Deeg Palace – A Perfect Blend of Persian and Indian Aesthetics
Deeg is located 38 km west of Mathura and 40 km north-west of Bharatpur in Rajasthan. The fortress and pleasure palaces of Deeg are of major architectural importance, and combined with some wonderful gardens makes for a great day trip out of Agra.
Deeg can lay claim to great antiquity. The region is also known as ‘Braj Bhoomi’ (meaning ‘Land of Lord Krishna’) and Deeg is mentioned in Skanda Purana, the ancient Hindu scriptures, as ‘Dirgha’ or ‘Dirghapur’.
In more recent times it was Maharaja Badan Singh (d.1755) who began the development of Deeg as the capital for his newly founded Jat kingdom, and established a summer palace here. The palace was further developed by his son and successor, Maharaja Suraj Mal (b.1707 d.1763), who also established an adjoining fort here.
A short distance from Deeg is Kusum Sarovar, a beautiful location where Suraj Mal’s chhatri can be seen, this is well worth visiting if you have time.
Unfortunately I did not have time to explore the Deeg Fort, the splendid group of palaces consumed more of my time than I anticipated. They were an unexpected delight, enhanced by the wonderful gardens and the fact that very few people seem to know of Deeg or attempt to visit it.
The palace buildings lie along the edge of a central garden flanked by two large reservoirs; the Gopal Sagar and Rup Sagar. The main entrance is through the Singh Pol (or Lion Gate), which brings you into the palace complex at the north-western end. A short walk ahead takes you to the Gopal Bhavan.
Built in 1763, Gopal Bhavan is the largest and main palace in the complex, and is flanked by two small pavilions; Sawan (July) Bhavan and Bhadon (August) Bhavan, named after the months when the monsoon is at its strongest.
Visitors are allowed inside to explore the rooms, which are mostly furnished with items from more recent times, including a significant amount of colonial era furniture.
The interior was a little surprising in terms of how modernised it was, I subsequently came to learn that the palace was still lived in until the 1970s after which is was taken over by the ASI and preserved as a monument.
Behind this building is a small temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman. The idol is made up of reddish brown Jade and is south facing, in honor of the fighting capabilities of the deity shown during the war with Ravana in South of India.
Back in front of the Gopal Bhavan is a white marble frame, reputed to be Nur Jahan’s swing that was looted from the Red Fort in Delhi by Suraj Mal in 1754.
I have to confess the palace interior I didn’t find particularly inspiring, and even the building itself from the entrance didn’t seem particularly impressive. That all changes, however, when the Gopal Bhavan is viewed from behind – the elevation fronting the Gopal Sagar.
With Gopal Bhavan appearing to rise out of the water, it is this view that I first saw on the internet many months earlier and inspired me to come to Deeg Palace. In many respects this building would not look out of place at all in Venice.
To view the Gopal Bhavan from this angle you don’t actually have to be a paid visitor to the palace, the Gopal Sagar tank is accessible from the road that encircles the complex.
I was fortunate to find a gate on the south-west corner of the palace complex that seems to be usually locked, but on that day was open. So I was able to head out along the side of the tank to explore a little further.
Although I was here at midday so not the best light for capturing such images, it was a wonderful scene nonetheless. Towards sunset it must be utterly spectacular.
Next to the gate that provided access to the Gopal Sagar is the Suraj Bhavan, which was built by Maharaja Suraj Mal in 1760.
This is a single storeyed marble building with a flat roof, almost certainly inspired by similar early Mughal structures, in particular during the reign of Shah Jahan. It’s another highlight of Deeg palace for me, and a building that is potentially linked to a specific story from Suraj Mal’s lifetime.
When the Jats defeated the forces of Mughal king Ahmad Shah Bahadur and occupied Delhi’s Red Fort in 1754, there were reports that Suraj Mal’s men plundered the fort and carried away masses of valuables. Included in the list of items they took was an entire marble building, which was dismantled, numbered, and allegedly reconstructed here at Deeg.
The ASI noticeboard outside the building specifically mentions the curious mix of building material in terms of size and texture, and suggests that this may have been reconstructed from more than one original building.
The noticeboard makes no reference at all to the story of Suraj Mal relocating a building from the Red Fort in Delhi to Deeg Palace but, joining up the dots, the Suraj Bhavan could very well be that very building.
