Neemrana, District Alwar 301 705, Rajasthan
for the Project:
|| Mr. Aman Nath and Mr. Francis Wacziarg
|| Mr. Aman Nath and Mr. Francis Wacziarg
|| local masons
|Architect, Designer, Consultant:
|| Mr. Aman Nath
The owners were their own clients! In 1977 Mr. Aman Nath and Mr. Francis Wacziarg discovered the grim palace ruins merging into the dusty Aravalli hills on a research tour while writing a book on the painted houses of Shekhavati in Rajasthan.The fort interested and intrigued them. The writers interested their friends Mr. OP Jain and Mrs. Lekha Poddar to together finally purchase the ruin in August 1986.
The restorers wanted to initiate the process of conservation/ restoration and bring it to a usable condition and to accomplish the following objectives :
- The ruin should be conserved/ restored using traditional materials where necessary as well as modern technologies and materials. Carried out with the help of local craftsmen alone this would lead to total revival of vernacular architecture.
- Restoration and re-use as heritage tourism property that could fund its upkeep and maintenance. It could also generate funds for other projects from its profits after it was finally
- Restore the hopelessly devastated and gigantic complex through minimum and reversible interventions.
- Human development in the immediate village by employment and training and the consequent spreading of prosperity.
The Fort has been restored with the practical aim of making its palaces liveable and the concept of 'active-conservation' as a means of sustained development necessitating efforts to adapt traditional spaces to contemporary uses and lifestyles.
Since the work was also undertaken to bring out a sense of pride amongst the people of Neemrana and value their own heritage as well as their own capabilities, the process of conservation/ restoration / construction adopted was very different from the conventional contractual relationships.
The mistri or the master craftsmen as well as his subordinates were employed by the owners from within and around the village. To convey this intangible restoration of dignity - almost physically into the micro Neemrana community psyche - which was further enlarged to include Rajasthan and then to India as a whole, Aman Nath quotes James Joyce in "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man". Continuing this work of restoring heritage he says I want 'to forge in the smithy of my soul, the uncreated conscience of my race'.
Restoration in Neemrana has been an ongoing process since 1986. It can be defined as more a labour of love and passion for preserving one's own cultural roots than a business venture.
" Restoration is the only way India's historic - cultural pride will continue to be updated for the generations still unborn."
….. Aman Nath
However, the estimated cost is more than 7 crores (US $ 15,21,739 at the present rate of conversion), spent over fifteen years by re-investing all earnings, not counting the unquantifiable time, passion as well as the innumerable contributions from the homes of the owners.
THE RECONSTRUCTION AND CONSERVATION PROGRAMME AND TIME FRAME FOR COMPLETION
Heritage sensitive crusaders Aman Nath and Francis Wacziarg along with OP Jain and Lekha Poddar took it upon themselves to raise the perishing fort from its final long sleep.
The process of restoration was initiated with the thought of having a peaceful retreat in a historic setting. Though the team had no drawings of the original palace, nor photographs or accurate documentation in any medium, the removal of debris revealed the foundations and outlined the possibilities in the masonry fabric. They carried out the first phase of restoration till 1990, which included the renovation of the façade in the Suraj Pol-Chand Pol area, the rampart gardens and Tulsi Chowk.
In 1991, as others opted out taking their gains of investing, Aman Nath and Francis Wacziarg continued. The second phase included the Holi Kund, the Aam-Khas (public area) and the Panch Mahal. Though the team had no drawings of the original palace, nor photographs or accurate documentation in any medium, the removal of debris revealed the foundations and outlined the possibilities in the masonry fabric.
There was no specific programme or time frame when the work started in 1986. The work started with the objective to make each room habitable corresponding to modern comfort standards. Each area required attention of varying degree.
Over 15 years the restoration programme comprised of
- Documentation - pre- purchase, inventory, photo documentation.
- Identification - of architectural styles of various zones, functions of various spaces, structural systems and causes of decay, etc.
- Decisions - immediate, urgent, necessary, desirable, and monitor - during the various phases of active restoration.
- Action - to prevent deterioration, preserve the existing state, consolidate the actual fabric, restore, reproduce the missing or decayed details, rehabilitate, reconstruct, update or add facilities, etc.
