The rectangular lake ripples with the kiss of the breeze, a harbinger of the coming rainstorm. Water cascades into the air, suspended for brief moments like jewel drops catching the sun before descending in coruscating decadence upon the marble floor. The colorless sky darkens into deep rolling clouds. A distant peal sounds: is it a refrain or the heavens calling? A withered leaf drops into the lake and reels like a lost ship. It ruffles the smooth liquid and the scene vanishes, a mirage from the past. The once sparkling colored waters of Deeg Palace, outside Jaipur, have dried up to a murky trickle. The fountains only run on special occasions and the sound of thunder is rarely heard. The desert has reclaimed this royal residence for its own. The romance of its former days has disappeared. My taxi driver recommended Deeg as a quaint water palace worthy of my time, but walking its courtyards all I see of its plutocracy are its silent muddied rivulets.
“The filigreed walls and geometric gardens hide no tales of ancient skill and patience.”
Here, stone and water create a pale imitation of lyrical beauty. Among the cluster of cozy intricately worked shelters delicately arranged, I cannot even find my own story. Usually, wherever I travel things happen, good or bad or funny—it is the nature of travel and one of the reasons I love experiencing new places—that stimulate an idea or provide a lesson. Deeg has silenced all the stories.
I try to picture the pavilions draped in coral and amber silk curtains, the quadrangles filled with the music of sitars and tablas, the fountains gurgling high into the open air. Nothing comes to mind except, “They came, they built, they died.” The phrase repeats itself over and over in my head even while I overhear a too-eager guide proclaim to his three guests the engineering marvel behind the tanks that used to siphon water into the now rusting jets. Much of my time seeing northern India is spent hearing about the greatness that was once. Once the fabulous Mughals built mind-boggling palaces in the midst of the desert. Once this land was fecund and replete with poetry. Once the smell of perfumed flowers and decadent spices filled the lives of all (so saith the guide). But I cannot find the stories that matter to me today, though I know they are buried somewhere under the piles of rubbish, the cacophony of cars and cows, and the tumbled residue of architecture so achingly beguiling it makes me believe in the magic of humanity.
I deftly evade the prattling docent as he brings his entourage around to the Bhadon Pavilion. I walk alongside the far edge of one of the many canals bordering this complex so I can still hear him talk about how the Jat maharajas had powdered dyes of blue, red, green, and yellow mixed into the water vats so that when the liquid gushed up into the air it generated a rainbow spectacle. The Jats were clearly enamored with the monsoon season in India, and living in the aridity of Deeg, who could blame them? The rainy months of July and August were catnip to them and they reminisced about its mystique by incorporating founts, ponds, and even the sound of thunder into their summer residence. As the erudite guide continues to explain how the roof of the Keshav arcade produced thunderclaps using water pressure and metal balls, I ponder about the stories the eighteenth century Deeg courtiers told each other.
“There were surely tales of power and perseverance; stories of love and jealousy; narratives about their mythical ancestors.”
Grandiose sagas that interwove valuable questions and moral dilemmas still relevant to the Jat rulers. A mere whisper of that past exists in Deeg today, and this shell of a story, no matter how epic in nature, can only offer me a single skein. Without the entire knotted tapestry to observe, reminiscing over one unraveled thread is futile.
Standing underneath the remains of a picturesque swing support, I wonder: What is there to say about this tragic wreckage of history and its relationship to myself? What is there to say at Deeg about my complex relationship with India? This court belongs staunchly in the past, to a world whose nostalgic grip shackles my imagination. I, who love history in all its forms, discover that history with no meaning has no purpose. My wish to relive stories of yesteryear, to succumb to the whim of bygone glamor hampers my ability to learn and mature if those stories have no inherent value. This palatial specter from antiquity can mesmerize me with its exoticism, but it is a broken and unusable skeleton. What happens to me if I cannot learn anything from the past, if I am unable to glean treasure from the empty pavilions at Deeg? Do I fail to become the immersive traveler I seek to be if all I return home with are a few snapshots and the remnants of a dusty afternoon spent perambulating an abandoned summer palace?
I return my gaze to the channel of water that flows, or rather no longer flows, through the royal complex. During the height of this short-lived dynasty, Deeg must have been a breath-taking ode to the allure of water: its edifices designed to cascade streams onto the reflecting pools, its reservoirs weaving in and out of the open terraces, its piazzas decorated with misting sprays. Water was what linked each separate residence into one cohesive poem and a precious commodity, ferociously guarded and extravagantly displayed within the confines of durbar walls.
“Water shows both the diversity of this land and its enduring commonality with other cultures.”
In India water holds a convoluted status: the mighty rivers that flow through the country are held sacred yet exhausted of their purity by sullied quotidian chores. A varied landscape ensures that while some march for days to obtain scarce drinking water others live in fear of destruction by floods. Water tells the unabridged tale of India.
However, the waters at Deeg tell only a partial story: of what once was. Their obscure depths hide the lessons that could be learned from these ancient ruins. We are the custodians of history; if we fail to care for the places of the past then we never hear their full message. Landmarks like Deeg require safekeeping and dexterous hands willing to display the layered quondam narratives. Without preservation, without guardianship the splendor of scientific artistry and the merits of craftsmanship dies. Knowledge which can shape our present evanesces. Under thoughtful stewardship, Deeg may have much to tell about the dexterity of its engineers, the passions of its hydrophilic rulers, or the magic of its endurance. In its current state this place invites only pity and mild curiosity about its scintillating potential. For the few of us that visit these quaint summer lodgings the waters of Deeg run deep and silent, a reflection of the decaying bhavans. The dove cooing landscape at Deeg only evokes a sense of saudade.
“The truth lies under the motionless ponds and parched fountains, waiting to be exposed.”
Who will stir up the waters at Deeg? When will they splash and spritz and gurgle again from every chute and urn, bursting forth in melody? How long will it be until these hollow walls get to share their many histories?
The monsoons not only inspired Deeg’s architecture, they influenced divine musical compositions and elaborate dances paying homage to the life-giving property of the torrential rains. These ragas (songs) and kathaks (traditional folk dances) describe the beauty of swarthy skies and the promise of returning to lost loves under glowering downpours. The 15th century poet Kavi Surdas wrote a raga called “Sur Malhar” about the rapture of an impending storm.
Has a historic landmark revealed stories for you? Do you enjoy ancient sites or do you prefer more modern places?