Hanging marvels

Dhananjaya Bhat

The huge Jai Vilas Palace at Gwalior—with an area of 3,000 square metres ( nearly 75 acres of floor space)—was built within a period of three years in the 1870s and is a grand edifice. Today, 60 years after Indian Independence and 36 years after the maharajahs vanished from the Indian scene, this huge palace stays as a remembrance of the bygone era.

It was exclusively built to ensure a grand welcome at Gwalior to the British monarch Edward VII (the then Prince of Wales) in 1875. Sir Michael Filose (known as Mukhel Sahib), one of the great Sardars of the Gwalior maharajah, was asked to make a tour of the West and build it.

He went to all major cities of Europe and came back and built this huge mansion with a garden of over 400 acres. The palace included 200 rooms that incorporated a mix of European style of architecture embellished with Italian marble floors, ornamental gold ceilings, Persian carpets and antiques from the capitals of various Europeon countries.

But its most important decoration is a pair of custom-made Viennese chandeliers lit with 750 lamps, each chandelier 40 feet high and weighing 3.5 tonnes—then the largest in the world. The late Maharani Vijayraje Scindia, the wife of the sixth Scindia, has given a description of the chandelier in her autobiography, as follows: "Mukhel Saheb (Sir Michael Filose) Sahib saw to it that most of the other things in his palace matched the durbar hall in scale and splendour, and nowhere else is his propensity for the grandiloquent more in evidence than in the crystal chandeliers he ordered for the durbar hall from Vienna. The two main ones which are very nearly a pair are said to be the largest ever made, with the possible exception of the one which hangs in the Czar’s winter palace outside Moscow.’’

The story is told that when the time came for him to hang these chandeliers with their combined weight of nearly seven tonnes from the ceiling of the hall, engineering experts feared that the roof might collapse. Mukhel Sahib rose to the occasion and carried out a practical demonstration to test the strength of his roof. He constructed a broad wooden ramp from the ground level to the top of the roof, and coaxed a dozen elephants up the ramp and on to the roof. These elephants who, between them, weighed at least twice as much as the chandeliers, were made to go round and round the top of the roof for several days. If it could sustain that sort of pounding, Mukhel Sahib argued, it would surely hold the weight of his Viennese chandeliers. It did , and still does.

The larger of the chandeliers holds 248 lamps, and when they and the pedestal and wall lamps are lit, according to one writer, their effect is like stepping into a "petrified waterfall’ with icy blue and gold of the room and the lights reproduced infinitely on the wall mirrors strategically placed on the opposite walls.’’

Today the Durbar Hall is the most important part of the Jai Vilas Palace Museum, and foreign tourists scarcely believe that these 3.5 tonne chandeliers made 130 years ago are still the second largest chandeliers in the world. Museologists say that there are two chandeliers larger than these in the world, each weighing 4.5 tonnes. One is at the famous Hermitage Museum at St.Petersburg (Russia) and the other at the Dohlabace Museum in Istanbul. — MF