mohan Temple Trust (the sole trustee of which was the Raja of Karauli) in the 1950s. After years of neglect and disfigurement, restoration work has been done on the palace.
Like all the kings in the world, the rulers of Karauli lived very well and distracted the harrowed masses from rightful revolt by keeping them engrossed in spectacles. Both the objectives, it appears, met in a primitive water cooling system. Servants drew up water from a well that was 180 ft deep and poured it down a drain which emptied into a tank on the third floor. The tank could hold 5,000 cubic ft of water with steel pipes running down two floors and coming out as thirty odd spouts in the central courtyard. Water erupted through these spouts as fountains. From another small overhead tank, water was carried by steel pipes to three cooled chambers. Each chamber was enclosed by khas walls and had four pillars, one in each corner. Water came out through spouts from the pillars and sprayed on the walls. Air was provided by the hand-driven fans fixed on the roof.
Shrines and Cenotaphs
The Madan Mohan Temple, adjacent to the palace, is a Vishnu temple. It is considered highly auspicious to visit the Govindji and Gopinath temples of Jaipur and the Madan Mohan Temple of Karauli on the same day. The idea is to attend the morning aarti in one city and the evening aarti in the other. Jaipur is about 31/2 hours drive away. Must have been a tour operator who started this fable.
The Kalyan Rai Temple, opposite the palace’s main gate, is at the site of an older temple after which Karauli is supposed to have got its name. The chhatri of Raja Gopal Singh, outside the Nadi Gate leading out of the palace to the river below, is stunningly adorned with frescoes. Unfortunately, it is a shamefully neglected relic, with both the cenotaph and riverside mired in filth.
WHERE TO STAY
Except for the Bhanwar Niwas Palace, the staying options are bleak. Bhanwar Niwas Palace (Tel: 07464-251469, Mob: 09929773744; Tariff: Rs 6,500-7,490) is named after Raja Bhanwar Pal who was among the more flamboyant rulers of Karauli. He gave the native tigers two choices: they could either be his pets or be his trophies. The raja was thus extensively painted and photographed with his tigers, both dead and alive. At Bhanwar Niwas, it is a pleasure to follow the example of the friendly staff and walk barefoot down the cool stone corridors. Always keeping you company will be the framed Rajput shikaris of old, posing with guns and game. In the chowk, there are some sculptures recovered from the Timangarh loot. Ask to see the ‘museum’, which is where they garage the old Buick and other aristocratic paraphernalia. The hotel offers folk dances and camel or horse rides. They also welcome you with a simple but graceful aarti and tika.
WHERE TO EAT
At the Bhanwar Niwas Palace, the chef is excellent and the service amiable. You can choose from the many Indian, Continental and Chinese dishes, which, if you wish, can also be served outdoors. At Hindaun Morh, there are some dhabas that offer reasonably good vegetarian dishes and superb besan-mixed rotis. Inside the walled city, Khana Khazana, near Ganesh Gate, is an okay non-vegetarian place. There are hardly any eating options outside Karauli town. If you run short of bottled water, there are some ‘English wine and beer’ shops. For those who would rather play it safe, they have Aristocrat whisky and McDowell’s rum. But for the connoisseur of adventurous spirits, there is Karauli’s favourite, Bullet Beer. Bhanwar Niwas is not very enthusiastic about serving alcohol.