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Tourism in most parts of Rajasthan, and especially in its capital Jaipur, has been monument-centric. With the result that when not in family or private hands, they have been terribly neglected, maintained by different government bodies over several years and a majority of them have, unfortunately, done a shoddy job of maintaining this priceless heritage.
One such place is Jal Mahal, located where Amber ends and Jaipur starts. It has been lying disused for many years, the water around it in the Man Sagar lake stinking terribly - a major reason why visitors and locals stayed away from this otherwise splendid monument.
But lately the fortunes of Jal Mahal have been changing. A privately owned company, Jal Mahal Resorts, has taken the whole area of the lake (310 acres) and around it (totalling 432 acres) on a 99-year lease from the government of Rajasthan.
The deal is to create a fully integrated tourism destination with the Jal Mahal and the Man Sagar lake being the nodal points. The 310 acres of the lake and the Jal Mahal cannot be used for any commercial purposes but a 100-acre stretch, on the outer side of this complex, will be used to generate revenue for the company.
The idea is to "create a tourism hub, a destination in itself, using Jal Mahal as a bait", says Rajeev Lunkad, project director at Jal Mahal Resorts.
The complete project will cost over Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion), says N R Kothari, chairman of KGK Enterprises, which is the parent company of Jal Mahal Resorts. "It should take at least 5-6 years for a project of this scale to break even," adds Kothari.
The project, which has been operational for the past few years, has started to show some results now. Jal Mahal Resorts has a team of experienced professionals from across the globe to work on various aspects of the project.
The initial task was cut out for them - if they were unable to clean the lake and remove the stench, the other commercial parts of the project wouldn't get off the ground. Anyone who has seen the Man Sagar Lake anytime in the last few years will know the miserable condition of the waterbody.
The problems of the lake were first identified - two huge nullahs carrying sewage from the city are dumped directly into the lake. The government has since set up a secondary treatment plant at Brahmpuri but still a lot of the sewage gets to the lake untreated.
"We also figured out after our studies that storm water was the biggest pollutant for the lake," says Lunkad. For years, the bed of the lake has been filled with muck and rubbish which has depleted the lake of its oxygen. The biological oxygen demand (BOD) level was at 808 mg/litre when they started. The maximum permissible limit is 3 mg/litre.
In most lakes around the country, like the Dal in Srinagar, or that in Kodaikanal, the idea has been to restrict sewage flow into the lake, set up a treatment plant and to create a boundary wall around the lake, containing it. The natural ecosystem of the lake has never been allowed to regenerate.
"What we are doing at the Man Sagar lake has never been tried in India before. We are using natural processes to clean the lake," explains Lunkad. A sedimentation basin has been created at the mouth where the two large nullahs - Brahmpuri and Nagtalai - now converge.
The water passes through the sedimentation basin which is made of sand and rubble. Right next to the basin is a natural wetland with variable depths to allow different kinds of vegetation to come up. "This will serve a dual purpose - it will treat the water and will also be a natural habitat for birds," he says.
Old-timers will tell you that there used to be a wetland here in the past but it died because the lake dries more than ever in summer. Now the entire ecosystem is being reintroduced by sourcing vegetation from different places, like the Bharatpur bird sanctuary. Being true to nature, no civil work with cement has been done here. Only the silt dredged from the lake is being used.
After a detailed hydrology report, a lot of desilting has been done this summer and seven lakh cubic metres of soil was taken out. Even today there are a few layers of soil left and you can see methane coming out of the bed.
The results of the treatment are starting to show. The water enters the sedimentation tank at 800 mg/litre and passes through the wetland to come out at 30 mg/litre BOD. The last year has seen the ecosystem getting revived.
The birds are back, though not all of them - grey geron, white browed wagtail, blue tailed bee eaters... The water looks visibly cleaner. The plan ensures that the water in the lake will not be allowed to dry out by mandating that it will not be released for irrigation.
In a year's time, after a pump to constantly re-circulate the lake water through the filtration mechanism is installed, the lake water will be naturally cleaned and the remaining muck should be filtered out.
And while the water is being cleaned, the project is breathing life into the Jal Mahal, a monument that stands proudly in the midst of what was once a beautiful lake.
In earlier days the main attraction of the monument, we are informed was the terrace garden where the maharaja took leisurely walks. There are no habitable rooms to stay in and on all four sides there are stairs that transport you to the terrace, from where you get a view all around.
Jal Mahal has been in a state of neglect for a very long time. Apart from restoring it by using traditional techniques, the terrace garden is also being revived. There were no remaining traces of the garden when the company got possession of the monument. Earlier, government bodies had dug up the terrace garden completely and used a lot of cement for repairs.
