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Treasures of India’s Royal Past Among Quake Losses

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Over the centuries, pirates and plunderers took their toll on the royal family of Kutch, and now nature’s fury has forced the courtiers to join the homeless in the streets.

The earthquake that flattened much of this city last month also ruined the palaces of Maharao Pragmalji III and his cousins, all descendants of the kings who once ruled the princely state of Kutch here in western India.

Since the quake, Ragu Raj Singh, 54, a cousin of the crown prince, has been camping out on a sandy lot next to the shattered Palace of Mirrors along with his mother, two brothers, a sister-in-law--and their servants.

Like a million other Indians left homeless by the magnitude 7.7 quake, they eat meals cooked over open fires and sleep on the ground. But Singh has a different burden from most: He can only sit and wonder what is left of treasures more than two centuries old.

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The earthquake shook Bhuj so violently, for as long as two minutes, that a large section of the Palace of Mirrors--or Aina Mahal--collapsed. Singh said it isn’t safe for him to go inside and assess the damage to a building that has stood since 1752.

Next door to the Aina Mahal, the Darbargadh Palace where Singh and his family live suffered even worse damage. Broken pillars of marble litter the ground among fallen beams of intricately carved teak.

The keystones have slipped in the archways above the compound’s passageways, and a strong aftershock could bring them crashing down, Singh said.

Singh keeps a 24-hour vigil in the lot, waiting to scare off any looters who come picking through the rubble of ages to make a few quick dollars. Even a senior state government official on a damage assessment tour asked if he might take a piece as a souvenir, Singh said.

“I told him, ‘You can take the whole palace!’ ” he added derisively. “What kind of assistance can we expect from them?”

Kutch’s royal family can’t turn to India’s government for the millions of dollars it may take to rebuild the palaces because they are owned and operated by private trusts.

After India won its independence from Britain in 1947, the government took away royal privileges, and Singh said “criminal taxation” has left his family and the trust without enough money to restore the buildings.

“These things do not belong to an individual,” Singh said. “They belong to a region, the people of Kutch, the people of India--the whole world. It’s part of our heritage, and it’s also humankind’s heritage.

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“The politicians are normally interested in diverting and spending funds toward maintaining and expanding their vote banks,” he added. “And there’s no vote to be garnered in restoring buildings of historic or cultural value.”

The government is responsible for about 200 historic monuments in Gujarat state, where the earthquake struck. Only 25 of those were affected by the quake, and just three or four of them suffered serious damage, said Abnash Grover, director of conservation with the Archeological Survey of India.

The government estimates that it will cost roughly $215,000 to restore the damaged buildings for which it is responsible, Grover said.

Although Bhuj’s old city was leveled in the quake, the state’s historic sites fared better than many of its modern buildings. The quake caused an estimated $5 billion damage across Gujarat and killed 35,000 or more people.

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One of the worst-hit monuments was a memorial on the cremation site of poet-king Maharao Lakhpatji, who built the Palace of Mirrors.

The palace, which became a museum in 1977, was originally the king’s residence. He installed 26 fountains, which formed a square around a platform where he sat as women danced for him. There are 100 doors with inlaid ivory, the best of which a British colonial viceroy wanted to take for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Lakhpatji turned him down.

The walls were covered with tall looking glasses, glass paintings and gilt woodwork. The king had 27 mirrors in his bedroom alone. Inlaid with gold flowers and semiprecious stones, the mirrors hung on marble walls surrounding a low bed with legs covered in gold leaf.

These nights, the king’s descendants consider themselves lucky to have blankets. Singh hasn’t had a proper bath since the earthquake. With his gray stubble and a vacant stare, he looks like a lost traveler.

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“I am a bird of a passing passage, lucky to be born in this family, having lived here all this time,” he said.

Azhar Tyabji, an art historian and urban planner, is worried that priceless debris that could be used in reconstruction of the palaces may be bulldozed and dumped in the mounting heaps of quake rubble outside town.

“Then you lose an entire identity,” said Tyabji, who works for the Environmental Planning Collaborative in the city of Ahmadabad.

“If the temple at Luxor in Egypt is being put back together 2,000 years after it was razed to the ground,” he said, “then there’s no reason why one can’t put these stones back if they were patched together, and documented, responsibly.”

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Art experts have called the Palace of Mirrors a unique example of “europanerie,” an 18th century obsession among the Indian elite for things European, especially if they glittered and ticked, like large mirrors, chandeliers and clocks.

The king also gave Kutch its first camera, typewriter and gramophone, said the palace museum’s curator, Pramod Jethi.

Despite all the ruin, last month’s quake did some good by exposing a long-hidden treasure beneath what everyone thought was a solid stone bastion at the palace gate. The bricks peeled off like the skin of a fruit to expose an inner wall erected in 1730.

It is decorated with two elephants, a tortoise and a horse in the ancient royal crest, which Singh assumes was covered up with a reinforcing wall in 1819--the year of the last great Kutch quake.

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