Pick up any list of monsoon getaways and you have the usual suspects — Agumbe, Coorg, Munnar, Goa, and the eternal sibling rivalry of Cherrapunjee-Mawsynram for the coveted title of the wettest place in India. Centuries before these tourism clichés, rulers in India had dedicated considerable efforts to the enjoyment of the rainy season.
Jahaz Mahal, Mandu
Perhaps, the most stunning example is Jahaz Mahal in Mandu. Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din Khilji ruled this central Indian Sultanate in the 15th century for 31 years. A pleasure-seeker who enjoyed music and the company of beautiful, intelligent and skilled women, the sultan maintained a harem of 15,000 women! For their luxurious stay, he built a stunning lakeside pleasure palace. Nearly 120 m long and as big as a modest luxury liner, the double-storeyed structure occupied a narrow strip of land between Munj Talao and Kapur Talao. During rains, when the ponds were full, it created the illusion of a palace floating on water. Hence its name, Jahaz Mahal or ‘Ship Palace.’
The monument was not merely an architectural gimmick; it was a true celebration of water. Jahaz Mahal was oriented north-south to catch the breeze blowing over the lakes, which cooled the building. Rainwater was collected in a vast complex of tanks — the cavernous Andheri Baori (Dark Well) inside the palace kept the water cool while the open-air Ujala Baori (Illuminated Well) stored potable water. The rainwater run-off from the terrace was channelled through flowery curlicues that slowed down its flow and helped settle the sediments before emptying into the lotus-shaped Kamal Kund. Another bathing tank was shaped like a tortoise! Mandu is a delight in the rains when the countryside is lush and the monsoonal drama is at its peak at Baz Bahadur’s Palace where the cliffside Roopmati’s Pavilion is magically enveloped in mist.
There’s yet another Jahaz Mahal in Delhi, next to Hauz-i-Shamsi in Mehrauli, which was excavated to harvest rainwater at a spot revealed to Sultan Iltutmish in a dream by Prophet Muhammad. The palace was built during the Lodi period (1451–1526) as a pleasure resort and serai (inn), and its reflection in the reservoir made it seem like a ship on a lake. The magical venue is a stopover during the annual Sair-i-Gulfaroshan, better known as Phool Walon Ki Sair (procession of florists) in October.
Straddling the border of hilly Mewar and the plains of Marwar, Kumbhalgarh Fort in Rajasthan was built by Rana Kumbha and fortified by successive rulers. At its highest point, Rana Fateh Singh (1885-1930 AD) built the spectacular Badal Mahal or ‘The Palace of Clouds’, named after the low-hanging monsoon clouds that caressed the domes. In the rains, the rugged Aravallis transform into a carpet of blinding green as the lofty palace serves as the perfect vantage to see the world’s longest fort wall after The Great Wall of China.
Lake Palace, Udaipur
In 1559, while in exile at Kumbhalgarh, Maharana Udai Singh II decided to create a new capital more secure than Chittorgarh. And thus, Udaipur or the ‘City of Lakes’ was born. The beauty is heightened in the monsoon when rainwater fills the interconnected lakes in and around the city — Fateh Sagar, Lake Pichola, Swaroop Sagar, Rangsagar and Doodh Talai. Little wonder that British administrator and chronicler Lt Col James Tod described Udaipur as “the most romantic spot on the continent of India.”
Set in the middle of Lake Pichola, the Lake Palace shimmers like a jewelled brooch. Built between 1743 and 1746 by Maharana Jagat Singh II as a winter palace called Jag Niwas, it was later used as a summer resort and a dramatic venue for royal durbars.
The pleasure palace doubled up as the residence of the lead character Octopussy in the 1983 James Bond film of the same name. Another stunning palace, Sajjangarh, served as the residence of the movie’s villain, the exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan.
Made out of white marble on Bansdara peak of the Aravallis, Sajjangarh was named after Maharana Sajjan Singh, who built it in 1884. Perched at 3,100 ft overlooking Lake Pichola, the palace was originally meant to be a nine-storey astronomical centre to keep track of the movement of monsoon clouds, hence its popular name ‘Monsoon Palace’. However, after the king’s untimely demise, an abridged version was completed by Maharana Fateh Singh with subsequent rulers using it as a hunting lodge. The highlight is a unique water harvesting system to store rainwater in an underground cistern with a capacity of 195,500 litres!
Chhatra Sagar, Pali
Nowhere was the need to harvest the monsoon rains felt as much as the desert region of Marwar. In the late 19th century, Thakur Chhatra Singh of Nimaj decided to dam a seasonal stream flowing through his principality. The ambitious project was completed in 1890 and converted the barren land into a prime agricultural tract. The Thakur invited farmers to settle around the reservoir, which was named Chhatra Sagar in his memory. By early 20th century, the dry scrub had transformed into a lush oasis that hosted luxury tented camps for visiting dignitaries and sporting parties with high tea and exotic dinners. Even today, Thakur Chhatra Singh’s descendants have kept construction to a minimum with luxury camps gracing the embankment, best enjoyed when the dam is brimming.
A cluster of palaces in Deeg
The Jat kings of Bharatpur went one step ahead; rather than wait for the rains, they sought to recreate the magic of monsoon at the peak of summer. In 1760, Maharaja Suraj Mal built a garden palace complex at Deeg, which became a leisure retreat after the capital was shifted to Bharatpur, 22 km away. With the advent of rains, the low-lying scrub attracted thousands of aquatic birds, leading to elaborate hunts. The Mughal-style garden with water features and fountains was fed by two large reservoirs: Rup Sagar and Gopal Sagar. Bullocks were used to draw water to the tanks through an elaborate system of pulleys. Gopal Bhavan, the largest and finest of the palaces, was flanked by the Sawan and Bhadon Pavilions, named after the monsoon months.
Overlooking Rup Sagar, the single-storeyed Keshav Bhawan is known as ‘Monsoon Pavilion’. Surrounded by fountains and minute water jets that mimicked sheets of rain, it recreated a monsoon-like ambience, no matter what the season. Hundreds of metal balls placed strategically on the water channels on the roof were set into motion with the water pressure, which resulted in claps of thunder! To add a dash of colour, little potlis (cloth bundles) of dyes were placed in water vents, creating rainbow-hued fountains. Huge blocks of ice were dunked into the swimming pool as pretty servant girls perched on floating ice-slabs passed treats to royalty lolling in the pool. And all you could think of was some chai and pakoda to enjoy the rains?