Guys, don’t get scared if you hear a knock on your door in the middle of the night. Ghosts are common in heritage properties.” While the group of 11 that I’m travelling with chortle at our guide’s poker face proclamation, I can only let out a nervous chuckle, as I observe the intimidating elegance of the official resort of Vijay Vilas Palace in Mandvi, Kutch. We’d left our residence in Dhordo that morning after attending the Rann Utsav 2020. The magnificent White Rann at sunset, unbelievable handmade-crafts on display and a colourful performance by local artists ensured a happy end to the first 24 hours of our three-day journey. By the time we made it to Vijay Vilas Palace Resort, its imperial facade was bathed in the glow of a soft,
The resort appears to be your everyday opulent property. But the mystery of the night adds to the drama of its regal grounds. With this thought in mind, I half-run, half-walk to bolt my villa door (not that it would keep out my imagined ghosts of the 1920s palace).
Vijay Vilas Palace
The next morning, after a night of ghost-free sleep, I trot off to the Vijay Vilas Palace, a hotspot for many film shootings—including Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Lagaan. Shadowing a guide, I learn that it was built in 1929 in Rajput style with red sandstone, a central dome with jharokas and stained-glass windows, during the reign of Maharao Shri Khengarji III. Khengarji III is said to have commissioned the palace as a summer resort for his heir—Maharao Vijayrajji (1885-1948), father of the current ruler, Maharao Pragmalji III. Vijayrajji was so attached to the palace that he broke royal tradition and demanded that his cenotaph be set up by the palace and its private beach in Mandvi, instead of Bhuj—the final resting place of other Kutchi rulers.
I can see why, as I cross trophies from royal hunts, shatterproof-Belgian glass windows and walls filled with royal family portraits. Grandeur is etched in every corner. As I walk through a door to climb a spiral staircase to the open-terraces, I notice an insignia engraved at the centre. “It represents courage and confidence—the motto of Kutch,” the guide tells me proudly. Once upstairs, I feel like I’ve travelled back in time. Intricately marbled pillars and open galleries—with a panoramic view of Mandvi, the Vijay Vilas Palace is a treat for the senses.
A 90-minute drive later, we find ourselves walking towards the iconic Darbar Gadh, a palace complex built in 1548 A.D., 38 years after the city of Bhuj was established. As we cross a massive spiked gateway, our guide reveals an astonishing fact: this gateway is only opened when someone in the royal family passes away, and the funeral procession emerges from within.
Our next stop is at Prag Mahal, erected during the reign of Maharao Pragmalji III in 1865. Under the patronage of British architect Henry Saint Clair Wikins, the palace was constructed in a neo-Gothic style, with pointed arches, vaulted ceilings and red sandstone brought from Andha Gaon in Kutch. The first room we visit is the king’s darbar, enrobed by a curious mix of British and Italian furnishings—a jumble of broken chandeliers, marble-stone angels and stained-glass windows. Prag Mahal’s characteristic feature is its 150-foot-tall clock tower—the top of which offers a breathtaking view of Bhuj. A chunk of the clock tower and a room, where a major scene in Lagaan was shot, broke apart during the deadly earthquake of 2001.
Before entering Aina Mahal, a newer palace adjacent to Prag Mahal, I gather some of the lores shrouding it. In the 18th century, a shipwrecked man named Ramsingh Malam was miraculously rescued from the shores of Dwarka by a Dutch ship. Malam was taken to Holland, where he learnt the art of mirror-making. Years later, he returned to India and his paths crossed with king Maharao Lakhpatji, who employed him for his work to be displayed at the Aina Mahal, a structure the monarch had built to resemble the court of Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah.
Entering the king’s darbar, the first thing that flashes through my mind is a scene from Mughal-E-Azam, or well, any cinematic depiction of royal courtesan performances. Multi-coloured fountains (still in use) flank both sides of the raja’s kursi and the room’s centre has a stage set up with instruments for musicians. Mirrors, courtroom chandeliers and painted window panes with detailed designs pass me by in a colourful blur as I walk through the palatial corridors—now a witness to its unrivalled art history.
Looking at the Royal Chhatardis (Royal Cenotaphs) of Bhuj is like turning back the pages of history. In this case, the cenotaphs are umbrella-shaped pavilions made of stone and crafted in a mix of Rajputana and Mughal architectural styles, which are erected over the remains of the royal monarch to commemorate his legacy. The Chhatardis of Bhuj are a 20-minute walk south-west of the Hamirsar Lake.
Made of red sandstone, the cenotaph of Maharao Lakhpatji looms in the distance, as I take in the sheer detail cut on stone in each structure—some figures wearing Kutchi clothing, holding instruments and weapons. The grandest, Lakhpatji’s cenotaph, was designed by his protégé, Ram Singh Malam. Polygonal in shape, it holds balconies, two galleries and two entrances. It even has a blue-painted ribbed dome with intricate carvings that hint at Turkish influence.
Stone sculptures of Lakhpatji’s 16 wives, who committed sati at his funeral pyre, run through the midst of his cenotaph, each woman’s name and story etched on the pillar behind them. By tradition, a monarch was cremated next to the cenotaph of the closest kin.
The earthquake damaged many of these cenotaphs. Thankfully, the chhatardis are now maintained by the Archeological Society of India, which has managed to restore some of the damaged portions. Standing on Lakhpatji’s cenotaph at sunset, I can’t help think that it’s no small feat that in the battle between man and nature, the skillful Kutchi craftsmen claimed final victory.
Sanjana Ray is that unwarranted tour guide people groan about on trips. When she isn't geeking out on travel and history, she can be found walking around the streets, crying for Bengali food. She is former Digital Writer at National Geographic Traveller India.