Reviving a lake palace
Jal Mahal, located in the middle of Man Sagar Lake, Jaipur, which had been in a state of neglect for many years, has got a facelift. The fortunes of this once-splendid monument and the lake, which had become the cityís dumpyard, have been revived as it opens to the public soon, Perneet Singh writes from Jaipur

Restoration work under way at Man Sagar Lake
Restoration work under way at Man Sagar Lake Photos by the writer

It isnít possible to revive it ó this was the unanimous verdict of experts a few years back, who saw Man Sagar Lake, amid which the historic Jal Mahal stands, but today the lake and the majestic palace have regained their royal glory. This has been made possible due to a multi-crore face-lifting exercise which includes cleaning the lake, recreating the ecosystem and restoring the dilapidated monument.

Jaipur-based tourism infrastructure firm Jal Mahal Resorts Pvt. Ltd. has taken up this restoration work to create a fully integrated tourist destination, with the Jal Mahal and the Man Sagar Lake being the nodal points. The project, Jal Tarang, under the PPP mode, will come up on 432 acres of land, including the lake, which is spread across 310 acres. The company has taken up the project on a 99-year lease from the state government against a payment of Rs 2.52 crore per annum.
The journey of Jal Mahal ó from a dilapidated monument standing amid a dead lake to the one reverberating with sounds of water-birds flocking to a resurrected lake ó seems more interesting due to two reasons. First, the state government didnít allot any funds for the restoration of Man Sagar Lake and the company took it upon itself to restore it despite it not being a part of the project and second, the lake, which usually dried up during the summers, has been full of water for the past two years even when the city hasnít received normal rainfall.

Like Man Sagar Lake, Jal Mahal, too, was in a state of utter neglect when the company bagged the project. The company then roped in heritage restoration firm, Jain & Associates, to restore the architectural beauty of the monument. This firm was involved in the restoration work of Nagaur Fort and Meharangarh Fort.

Earlier, some government agency had done some work on the structure, most of which was quite shoddy. Cement had been used at a number of places, which was subsequently removed carefully, as the original work was intact at a few points underneath it.

A city museum will also come up within Jal Mahal, which will be designed and conceptualised by architect Vibhuti Sachdev and historian Giles Tillotson. According to Project Director Rajeev Lunkad, most of the palace has been restored and it would soon be open for public.

The landscaping is being done by leading consulting firm Belt Collins while the gardens are being designed by American landscape architect Mitch Crites.

Coming to the tourism destination part of the project, Lunkad says they will not use the lake and the monument for commercial purpose, though the entire tourism activity will revolve around these two. The commercial activities would be confined to just 100 acres.

Once the restoration work is over, the company plans to come up with an amphi-theatre for cultural activities against the backdrop of Jal Mahal, as well as an ethnic village on the lines of the famous Chokhi Dhani, craft markets, food courts, multi-cuisine restaurants, museum and promenade with Jal Mahal and Man Sagar in the backdrop.

Two hotels with a convention centre to handle 2,000 persons, a luxury resort and spa with a back-to-nature theme will also come up. When completed, it would probably be the only water front recreational spot with a dash of heritage in it.

Political row

Like any other big project, this project, too, had its share of controversies. The Opposition BJP attacked the state government over the issue in the recent Assembly session. The BJP MLAs alleged that the number of rooms, for the two seven-star hotels to be built there, had been increased from 200 to 435, while the area for lease itself had been increased. Questions were also raised about a portion of the Man Sagar Lake, which has allegedly been filed up with mud so as to grant more space to the developer. But Rajasthan Tourism Minister Bina Kak has assured that all work in the area will be in accordance with the provisions. "In fact the quality of water has improved since the work began. And whatever more is done will ensure that the heritage look of the city is preserved," she adds.

Noted environmentalist Harsh Vardhan, who holds annual birding fair at the lake, is all praise for the project. "In the past four-five years, the foul smell emanating from Man Sagar has gone and the BOD level, which was`A0very high earlier,`A0has come down`A0to 40 mg/litre. All this has been remarkably achieved through scienctific and traditional methods of cleaning water. It is a great achievement for India as a whole and an example across the globe," he adds. He says with pride that even Robert Oates, Director of The Thames River Restoration Trust, who attended the birding fair in February this year, complimented on the improved environment of the lake.

