Karauli City Palace – Oldest City Palace in Rajasthan
Seven centuries ago, in 1348, a brave warrior king came to the forested, verdant valley through which the Bhadrawati flows. He was part of a lineage that had ruled for centuries over this region but had been exiled two hundred years ago after losing the ancient fort of Timangarh. However, this brave scion of an illustrious lineage tracing descent from Lord Krishna had returned, with a small army, determined to win back his ancestral kingdom and had already conquered forts in the region.
While hunting, he came to the river Bhadrawati where he beheld a tiger and a lamb drinking water from the river, side-by-side without bloodlust on the tiger’s part or fear on the lamb’s. Later on the same expedition, he also saw a cow defend its calf so valiantly against a hungry tiger that the tiger itself beat a hasty retreat. With these auspicious omens, symbolizing both tolerance and courage, he laid the foundations of the oldest city palace in Rajasthan, one of the famous Rajasthan ancient palaces and forts, the Karauli city palace in 1348 AD.
Successive rulers each added their wings and own architectural flourishes and exquisite miniature, making this ancient palace in Rajasthan such a fascinating historical record of aesthetics ranging from the early Medieval to Mughal and British architecture. It is truly Among the Top 10 Beautiful Places to Visit in Rajasthan and Top Most Beautiful Palaces in Rajasthan, thanks to the unprecedented extent of Rajasthani miniature paintings and murals covering almost every inch of this unique ancient palace in Rajasthan.
Chief among tourist attractions in Rajasthan, a visit to the state or a tour of the Golden triangle is incomplete without a visit to the Karauli City Palace. Today, the palace is a unique museum and is a must-visit for understanding the history of Rajasthan and medieval Indian history. The palace stands tall amidst an imposing citadel, surrounded by impenetrable fort walls built by Maharaja Gopal Singh ji of Karauli in the 1700s. As you enter the citadel, you walk through the old city, along quaint shops selling lacquer work bangles and handicrafts and beautifully carved temple facades, making this area the top tourist attraction in Karauli. Further in, you see vast stone cages, cages that once served as homes for the pet tigers of the Maharajas of Karauli, a truly unique feature amongst Rajasthan’s ancient forts and palaces. Then, walking through the nagara dwar, that once held huge ceremonial drums, you are faced with the vastness of this ancient palace of Rajasthan, which is even older than the Jaipur city palace and the Udaipur city palace, with the looming grandeur of the carved stone gates and Medieval cannons that lead to the famed Madan Mohan ji temple on one side, and one the other side the exquisitely painted gates of the Tripoliya dwar that is completely covered in exquisitely rendered miniatures of Radha-Krishna, a nod to the ruler’s descent from the great-grandson of Lord Krishna. A lineage and a history that places this palace among the Top 10 places to visit in Rajasthan.
As you walk through the exquisitely painted gates of the Tripoliya Dwar, you step into the immense courtyard that served as the Diwan-e-aam or the public court where the Karauli State subjects brought their issues administrative and legal issues to be adjudicated by the Maharaja. The courtyard faces the Diwan e Khaas where the nobles and Maharaja were seated and is painted. An elaborate frieze of tromp e loil windows, detailed with shutters and railings dating from about the 18th century, is a special feature that makes this palace unique amongst Rajasthan’s beautiful ancient palaces and forts, even among later palaces like the Jaipur city palace and the Udaipur City Palace.
The rooms jutting out just above on the right features an intricately carved jaali or lattice, which served to caste kaleidoscopic patterns on the upper floors when the light filtered through. The lower portion of the left wall prominently features a painting of Lord Ganesha, with his consorts Riddhi and Siddhi, who represent prosperity and spiritual enlightenment, respectively. Lord Ganesha is a highly promising choice for this particular area as he blesses beginnings and removes obstacles from the path of good work.
