Of Mystical Spaces and Hidden Treasures


The art of photography is less about the things we see, and more about ‘how’ we see them. As a photographer, I have a voracious appetite to ‘see more’. At sixteen, on getting my first Nikon, I began to experience the excitement of seeing through a lens. My camera, and the hunger of seeing more than just what meets the eye, soon became a defining factor.

At Neemrana’s 19thcentury Tijara Fort-Palace, everywhere I looked, every nook and corner was steeped in history and beauty. From sunrise to sunset, the play of light on the heritage architecture kept me captivated and on my feet. While others rested after sumptuous feasts at the Kaanch Mahal, I was on my walks with my camera seeking out a good view. I discovered that Tijara offered more than just historical artefacts - the hidden treasures were in fact, the carefully curated spaces that allowed me to soak in quiet moments of simple beauty and solitude.

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During the day, the sunlight created dramatic effects on the grand doorways. Perfectly scalloped arches began to glow with a golden hue. The Chilmans - fine bamboo screens filtered natural light to hesitantly reveal the elegant living areas of the Rani Mahal, while giant stone-carved pillars boasted of unparalleled strength. In the central courtyard, beautifully painted wooden horse-heads in subtle colours caught my attention – as if silently standing guard to the queen’s private quarters. Right outside the first-floor suites, I noticed a solitary pigeon perched atop an antique Jharokha-styled window with an intricately carved Kalgi motif - a jewel traditionally worn on royal turbans. The bird’s soft cooing and warm pastel shades of the pink and yellow stone exuded a sense of peace and calm. My gaze fell upon the art-deco-ish palace wall, delicate floral-designs on the plaster were slowly disintegrating, as though fighting to survive the test of time. At the end of a passage, was a charming corner with a pair of colonial-style relaxing chairs, with translucent light reflecting through a latticed archway. Perfect for a balmy afternoon snooze.


At sunset, I walked long corridors within the Hawa Mahal with a strong breeze on my face and marvelled at the engineering genius of how natural winds kept ancient buildings cool in hot summers. Simultaneously, mellow rays of the sun washed the bare walls, creating an ambient light in the spaces within. Climbing all the way to the top floor, I saw an impressive piece of architecture - a large, open, yet covered sit-out surrounded by a gallery of double arches on four sides. The setting sun played hide and seek with the pillars and striking shadows cast upon the textured and weathered stone floor were simply mesmerizing!

The highlight of my visit was undoubtedly the evening high tea served atop this elevated palace of winds. I sipped my chilled iced tea and saw in the distance - a magnificent, panoramic view of the lush green countryside and an unusually grand oasis with palm trees at the foothills below. Leisurely, I sauntered towards Pataal Kund - the vast aquamarine waters of the sunken swimming pool were a soothing balm for sore eyes. With multiple sun decks and shaded spaces, this pool area promised to be a relaxing and rejuvenating space during all seasons

As dusk fell, the deep blue skies in stark contrast to the warm yellows and browns of the stone structures, set a theatrical landscape - lending a mystical ambience to the fort-palace. Magically, each of the Mahals seemed to come alive with rows of lights carefully adorning the palace outlines. I walked up the stone pathway to the southern end of the hill towards Mardana Mahal. Named after the male living quarters, it was built around a sprawling, central courtyard garden, surrounded by arcade halls, typical of traditional Rajput-Afghan homes. Easily the most attractive outdoor space in the complex, the colossal double pillars in stone and rows of cusped arches with high drawn-back drapes in shades of blue, are an ode to the grandeur and magnificence of a bygone era.

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Fatigue was creeping in but I was craving for more. As I trekked my way down from the hilltop, a bird’s eye view of the queen’s palace emerged. Like the Kohinoor - the most precious jewel in the queen’s crown, the luminous Rani Mahal stood resplendent in the night, dazzling against the midnight blue sky. The tiny village lights in the distance flickered, seemingly paying homage to this grand beauty. Overwhelmed by this breath-taking sight, I centered myself to capture this delightful moment before retiring to my grand turret-suite, the Vishakha Mahal - one of many rooms aesthetically designed by India's leading painters and designers.