Greening glory

A nursery has been developed, which can house more than one lakh trees
A nursery has been developed, which can house more than one lakh trees

Jal Mahal Resorts Pvt. Ltd. also intends to go for a massive plantation drive in the 100-acre area meant for tourism activity. It recently bought 40 full-grown trees, which were axed on Delhi-Jaipur highway as part of road widening project, and transported them to its nursery for plantation. "The initiative to start a nursery, specially catering to transplanting large trees, began in 2006. Ever since itís been a sustained effort to buy trees facing the axe and transplant them at the nursery. Today, the nursery has grown to a total capacity of more than one-lakh trees. A large number of young trees are being nurtured among the large uprooted ones getting a fresh lease of life. When we got the Jal Tarang site we had just three eucalyptus trees. The 100-acre Jal Tarang project is envisaged as an oasis and when the project is near completion, we plan to directly transplant large full-grown trees to create an instant canopy of green," says Lunkad.

Besides a canopy of green by the lakeside, "the effort now is to also foray into aquatic vegetation and indigenous Aravalli plantation. We surveyed 35 to 40 nurseries and the Ranthambhore National Park. Surprisingly, "Rohida", the state tree, finds little attention in the landscape scenario of the state. We have now introduced the tree along the sedimentation basin. Apart from it, based on our survey, we are trying to introduce and focus on the stateís indigenous special," he added.

Operation clean-up

Water birds at the resurrected lake
Water birds at the resurrected lake

Restoring the ecosystem in the Man Sagar Lake wasnít easy. It had virtually turned into a dumping ground for the city waste. For the past couple of decades it was the site where the Pink Cityís two biggest drains ó Brahmpuri and Nagtalai ó were emptying their polluted water. There was hardly any vegetation left for the fish and other aquatic fauna to survive. The lake was stinking, making it impossible for tourists to even come closer to it, let alone clicking a photograph.

Project Director Rajeev Lunkad says, "We were to maintain the lake as a part of the project, but it was in such a bad shape that it was impossible to come anywhere near it due to the stench emanating out of it. Though restoration wasnít a part of the original project, we saw no logic in working on the resort until the lake is restored to its pristine glory as it would have been detrimental to commercial viability of the project."

The company then`A0set up a panel of experts comprising professors from IIT Powai. Experts from IIT Roorkee were also roped in for conducting a hydrology study. The work finally began with the dredging of the lakebed and creating a new channel to divert the two main sewerage-cum-storm-water drainages. De-silting was taken up at a large scale, which cost the firm Rs 7 crore. Around two million tonnes of silt was taken out and subsequently depth of another metre and a half was added to the lakebed across 310 acres. In the process, organic pollution was also removed.

The exercise was taken up following German expert Herald Kraftís suggestion that the lake should have certain amount of depth to survive. Kraft contended, "A shallow lake can survive in cold countries but in a state like Rajasthan, water in the shallow lake will become so hot that the life will cease to exist. Therefore, the deeper the lakebed is, higher the chance of it treating itself." A one-and-a-half-kilometre channel was created to divert the drains. A sedimentation basin was also created for treating the storm water before it gets into the lake.

Soon the result of water treatment was there for all to see. When the project was started, the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) level was more than 800 mg/litre as against permissible limit of 3 mg/litre. But post-restoration it came down to as low as at 30 mg/litre. "Our job didnít end here, as the lake was almost dead and the vegetation in had finished. We then thought of re-introducing vegetation back into the lake. We brought vegetation from eight to 10 lakes located in and around 200 km from this area. Some of the vegetation introduced would act as bird food later. That is how birding got integrated. A sedimentation basin was also created in such a way that there are at least threes levels for waders to stand and for deep divers to go in and for fishing.

Right next to the basin is a natural wetland with variable depths to allow different kinds of vegetation to come up. This will not only treat the water but will also serve as a natural habitat for birds. Now the lake has started offering very specific environment for specific bird varieties. We have also introduced fish in some numbers and will do more in future. Soon there will be a wide variety of fish and`A0whole spectrum of aquatic agitation and the ecosystem will become fully active," adds Lunkad. The company has spend Rs 15 crore on the restoration of Man Sagar Lake, which Lunkad dubs as a goodwill gesture by NR Kothari, chairman of KGK Group of companies. The group is the parent company of Jal Mahal Resorts.