Prevention of the deterioration process was started by the removal of rubble. This was sorted out into stones, mud and building elements. The stones were reused to a large extent, while building elements were used as design references for replication and the understanding of the construction patterns. The rubble removal also cleared the drainage system. Clearing of plants and trees was done by local labour by hacking away the branches and then pouring acid on to the exposed roots and stems which were cleaving the walls and foundations by wedging into them.
Consolidation of the structure was essential to protect the complex from disintegrating and subsequent vandalism. Reconstruction was restored for the entire wing to the right of Chand Pol. The cause of the damage was identified as land settlement. The seepage of rainwater into the mud masonry had further aggravated it. Therefore the reconstruction was deemed necessary to support the front façade as well as the Tulsi Chowk court which lay just behind, the Jharokha Mahal and the Krishna Mahal. The site was carefully cleaned to build on the foundations of the rocks on the hill. Any soil settlement was carefully watched over a three month period. The cracks occurring at several places in the random rubble masonry executed in lime mortar were "stitched". The earlier mud masonry was replaced by surface masonry done in lime with the filler masonry in mud. The thickness of the walls, height and volume of the work thus saved a huge amount in the cost of lime mortar. The rooms below were further consolidated, whenever found necessary. The design aspect took into consideration the façade on the left side of the Chandra Pol and duplicated the same on the right to maintain symmetry. The broken protruding stone slabs and brackets identified the floor heights. The patchwork and repair of copings retarded the rate of decay. The daily maintenance also showed certain niches and openings that were not visible earlier. They were carefully cleared by using light, wooden hammers and their edges repaired with stained cement plaster. By providing a coping, care was taken to protect any water seeping into the mud masonry.
Restoration and rebuilding, however major, was essential to reclaim the glory of the palace. The earlier kalash (crown of the dome) on the mandi (vault dome system) which had been sold were replicated from stone and grouted on the top. The kanguras (crenellations) were repaired using cement mortar and small pieces of bricks, maintaining the form by cutting a wooden template from the intact existing kanguras. The jalis (stone screens) of Sheesh Mahal were replicated utilising the berla stone, quarried near Alwar, Rajasthan. Fortunately few jalis, though broken, were enough to suggest the design and patterns. Creative inspirations were also taken from the region corresponding to the preiod. Reproduction was necessary to replace broken arches, columns and brackets. The unskilled labour from Neemrana and skilled masons from neighbouring villages thus built the entire wing.
Regular cleaning and limewash ensured the preservation. The construction, entirely of stone, with fluted columns, low parapets, curvaceous brackets, bungree (foilated arches) and a rather bulky dome in masonry (its weight made light by filling it with earthern pitchers) was executed precisely to match the existing one. Similarly, half the brackets of Tulsi Chowk were missing due to the collapse of the entire wing. The existing brackets composed of seventeen pieces of slate each was replicated to complete the overhanging balcony above the foliated Chandra Pol. The Panch Mahal had only four floors intact. One of the major factors in making the project a success is the palace complex itself. It was self sustained as much of the material and construction techniques came from the ruins themselves. For example, the drainage system is well defined hence the laying of services simply followed it, making plumbing chutes and their maintenance easy.
"…the basic factor is to apply the principles of construction that have existed from time immemorial to the present day innovations in techniques and materials for arriving at better solutions. The catch is in the interpretation and application with integrity, sincerity and a perception that has more to do with sensitivity to tradition rather than just a schooling in architecture."
The concept of 'active conservation' as a means of sustained development necessitated efforts to change the traditional spaces to contemporary uses and lifestyles in a sensitive way. In an effort to maintain the palace life of an earlier era, each mahal was given an appropriate name, many of the old names were retained.
Today forty two rooms, each with a theme, comprises four dining areas, a multi-cusine restaurant, a conference room and several well placed terraces. It is generating revenue to sustain the process of rejuvination. Each wing or floor has a distict identity representative of the respective era. The modern traditions were given the old touch to merge the old with the new. Till date, this thematic effort shows in the new spaces that have been carved out. Nazara Mahal, used as a conference hall, has a classical Indian setting with niches and geometrical motifs on the walls and evoking the 17th century era. The antique wooden and carved beams complete the touch. The upper level rooms of Jait Mahal adorning the corners, as the masonry suggested, relate to the scale of the courtyard.
