G. S. Aujla says concerted efforts are needed to restore the town’s palaces of yore that are in ruins
THE erstwhile princely state of Kapurthala which at one time could boast of one of the most beautiful edifices in North India, today has little to showcase when one visits some of the sites associated with the royalty. Among the many crumbling structures that speak of a neglected heritage are Nawab Jassa Singh’s haveli; the Kamra Palace, also known as Gole Kothi; and Nihal Palace in the heart of the old town of Kapurthala.
Nawab Jassa Singh’s haveli was presumably constructed in the latter half of the 18th century. Nawab Jassa Singh was the chief of Ahluwalia Misl and was known for his gallantry. He did yeoman service in the reconstruction of the Golden Temple after it was blown up with gunpowder by Ahmad Shah Abdali. He captured Kapurthala from Rai Ibrahim Bhatti in 1771 and resided there from 1779 up to his death in 1783, although he breathed his last in Amritsar. Known as Sultan-ul-Qaum, he — in the words of Lepel H Griffin — "did more than any other chief to consolidate the Sikh power which after his death grew more and more disorganised until the strong hands of Maharaja Ranjit Singh again forced it into cohesion".
It speaks for the secularism of Nawab Jassa Singh that the main gates of his haveli bore two frescoes — one of Lord Ganesha and the other of Guru Nanak with his companions Bala and Mardana in attendance. Though the surviving facade still has these propitious frescoes in a damaged form, only a few feet above cow-dung cakes have been plastered on the wall — showing scant regard to the prized building.
A portion of this building, which housed the local Girls Higher Secondary School till the 1960s, fell victim to apathy in the last four decades. With reinforcement on the sides and the rear of this historic structure, the facade can still be preserved. The frescoes too should be restored.
The Kamra Palace was constructed in 1833 by Maharaja Fateh Singh, who was present at the signing of the Treaty of Amritsar with Maharaja Ranjit Singh on April 25, 1809. Although the Lahore Maharaja professed outward love and affection for the Raja of Kapurthala, yet it is known to history that Raja Fateh Singh had to walk a tightrope between the stringent demands of the British Government and the aggrandising zeal of the Lahore Durbar.
When Raja Fateh Singh died in October 1837, he left behind the beautiful Kamra Palace for his son Raja Nihal Singh. Raja Nihal Singh helped the Lahore forces against the British in the First Anglo-Sikh War for which he had to pay a heavy price. Raja Nihal Singh’s son Raja Randhir Singh, who was born in 1831, lived in this mansion and occasionally at Nihal Palace till his death in 1870 while he was on way to England by sea. The Kamra Palace is an excellent blend of western and oriental architecture. The arched verandahs, concentric glass windows, Roman columns adorning the outer facade of the palace and Venetian parapets on the staircase leading up to the plinth all added up to make it an architectural wonder.
The palace, once surrounded by beautiful gardens, was the residence of five generations of Kapurthala royalty: Mahajara Fateh Singh, Nihal Singh, Randhir Singh, Kharak Singh and Jagatjit Singh. Maharaja Jagatjit Singh stayed in the palace from 1879 to 1890 before he moved to Villa Buona Vista (1896) and subsequently to his new French-style Palace (1906), which too has fallen prey to neglect.
The Kamra Palace, which became the ‘Indian guest house’ after Maharaja Jagatjit Singh shifted into the new palace, was later used as the residence of Civil Surgeon till the 1960s. It was abandoned after it was perceived to be unsafe and was allowed to collapse in parts. Although the main hall of the former palace supported by strong iron girders is still intact, the outer semi-circular rooms have partially turned into debris.
Having lived in the Kamra Palace for a few years, Raja Nihal Singh built another ornate palace for himself called the Nihal Palace in 1840. The fa`E7ade of the Nihal Palace still exists as a lone wall hiding behind it massive debris. The fine wood and masonry work on this building showcases the excellent work of craftsmen in the early 19th century. The fa`E7ade of Nihal Palace can still be preserved in whichever form it has survived till date.
Apart from these three palatial buildings of the erstwhile royalty, there are a number of stately mansions in neglect. One such structure is that of the Military Headquarters of the erstwhile princely state which looks like a European castle. It is currently guarded by the Punjab Home Guards and due to paucity of funds, the edifice is in danger of giving way unless some restoration work is undertaken.
Under the guidance of the present scion of the royal family Brig Sukhjit Singh, INTACH has recently undertaken restoration of Maharaja Jagatjit Singh’s Palace (1906), the Moorish Mosque (1930) and a few other buildings, but a more comprehensive plan is required to restore and preserve the rich heritage of Kapurthala.