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Early next morning, the soft, cool breeze of the monsoons greeted me as I began my Surya Namaskar on an extended balcony of the Rani Mahal. I had understood this was a special vantage point with a wondrous view of the fort, where many blissful couples performed their Jai Mala marriage ceremony under the shower of rose petals! As a history aficionado, my mission for the day was to engage in the folklore of the heritage fort and I found an enthusiastic story teller in Kailash - a staff member who escorted me to the best scenic points on the property and patiently waited while I was behind the lens.

As legend goes, Tijara finds mention in the epic Ramayana, when an exemplary son Shravan Kumar carried his blind, aging parents on his shoulders through this land, to fulfil their desire of a pilgrimage. After a few thousand years in 1835, another devoted son - Maharaja Balwant Singh began construction of this hilltop fort-palace, not for his beloved as was the norm, but in honour of his Sati mother Maharani Moosi Rani.

A benevolent and charismatic king, he was popular among his subjects and passionate about the arts and nature. His love for poetry, horses and elephants was particularly well known. He brought in skilled craftsmen and master architects from Kabul and Mughal Delhi to design and build his dream project. Massive arches were carved, gigantic stone pillars were hauled uphill by elephants and the fort’s sprawling design took centre-stage. Unfortunately, ten years later the king died mysteriously, rumours even screamed murder, leaving his beautiful dream unfinished. On his death, the tale goes, his favourite elephant and pet parrot refused to eat and died in mourning.

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The 200-year-old incomplete fortress, tucked away in the heart of the Aravallis in Alwar, Rajasthan was lying abandoned and in ruins until it came to the attention of Aman Nath and Francis Wacziarg of the Neemrana Group. Like the Maharaja of Tijara, they too had a majestic vision. Meticulously, they rewove the designs of antiquity and lovingly recreated history through the fine art of cultural and architectural restoration. By bringing concepts like conservation, sustainability and restoration-for-reuse to the forefront, they not only revived the heritage-hotel industry but also showcased many hidden treasures in India that lie in ruins and are long forgotten. I had first met Aman and Francis in 1991 at Neemrana when they opened the heritage ‘non-hotel’ hotel. Serendipitously, after exactly 30 years, I met Aman Nath again last month on my weekend sojourn at Tijara and fondly recalled our last association when I had photographed Neemrana for the first time.

Over centuries and across the world, it was royal tradition to create a long-lasting legacy. Kings and queens commanded the construction of magnificent temples and buildings that would reflect their valour, passion and glory in perpetuity. That tradition is still being kept alive today by these new age visionaries. Tijara Fort-Palace had certainly satiated my discerning eye for ‘seeing more’ with its elegant simplicity and laidback charm. Being a visual story-teller, I succumbed to my imagination and found myself swept away in this ageless time-capsule, where the lines between Raja Balwant Singh, Aman Nath and the princely state of Alwar began to blur.

Driving back, I turned around to see a fading view of the imposing hilltop fort against the rural landscape. Rajasthan’s famous ballad ‘Kesariya Balama, Padhaaro Mhare Des’, that welcomes travellers to their heartland, echoed in my ears. The Rajputana magic had once again cast its spell. Finally, I rested my eyes, holding onto the many mystical and intangible moments I had experienced at this treasure trove called Tijara.

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Hansa Piparsania, Gurgaon, India
hpiparsa@gmail.com
@hansapiparsaniaphotography
 

An independent writer-photographer and art curator, Hansa is deeply interested in art, culture and design. An avid traveller, she has explored and lived in many countries. With a dual Master’s degree in Business Administration (IMI Delhi) and Social Media Communications (Sophia Mumbai), her time in JWT Advertising, FM Radio Oman, marketing (Madras Craft Foundation) and media, ran parallelly with her passion for research and photography. Hansa’s creative contributions have featured in many travel journals whereas her work with National Museums in Bangkok and Manila, spearheading the annual Lecture Series, gave her the forum to make insightful presentations on Indian art, culture and history. Through her camera lens, she observes life with a unique perspective and above all, lives with the mantra of being constantly ‘mindful’. Hansa is currently based in Gurgaon  curating art shows with her artist mother.