The upper portion depicts an officer probably from the East India Company doffing his hat before the seated Maharaja. The painting above uses a common motif in Indian art, that of the dwarpals or gatekeepers, but in a hybrid Indo-European Style known as the company school of art. The dwarpals are clad in British style uniforms. The Company School of art blended Rajput and Mughal art with Western motifs instead of the earlier gulkari and miniature paintings that adorn the rest of this ancient palace in Rajasthan. The layering of the later Company style over the early Medieval stone fortress and the late Medieval/Mughal era parish is truly unique, making this palace at the pinnacle of Top ten beautiful places to visit Rajasthan. In the center, is a square pool, with a carved decorative pavilion jutting just above it. This played a large role during Holi celebrations where the Maharaja could interact with the people in a more informal and personal setting. The beauty of this space is one of the many reasons why the Karauli city palace is one of India’s most beautiful ancient palaces.
From here, one enters the Darbar Hall, which has often been described as one of the most spectacular courts of any ancient palace in India. Its vast expanse is covered in fine gulkari or floral motifs on aaraish. Enormous gilded mirrors surround the durbar, with painted doors that hid the mirrors when the durbar was not in session. The Darbar Hall is one of the most photographed spots in Rajasthan’s royal palaces and regularly features as one of India’s most-visit beautiful places.
On either side of the upper levels of the durbar, carved lattices are the only indication of the zenana balconies, where the ladies of the royal family could watch court proceedings without being seen. However, when one climbs the staircase into those little rooms themselves, one is faced with one of the unique paintings seen anywhere; the entire floor is carpeted with painted aaraish. These painted jewel-boxes certainly made a befitting background for equally bejeweled wives of the Maharaja and their attendants as they gossiped over court scandals among themselves or eschewed the drier affairs of state for playing chaupad or Parcheesi on the exquisite little board painted onto the floor. A startlingly beautiful glimpse into the royal lifestyle and Rajput architecture.
The oldest paintings of flowers and vases are very interesting in that they depict exquisitely fine outlines of different forts and palaces of Karauli within the vases. In addition, the hereditary artists or chapters often claimed to have visions and visitations from the gods in their dreams in which the gods displayed the divine images that they wished to be shown to the world through these paintings. A descendant of these chateras continues to work at the palace, though he now participates in the restoration process.
The later paintings, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, display the influence of the Company school of art with larger murals depicting soldiers in the uniform of the British-Indian army, carrying muskets, and a unique mural of a railway train. The sheer extent and variety of paintings at the Karauli city palace make it one of the most beautiful places in India and one of the prime examples of Rajput art and architecture.
One of the most remarkable features of the palace is the underground sauna or bathhouse. An intricately painted corridor, with a frieze of grapevines covering the ceiling, leads one to an underground room with a two-level bath. Hot water was pumped by a complex mechanism into the lower level of the bath and rose to heat the larger pool. An underground sauna is one of the most inimitable highlights of the Karauli city palace, placing it high up in the topmost beautiful places in India.
Also, part of the Karauli city palace complex is an area dedicated to the favorite sport of the rulers of Karauli, wrestling. The royal akhada or wrestling arena was not only where the royals themselves indulged in wrestling; it was also a temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman. The paintings here feature pahalwans displaying varying aspects of wrestling and a portrait of Maharaja Gopal Singh ji. The painted akhada is a highlight for anyone exploring the most beautiful places in Rajasthan and wanting to know more about traditional Rajput architecture.
Today the palace is subject to careful cleaning and restoration of the priceless miniatures covering its vast expanse. The restoration process is highly acclaimed for its rigorous focus on authenticity, preservation, and conservation of the original paintings instead of wholesale repainting to ensure that the centuries-old miniatures that make this palace an art-lovers dream. The restoration process is part of the museum experience for visitors looking for an experiential look at traditional artwork and how it was created and preserved over centuries. The restoration process is one of the very few in India that is open to visitors to explore and has made the Karauli city palace one of India’s top 10 palace museums.
Even as you walk within through the looming, vividly hued halls, and bewildering maze of staircases and narrow corridors of the Karauli City palace, you get a sense of what it was in its heyday, in the not very distant past when retainers, on various shifts went about their duties, and thousands of tinted glass chandeliers gleamed and shimmered against the smooth gloss of the painted aaraish-, of one of the most incredible examples of Rajput architecture in Rajasthan.