"… Restoration for a changed end use was not a traditional activity in India, but using indigeneous craft skills and materials with a modern sensibility as we had attempted while restoring Neemrana, brought contemporariness to a foresaken past. It almost woke up the dead from graveyards and put them to productive work".
…… Aman Nath
This fort-palace in ruins were once classified as "do not touch it with a barge pole". However, the inspiration and passion of Aman Nath and Francis Wacziarg over 15 years has resulted in a "million star hotel" as a guest commented looking at the stars above. Neemrana was the first to figure in the 'Small Luxury Hotels of the World' from India. It was sheer enthusiasm and an undiluted determination saw the project through. This is apparent now in the experience of staying at Neemrana Fort-Palace - a project which retains the Rajput sense of adventure environs of Neemrana Fort-Palace that saw the sucessful restoration of this project that reatins the Rajput sense of adventure, illusion and mysticism for the world to share.
THE CONTEXT AND HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Standing protectively over the little hamlet of Neemrana is the fortified palace that was once the third capital of the Chauhan dynasty. It was in 1464 AD, that Raja Rajdeo Singh, a resident of Rai Pithaura (capital of Prithviraj Chauhan III and the Chauhan dynasty who ruled from Ajmer and Delhi till 1192 AD), laid the foundation stone of this fort palace. He named it Neemrana after a local brave chieftain Nimola Meo.
The fort complex evolved over the years, through changes in architectural styles and the sociological needs of the period. The fort complex was beseiged many a time, and in the 1810s the British rulers annexed major portions of Neemrana to distribute the territories among to the friendly princes of Alwar, Jaipur, Patiala and Nabha. However, by 1868, Neemrana had regained its territorial rights.
The extent of the fort was planned to be protected by a fort and a watchtower - both situated on the two hills above. To safeguard its occupants from a land attack - a fortified wall was built, bits of which are visible on the western limit.
A fort constructed on the slope of a hill can be categorised as a pranter giri durg (plateau hill fort). The construction followed the topography of the site and thus presents a remarkable play of levels, courtyards and staircases. The constructed area of the palace covers 3 acres at 10 levels.
The entrance to the Fort-Palace was through the Suraj Pol (the Sun Gateway - which always facing East), access to which was steep and snaked to prevent any frontal running charge. The spatial allocation was to be dealt with by distributing the astabals (stables) and the ministers' and retainers' residences at the base of the hill. The main palace crowned the summit, giving a commanding view of the surrounding area. The entire complex evolved over five centuries as four structurally individual - but physically integrated masses split over ten
The royal guests entered the palace at the Tibari (three-arched reception / guard house), greeted by the sounds of the musicians playing from the Naubat Khana above. Located around the same level was a well- like a cavity used, some say, to store dynamite while others imagine it as a torture chamber where prisoners were suspended upside down and questioned. The third level was used for public activity with a temple in the proximity and a long khurra or ramp leading upto it. The entire floor was colonnaded and demarcated with arches of various styles. Chandra Mahal acted as the seat of power where court was held. The level above comprised of terraces , baags, chowks and other open spaces, it also showed the segration of the mardana (gents') and rawala (ladies' quarters). The Sileh Khana or the armoury was located on one side, with the Hawa Mahal, Gujarat Mahal and Sheesh Mahal complementing and enclosing the other sides of the tea terrace courtyard. Holi Kund, the venue for the holi festival, formed the core of the whole level, dividing the Aam Khas, the multi-purpose large court for formal-informal functions, from the Bhim Niwas forms the ground floor of the Panch Mahal, so named due to its five levels. Instead of numerous small mirrors clad on surfaces, like most Sheesh Mahals, this wooden crafted ceiling is mirror panelled. The palace temple of Asawari Mata lies in the oldest part of the palace, known as Jait Mahal.Though its numerous mahals and chowks are geometrical within themselves, their linkages are not. The primary reasons being the topography of the hills that dictated all construction or modifications.