To his credit, Suraj Mal did not raze any structures to the ground, not even a single mosque. His Maratha allies even jeered him for it, but he always stood his ground. Suraj Mal even set an example by building a tomb and mosque for Shamsher Bahadur in Bharatpur, who succumbed to his injuries from the third battle Panipat in 1761 and died a few days later here at Deeg.
The Hardeo Bhavan lies immediately beyond the Suraj Bhavan, separated by a very pretty and well maintained garden courtyard with a central octagonal pool and fountains.
The ground floor has a projecting central hall which faces a row of double pillars.
One of the absolute highlights of Deeg Palace is not a building at all, but the gardens. Clearly inspired by similar Mughal gardens that can be seen in Delhi and Agra, the design follows a style known as Charbagh (meaning four gardens), with a layout based on a quadrilateral divided by walkways and flowing water channels (although the water is very rarely flowing here now, which is a great shame).
As the number of Charbagh gardens grew with their pleasing aesthetics, many Hindu kings adopted the concept while designing their own palaces and forts.
The garden is immaculately maintained and well planted with flowering plants, shrubs and trees – I’m struggling to recall a garden to parallel this anywhere in India. Much credit is due to the team of gardeners here, clearly it’s a labour of love, and what a shame that Deeg Palace isn’t more on the tourist radar for people to see and enjoy such a well presented monument.
Deeg Palace is well renowned for the huge number of fountains that have been deployed within the water channels. The ASI says there are 500, local guides will claim 2,000, some guide books have gone for somewhere in between (approx 900). Whatever the number, they are numerous, set at insanely short distances from one another and fed by an intricate network of clay pipes.
I would dearly love to see these fountains in active use, it would take the whole visiting experience to another level, but apparently this now only occurs on a handful of days each year.
The water channels, fountains and pools were fed by a huge reservoir capable of housing 600,000 gallons of water. This reservoir was in turn filled with water from the Gopal and Rup Sagar, the two tanks at opposite ends of the palace complex.
Cattle were used to transport the water from the tanks to the reservoir, a process that took almost 20 days to complete if the reservoir was completely filled from empty. Even today with an electric pump the process takes two days.
On special occasions the water flowing around this palace was also coloured. This was achieved by an ingenious design where sections of the water pipe could be accessed and cloth bags containing coloured vegetable dyes were inserted. As water subsequently flowed through them, the water would absorb the colours which in turn would then be visible in all the water features throughout the palace. Simply amazing !
Altered significantly by Balwant Singh (b.1820 d.1853), Kishan Bhavan now houses a museum of military related artifacts. Due to time constraints I did not go inside.
Also known as ‘Old Palace’, Purana Mahal was built by Maharaja Badan Singh and construction started in 1722. It is now used as government offices and is not open to the public.
This is a baradari, a single-storey garden pavillion facing the Rup Sagar to the east and the central garden to the west. From here you get great views across the Rup Sagar tank to Deeg Fort which stands on the opposing bank, and also the Sheesh Mahal (1725) with it’s curved Bengal inspired bangaldar dome.
This Bhavan originally had an elaborate device that could reproduce the monsoon effect. Stone balls were inserted in the ceiling which would be agitated by pressurised running water, producing a noise reminiscent of thunder. The water was then released through sprouts to fall like rain around the open hall. How amazing it would be if this system could be reintroduced for visitors.
This is a large hall raised on a terrace enclosed by an arcade of seven arches. The interior is well worth seeing, with some of the hall pillars covered with murals. Stylistically they are not unlike Rajasthani miniature paintings.
In many respects these are similar to what can be seen at Suraj Mal’s chattri at Kusum Sarovar, although at this latter location the variety of murals and the scenes they depict are far more diverse.
I should also mention the excellent restoration efforts by the ASI that occurred at Deeg Palace many years ago. I came across a website that shows a few before/after photographs, on visiting I had no idea how extensive this work had been. You can view those photographs here.
There can be no doubt that Deeg Palace is truly a wonder, and somewhere that deserves to be far more well known than it currently is. It is the perfect blend of both Persian and Indian aesthetics, and is the climax of architectural and landscaping ideas that originated more than a thousand years ago.
Deeg Palace is open every day from sunrise to sunset, except Fridays (closed all day).
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