A Maharaja's Marvels: Inside Gwalior's Opulent Jai Vilas

The Jai Vilas Palace Museum in Gwalior showcases the extravagant life of the Scindia royal family through their collection of art, furniture, and everyday objects
The front facade of the Jai Vilas Palace Museum, Gwalior
The front facade of the Jai Vilas Palace Museum, GwaliorShutterstock

I walk into a gargantuan entrance hall with a huge red chandelier of Belgian glass hanging above us, a staircase bedecked with ornate twisted crystal bannisters, huge portraits of royals on the walls, and stuffed tigers in glass cases. It feels like a set in a period film. There are four hundred rooms, 35 halls, and 12 courtyards.

I am at the gargantuan Jai Vilas Palace in Gwalior, the flamboyant ancestral home of the Scindias, built in sandstone and with white-washed exteriors. Although the Scindia family still uses it as their residence, a part of it, with 35 rooms, was converted into the Jiyaji Rao Scindia Museum in 1964.

Inside the Jai Vilas Palace MuseumJai Vilas Palace Museum
Inside the Jai Vilas Palace MuseumJai Vilas Palace MuseumShutterstock

The museum is packed with eclectic objects that give you a glimpse into the history and life of the Scindias, who ruled over Gwalior from 1731 until 1947. Being great patrons of art, they collected exquisite objects from different parts of the world.

The 19th-century palace Jai Vilas Mahal was designed by British Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Michael Filose for Maharaj Jayaji Rao Scindia in 1874, at a cost of 1 crore at that time. The palace was inspired by many architectural styles, from Italian Renaissance to Corinthian, with Baroque and Rococo elements. Lord Napier inaugurated the palace, which was also built to welcome Prince George and Princess Mary of Wales, who visited India in 1876.

Our guide, Muhammad Hussain Rizvi, says that the palace has witnessed many historical events. It was here that the first session of the All India Congress was held in 1925, under Sarojini Naidu. The palace has also hosted distinguished guests down the ages—from Queen Elizabeth II to the Shah of Iran and the King of Nepal.

The grand interiors of the Jai Vilas Palace Museum
The grand interiors of the Jai Vilas Palace MuseumShutterstock

We walk through a maze of magnificent rooms, from a billiards room with two large billiards tables done up in shades of green, where the maharajah informally entertained his guests, to staterooms furnished with the best of furnishings and rooms that showcase the different uniforms of those times.

Room inside the palace
Room inside the palaceShutterstock

Carved walnut wood furniture is found in the bedrooms of queens, bar tables fashioned like temples, and elaborately carved armoires and heavy tables in the Dutch Malabar style.

Fountain in the courtyard of the palace
Fountain in the courtyard of the palaceShutterstock

Rizvi shows us a fully functioning crystal fountain that dates back to 1843. It is made of 291 crystal pieces and was made by the English company Osler & Co, which was famous for its glass products and still stands tall in a courtyard.

The palace showcases extraordinary and bizarre treasures of the Scindias, such as an Italian glass cradle used for Krishna on the occasion of Janmashtami, a silver train with cut glass wagons carrying post-dinner brandy and cigars served to guests as it ran on miniature rails on the Banquet Hall table and swords once used by Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb.

One section showcases clubs used as dumbbells, made of ivory and decorated with gold leaf, that the ladies of the royal family used for weightlifting. An old, vintage radio is built into the headboard of a huge bed in the royal bedroom. The English-style nursery room where the royal children grew up is filled with toys and a crib that was probably imported from Europe in those days.

The dining hall inside the palace
The dining hall inside the palaceShutterstock

We see another Indian-style dining room in bright red and orange, with floor seating, low tables, and cushions used when the Maratha nobles were invited. The small and dainty furniture was specially crafted because Maharani Chinku Raje Scindia was short at 4" 3. She was said to be a fashionista and wore corset blouses, chiffon sarees, and Swarovski-stitched shoes. An indoor swimming pool was built for the ladies of the house.

I am awed by the extravagant riches in the jewellery room, which displays jewellery, ornaments, and gems worn by the royal family.

The ceiling with the chandeliers inside the palace
The ceiling with the chandeliers inside the palaceShutterstock

On the first floor is the Durbar Hall, which is in the throes of restoration. According to the website of Jai Mahal Palace, it has a ceiling gilded with 560 kg of gold and decorated with two crystal chandeliers weighing three and a half tonnes each and 250 light bulbs each.

Rizvi tells us that eight elephants were suspended from the hall's ceiling to check if it could support the weight of these two chandeliers! On the ground is a special carpet woven by the prisoners of the Gwalior Fort, which took them 12 years to weave.

My favourite is the transport section, which includes a silver buggy, palanquins, and vintage luxury cars. There are also beautifully painted and decorated elephant howdahs that once adorned elephants' backs.

There is also the silver chariot that used to be driven by 16 horses and decorated with divine designs like winged horses. Maharaja Madhav Rao I commissioned it in 1924 for a procession held in memory of his beloved mother. Rizvi says it is still used in royal weddings and Festivals like Dussehra.

The textile Gallery showcases royal clothing like Angarkhas, antique saris and turbans. The Maharajas of Gwalior patronised the iconic Chanderi weaving. We see the Marathas famous Shinde Shahi page, which uses 60 metres (200 ft) of Chanderi silk with pointed ends. A video describes the intricate steps involved in wrapping the special turban!

This is a journey back in time, from the desk of Madhavrao Scindia, who served as the Railway Minister of India, to the original shield of Jhansi Ki Rani and an ornate Mughal palanquin that was gifted by Mughal emperor Shah Alam II to the king for reinstating him on the throne in 1787.

The museum is a time capsule of the royalty of the past, filled with objects that give you a glimpse of their excesses and over-the-top lifestyle.

The Information

Timings: The museum operates from Tuesday to Sunday, welcoming visitors between 10 AM and 6 PM while remaining closed on Mondays.

Ticket: INR 300 (Indians) and INR 850 (foreigners).

Address: Jai Vilas Palace, Lashkar, Gwalior 474009

A Short 2-Day Gwalior Itinerary

Day 1: Start your day with the majestic Gwalior Fort. Explore the sprawling complex encompassing Man Singh Palace, the intricately carved Sas Bahu Temples, and the breathtaking views from the top. In the evening, catch the sound and light show at the Man Singh Palace, showcasing the fort's glorious history.

Day 2: On day 2, visit the Jai Vilas Palace, an opulent European-inspired marvel. Take a tour of its extravagant chambers adorned with gold and crystal chandeliers. In the afternoon, head to the fascinating Gujari Mahal Museum, which showcases archaeological finds and sculptures. Conclude your trip with shopping for souvenirs at the lively Sarafa Bazaar.

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