Dr Vibhuti Sachdev Discusses The Journey Behind Jal Mahal Restoration
At the foot of Nahargarh hills, the Jal Mahal has made a phoenix return, albeit raised from pollution instead of ashes, into the ever-expanding portfolio of Jaipur heritage. Under the flagship of the state government and the KGK group, the journey started back in the early 2000s. With multiple stakeholders on board, the project was not just to restore the palace but also the Mansagar Lake, once an oasis of migratory birds and a school of fishes.
Behind the restored glory is also a team of experts whose dialogue and discussions helped shape the journey of the Jal Mahal. Among these leading experts, Dr Vibhuti Sachdev, author of Building Jaipur and the newly appointed Dean of Architecture at GITAM (Deemed to be) University, Visakhapatnam, talks about behind the scenes of the restoration process, the rooftop garden as a performance space, and a new meaning of responsible tourism built upon emotional bonds.
The Jal Mahal restoration has been in the pipeline for some time. When did you enter the picture, and what did it look like, back then?
I was teaching at the University of Sussex when I got involved with the project. At that time, I was doing my PhD in Vastu Vidhya. My thesis also led me to write a book on Jaipur. At this point, when I was approached for the role of consultant conservation designer, I jumped at the opportunity of working on the Jal Mahal. This is because I had already researched a lot about Jaipur's architecture and the knowledge systems that had allowed it to exist. This was an opportunity for me to put to practice what I had studied.
In 2004, I moved to India and began working on this project. Back then, Mansagar Lake was being used as a dumping ground for city sewage. On the other hand, many channels from the Nahargarh hills were obstructed and ignored. So, a lake that was designed to replenish itself in monsoons would fail the cycle. When we first started out, we waded through a lot of rubbish. But regardless, we had a vision that one day, it would see itself renewed. This is because I had worked on Jaipur&rsquos history, and imagining its former glory was not difficult for me.
As architects, we are trained to imagine how spaces and buildings will look after the restoration. We were a fantastic team of multidisciplinary experts excited about the restoration. On the other hand, we were also blessed with a very enlightened client who valued our expertise rather than questioning it.
I read about an exciting feature on Jal Mahal's rooftop garden. Can you share details about the same?
While designing the rooftop garden, we kept it in alignment with the rest of Jal Mahal's design. Studying the original, we found that it has a Char Bagh concept, with four walkways leading to a central platform. It was conceptualized as a Chameli Bagh, which still exists post-restoration.
Additionally, we introduced 18th-century ideas of waterways of fountains. The Tibaris around the platform were also restored. Thematized around Raj Tibari, the Tibaris had motifs around the city palace and Badal Mahal.
In terms of lighting, we got an Australian artist who did very subtle lighting for us. The choice of subtle lightning comes from the fact that old buildings are fragile, so you cannot subject them to harsh lighting as any other building.
Once all of this was installed, we envisioned people sitting in the Tibaris, enjoying dance and musical performances. During harsh weather such as sun and excessive rain, we would have the option to cover it with a beautiful canopy. Accordingly, we put a lot of meaningful research into the design. It included drawing clues from the documented past, whether it is from paintings or written descriptions. For example, we used 18th-century paintings to recreate the boats, one with a Peacock head and an elephant head, to lead one to the Jal Mahal.
The original Jal Mahal had fascinating traditional materials such as jaggery and methi powder. Did the renovation effort apply similar resources for restoration?
Jaggery and methi powder are standard ingredients of Araish work, the fresco work used by artisans even today. There are a lot of traditional methods and methodologies that still survive in India. Fortunately, we can tap into those very easily, and that's what we did. During restoration, we decided we should use this restoration platform to revive traditional methods and techniques. During the design process, we were particular about aligning the restoration with the history of the building. When I was working with craftsmen, we resolved the design through conversations since Vastu Vidya is a codified system.
Can you share the details about the art within the palace What was the thought process behind it?
I worked extensively around the art inside the pavilion. The paintings are aligned according to themes. For example, on the first floor, the garden theme is central. We also did the Krishna Rasleela theme on the roof and the central motif of Jal Mahal. The craftsmen and painters were carefully guided around the work, but they were also given a free hand to respond to a contemporary art context, which made the whole project thrilling.
Lastly, the painted exhibition on the first floor has a reliable design. It requires an almost negligible amount of maintenance. It does not require any special air conditioning either. This happens when one is cognizant of the water architecture. While using the same, one has to understand how water behaves and how it responds to the architecture around it.
Post-restoration, what is the thought behind public access? How can we make sure that responsible tourism is practised?
As I mentioned earlier, we designed the palace in such a way that it doesn't have to be air-conditioned. As long as the building is in use, it will survive. As a matter of fact, it is the locked buildings that deteriorate the most. Accordingly, it is essential for the building to be in use.
An invitation to visit the building will allow the local people to build a bond with the place. There are architectural communities, local families and their children that can experience the Jal Mahal and keep the past alive. Once they would develop an emotional bond with the palace, they would become sensitive towards its well-being.