Essentially a Rajput palace, built through periods of dominance by the Islamic Delhi Sultanate, Mughal and British rule, evolved as a conglomeration of various architectural styles. The last of the clan, Raja Rajendra Singh abandoned the fort in 1947 and shifted to Vijay Bagh (a colonial garden bungalow near the cenotaphs of his forefathers).
Located 122 km from Delhi on National Highway No. 8, this abandoned jewel underwent inefficient management and decline leading to a era a period of destruction, vandalism, and theft resulting in the walls being defaced, crenelations broken, excreta of bats, cattle dung heaped at various places. The need for capital by the royalty led to the next step of ruination, where the furniture, doors, and carpets and stone slab were put up for sale. The structure was severly damaged due to the removal of the stone slabs, iron girders and slates. Waterlogging on terraces with blocked drains and land settlement caused further structural disintegration.
ISSUES OF CONSERVATION / RESTORATION CONSIDERED AND JUSTIFICATIONS
The owners were in a possession of a building which had exceptional architectural qualities - 500 years of history, design, passion, material resources but faced with total lack of support from government sectors, professional expertise and public awareness.
It was a challenge to 'start from scratch' and to carry forward the philosophy of recycling wasted architecture through the years. The residual value of energy built into the old building in terms of time energy, in natural and human energy invested in materials, artisanship and kinetic energy of construction as well as the fossil fuel required has been adapted and brought back to active duty.
In these times the valid case for restoration is also economic. Can each generation afford to re-build the environment for every generation? With the doubling of construction costs, new construction is pricing itself out from many markets, making recycling not a sentimental activity but a necessity. By every accepted economic index, including increased tax revenues, increased business activity, etc recycling in architecture proves its astonishing viability.
Historical factors (monarchy, taxation structure) and scales of usage etc are unlikely to combine again to give us what was possible to create in the past - not at any cost. So what was created must not be lost at any cost.
India has thousands of 'unlisted' monuments that fall beyond the preview of National or State protection. These orphaned monuments need more attention since they need not just the talk of love but a sustained sustenance through funding and passion in order to be restored.
USE OF APPROPRIATE BUILDING AND ARTISAN TECHNIQUES / MATERIALS
The principal approach was to retain the integrity of material and construction systems with minimum and reversible interventions.
- Roofing systems- The traditional techniques have been identified from within the architectural fabric and reused during the restoration process. To name a few of the typical roofing systems which have been used in Neemrana - dhoole ki chhat (vaulted lime ceilings) stone slabs on gola or on wooden rafters, bangaldar (curved eaves), shallow dome on squinches, jack arches on steel girders.
- Plaster- Most of the wall finishes are ordinary lime plaster rendered in different shades of lime wash. However, arayish (highly polished white pastered) finish was evident in areas like Hawa Mahal and Chandra Mahal.
- Timber works
RELATIONSHIP OF NEW TO OLD
"If architecture is about time, tradition and continuity, how better can you link past, present, future but by restoring and reusing all that has physically stood the test of time, but now stands redundant?"
According to Mr. Aman Nath, the basic factor is to apply the principles of construction which have existed from times immemorial to the present innovations in techniques, materials and scientific products for better solutions.
PROJECT'S CONTRIBUTION TO ITS CONTEXT AND COMMUNITY, ITS RELEVANCY AND SIGNIFICANCE
Neemrana sits on a billion year old fold mountain ranges called the Aravallis.It evolved from a small, square fort in the 15th century to an elaborate labyrinth of courtyards, terraces, stairways, ramps, collonaded arches, turrets, kiosks, balconies and pavillions - discovering each of which is both a surprise and a joy. Old walls tell their own silent tales which heritage hotel guests must sense and enjoy - which is why guests not just return again and again to Neemrana to follow its awakening as well as recommend it to others.
"When the abandoned and wasted ruin of Neemrana was recycled in the leisure and tourism markets, debates on the cost-effort ratio of reused architecture v/s the viability of new structures bagan."
…… Aman Nath
In a recent publication by Thames and Hudson, London called Hip Hotels, it is almost a surprise to read and learn that an absolute ruin infested with snakes and bats can, in less than 15 years be described as " There is no shortage of palaces in India particularly in the state of Rajasthan, but none in my opinion conveys the grandeur and refinement of India's aristocracy more powerfully than Neemrana" writes Herbert Ypma.