Kavita Jain, the project's senior conservation architect, who has the expertise in working with stone and lime-based materials as well as traditional construction processes and materials, tells us that the structure was sound with just a few cracks in some of the stone slabs, which have been replaced. The plastering material being used is the traditional material - a mix of lime, sand and surkhi along with a mixture of jaggery, guggal and methi powder.
Master craftsman Mohanji is the man behind all the ornamental work on the structure. He tells us that most of the dimensions (proportions) of the arches and the motifs are known to him and were passed on to him by his father. He has now trained others in this traditional art. Mohanji draws directly on the plastered wall after which all the carving takes place.
When the restoration is over and the water is clean enough, Jal Mahal and its precincts should be a splendid getaway for both Jaipurwallas and visitors alike.
'The original garden has been lost'
Kulbhushan Jain, chairman emeritus at the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University and an architect and conservation consultant, is well known in Rajasthan. Among the forts he has worked on are Nagaur, Mehrangarh in Jodhpur, as well as Amber.
What kind of architecture do we see at Jal Mahal?
It is very difficult to classify Jal Mahal's architectural style in one category. It is an amalgamation of Rajput and Mughal styles. This combination of styles is very normal across Rajasthan. The rectangular chattri on the roof is the Bengal roof. The ones on the four corners are octagonal.
What was the Mahal like when you started work on it and what were the problems you faced?
When we started work on it, we saw that some work had already been done on the structure around 10-15 years ago by some government authority. The work was shoddy and cement was used at a number of places. We had to remove all that carefully because we found that the original layer was still intact at a few places. This is where we got the original patterns from.
A big problem right in the beginning was access to the monument. The water surrounding the monument was filthy and we only had access to a small boat to carry on our work. The road we see now is a temporary one. The initial damage assessment was the toughest.
What kind of materials and techniques were used for the conservation?
All materials used on the monument are traditional. The plaster used is organic and made by using traditional methods - a mix of lime, sand and surkhi along with a mixture of jaggery, guggal and methi powder.
A part of the monument is submerged under water at all times. We just checked if water was travelling up with the stone but it was all right. There is only a little bit of dampness in the plaster to a level.
The flooring below the garden level is being done to make space for a museum. The city museum will be on the history of Jaipur and will be designed and conceptualised by architect Vibhuti Sachdev and historian Giles Tillotson.
Lighting too is going to be an integral part of the whole restoration. An Australian company headed by Dhruv Jyoti Ghosh is developing a soft lighting system to illuminate it at night. More focussed lighting will be on the domes on top.
What is the concept behind it and how will the garden be restored?
The original garden is lost. We did not find any traces of it on the terrace. Mitchell Crites is designing a new garden using the "char bagh" concept. The Chameli Bagh will have a pattern which has been picked up from Amber. The garden will be a white one, with marble and all white flowers. The marble work is going on outside and it will be installed in the garden soon.
Tuning Jal Tarang
The Jal Mahal project includes 100 acres of land for Jal Tarang, which will be an integrated development. The 99-year lease for 100 acres allows commercial activity. This, says Lunkad, will fill an important gap in facilities in this main tourism corridor - from the City Palace to Amber. At the moment there are no facilities available for tourists here.
This 100 acres is divided into the public and the hospitality part. The public section will be a pedestrian area with 20-odd restaurants (food items will range from Rs 50-500), all facing the water. There will also be a crafts bazaar with both souvenir shopping and high-end craft retail from across India.
Also an amphitheatre for daily cultural activities, an ethnic village on the lines of the immensely popular Chokhi Dhani, and two boat jetties to take visitors to Jal Mahal. This section will also be an entertainment and nightlife zone for local residents.
The other part will have mid-market hotels with a convention centre to handle 2,000 people and a luxury resort and spa, with a back-to-nature theme, different from what is currently on offer in Jaipur. It will also help augment the room shortage in Jaipur.
The resort format is mandatory - only two-storey construction is allowed. Lunkad explains that the lease agreement was meticulously planned by the government, creating a separate set of bye-laws for the project and taking care of all environmental issues. The setback required in the project is between 25-50 metres from the waterfront.
The developments on the 100 acres should be up and running between 2010-11. The restoration of Jal Mahal and the cleaning of the lake will be done and should be operational by early 2008. The museum will take another eight months to get ready.
Also very important for a project this size is car parking. A 1,500-capacity car park is being created on 12 acres in the campus. "We are trying to see if we can get permission to create an underground parking," says Lunkad.
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