SHEESH MAHAL FARIDKOT
The Faridkot fort depicts the architectural style that developed in Punjab in the 19th century.
The historical buildings of Faridkot, once the capital of the Sikh state of Malwa, represent the architectural style that developed in Punjab during the mid-19th to mid-20th century. After the decline of the Mughal empire in the 18th century, the chaudhuries, who were the local officials of the Mughals for collecting revenue, became the virtual rulers of their territory. The successive rulers adorned the 638-sq-miles of the town with forts, palaces, gardens, gateways, guest houses and a clock tower. Of these, the fort of Faridkot is the most significant.
The fort comprises a number of palaces, havelis, and other buildings, all surrounded by high bastioned walls. One can enter the fort through a single gateway on the eastern side. Inside, there is Moti Mahal, Mahal Mubarak, tosha-khana, two baradaris, a gurdwara and other structures. However, none of these can match the splendour of the Sheesh Mahal, which situated on the upper storey of the gateway.
The name “Sheesh Mahal” literally means, “a palace adorned with glass mosaic”. Since the medieval times, such glass palaces were an essential apart of the design and architecture of Mughal and Rajput royal forts.
One can enter the Sheesh Mahal through a stairway from the wall to the west of the gateway. The palace comprises a three-aisled hall attached to smaller rooms. The walls of the hall are adorned with panels of glass mosaic in innumerable patterns, vegetal as well as geometrical. Convex glass mirror pieces have been mainly used for the purpose. Glass mosaics are interspersed with floral and geometric designs finely worked in stucco. The plaster designs have been painted in varied colours, including gold. In artificial light, each piece of glass reflects a separate image of the source of light. Coloured glasses in windows add to the effect.
J.L. Kipling, a former Principal of the Mayo School of Art, Lahore, saw “numerous examples of this fantastic and beautiful but laborious form of decoration in the old buildings of Panjab.” He describes the technique of making glass mosaics as follows: “Small pieces of mirrors are framed in arabesque scrolls wrought with great delicacy in white plaster. The mirrors are blown in their globes, which are silvered on the inside and then broken into fragments.”
The glass mosaics of the Faridkot Sheesh Mahal resemble those of the Sheesh Mahal, Lahore Fort. Although some scholars date the Lahore work from the period of Shah Jahan (1628-58) or Aurangzeb (1658-1707) but on the basis of style, it can be said these seem to be made during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799-1839). Mughal glass mosaics, such as those in the Agra Fort, are different in character. Kipling, too, hints at a later date when he writes, “the more gaudy portions (of glass mosaics in Lahore Fort) are due to the later time of the Sikhs.” He also adds, “the effect of the Sheesh, or mirror mosaic, though brilliant, narrowly escapes the charge of vulgarity.”
Besides the glass mosaics, the walls of the Sheesh Mahal also bear painted vegetal panels with bird figures and borders executed in variegated colours. But the finest painted decoration appears in a small chamber, Chitrashala or picture gallery, forming a room of the Sheesh Mahal. Each wall of this small square room had two large painted panels, all save two depicting religious scenes. Seven of these panels still survive. The painted scenes include Krishna with gopis (milkmaids), Shiva and Parvati on bull and lion, respectively, Ganesha with chauri-bearers, Guru Nanak Dev with his companions Bala and Mardana, Guru Gobind Singh on horseback and a hawk perched on his right hand, virhani nayika standing with her arm around a plantain tree; and a performance of acrobats. The last scene is particularly rich as it displays four acrobatic performances at a time; a man riding a goat perched on a narrow jar, a monkey play, a dancing bear and a young boy entangled in ropes. The pot-bellied main spectator sits cross-legged on a square takht. The standing female figure behind him puts her finger in her mouth in amazement.
The representation of Krishna appears to have found much favour by the rulers of the Faridkot state as they traced their ancestry to this Mahabharta hero. Such painted scenes affirmed links between the kings and gods and stressed the divine theory of kingship.
The south wall of this chitrashala also has four vertical rows of small vertical panels, 14 in all, most of these depicting nayikas in various moods, often standing against a blank background, and in some scenes against an architectural backdrop. The female figure is always full-breasted. Besides these panels, there are also representations of birds. These murals appear to be works of some itinerant Pahari painters. The date of the execution of these murals lies somewhere during the last quarter of the 19th century. Maharawal Khewaji Trust which manages the private property of the descendants of the Faridkot rulers has recently got the Sheesh Mahal restored at a great cost. Soon, this splendid palace will be opened to the public.