THE IMPACT OF THE PROJECT ON THE COMMUNITY
The impact of the project on the community has been tremendous and very positive. Broadly it can be classified as follows:
- Revival and continuity of traditional building methods and techniques in lime and stone of which masons were almost ashamed to build in after the arrival of cement and RCC and iron girders.
- Employement over 15 years for local people who share the greatest community pride in seeing the ruins of Neemrana rise and look splendid on the skyline.
- The word "Neemrana" has itself become a symbol of viable restoration for re-use in India and many people have gathered both inspiration and courage to attempt similar projects at different scales.
Perhaps it is easier to retsore than to build from scratch. First design problems don't arise, then foundation digging, material for enormous ramparts as well as questions of orientation to light-sun-heat or the air circulation patterns which the residents of old buildings had ample time to study. Today architects have to build for sites before living in them first.
- Also, since a ruin wakes up faster than a new construction, the rewards of hard work are almost immediately visible and become a source of continuing energy.
- The adaptive re-use of the structure is close to the previous function hence the need for modifications were minimum.
- The enrolement of skilled labour from within and neighbouring villages helped because the vocabulary of the region is well known to the local people.
- The planning principles and the irregularity of the structure helped in modifications that were undertaken. The changes, so minor, did not disturb the spatial concepts of the areas.
- The old thick fort walls and roofing systems were structurally overdesigned hence cutting away portions to lay the services did not jeopardise the structure. Also the thickness of the roofs and flooring allowed for chiseling to the required gradient.
- Presence of small rooms near the larger mahals helped to convert these into toilets and economically carving out the suites.
- One of the major factors in making the project a success is the palace complex itself. Most of the construction is the best of its time, region and materials which made the restoration activity easy.
- The presence of a vertical shaft, due to various construction stages was a boon. The services were routed through it. The privies used to exist at all levels near this shaft.
- The venture created ample employement opportunities as well as promote the traditional arts and crafts of the region.
SEVEN POINT ATTITUDE AND ACTION PLAN TO WAKE UP INDIA'S RUINS
- The government must change its attitude towards the owners of heritage buildings - whether they have inherited or acquired them - for they are the repositories of the national heritage. Treating them shoddily with unfriendly policies can only put our heritage in a national dustbin.
- The last fifty years have shown that heritage is better maintained in private rather than public hands. Perhaps because the level of care and continuity required, cannot be provided by bureaucrats and politicians. Properties 'listed' under Governmant possession should be denationalised by floating transparent tenders. Senstivity and experience in restoration for re-use should also be a criterion for selection, rather than just the financial bid by speculators, and real estate sharks. Private sector is unlikely to run away somewhere with this collective heritage. Besides taxes from them alone will give the Government enough for a constructive, farsighted nationalism. This, they could invest in the infrastructure.
- Playing the poor against the rich may have served the politicians well during the elections, but this can lead to dangerous proportions in the countryside. Forts and Palaces should not be seen as targets of discrimination - rather the people's pride should be channelised towards safeguarding them. This is more important than it may sound today- but the future also depends on this change in the people's attitude.
- The environs of such heritage sites should be protected, cleaned, greened by the Government (or wastelands leased for greening) so that all issues do not descend to the mcok - socialist attitudes of pulling down those who can actually do what the government has not managed to. Otherwise, all our tourist sites will be surrounded with slums.
- Infrastucture like roads, electricity, water, communications should be granted on a priority bases - for the ruins and palaces to become India's proud revenue earners. Unaided, such projects become even more unviable. These are granted as a 'favour' not as a service. If industry gets electricity at subsidised rates why not tourism which has been declared as an industry.
- Priority village development - water, sewage, hygiene, medicine, schools where heritage hotels exist, will showcase India better to the world. For this is the image of India which tourist, travellers, photographers and writers carry away with them.
- Directives for noise pollution should be sternly issued and followed. Tourists- both Indian and foreign do not want to put up with blaring all-night loudspeakers. So they are choosing other destinations. These are other small irritants, which should be studied and solved.