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The Heart of Mahmudabad: Bilehra’s Palace Legacy

Amidst this timeless legacy stands Bilehra’s Palace, a silent sentinel of Indo-European grandeur, its walls echoing the rich and intricate tapestry of history woven through the ages. The bulwarks of the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh continue reverberating with the noises of feudal life, holding steadfast as the last bastion of old values. Decades and centuries cascade into one another, giving rise to a wind that whispers tales of yore, reminding us of the days the state once saw.

Bilehra's Palace
Scene of coronations, the Durbar Hall would have been hung with a forest of chandeliers ©TheJannequin

My father has often said that Mahmudabad is his duty, but Bilehra is his heart.” – Ali Khan Mahmudabad.

Historical Context – Bilehra Palace

Heritage and Legacy

Constructed between 1835 and 1865, Bilehra Palace stands as a symbol of luxury and cultural amalgamation. With its rich royal history involving kings, queens, nizams, and lords, India offers no shortage of gorgeous palaces.

Bilehra's Palace
A live-in guardian has watched over this space for decades ©James Mcdonald

These opulent structures, many transformed into hotels, provide a one-of-a-kind opportunity to witness the country’s intriguing legacy. Visiting these palaces allows for a unique glimpse into the Maharajas’ way of life, and Bilehra Palace, an epitome of Indo-European architecture, is no exception. Its primary lines foreshadowed the more aggressive Indo-Gothic style, remaining nearly unaltered since 1918.

Bilehra's Palace
Bilehra Palace is a riot of blue-green painted plasterwork against the palest pink distemper ©James Mcdonald

The Last Raja

The last Raja, Abul Hasan Khan, succumbed to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. His son had passed away a few months prior, leaving behind three daughters as the future beneficiaries of the Shia dynasty. Despite the British efforts to assume control of the kingdom, the legacy continued through the resilience of the royal family.

Anglo-Indian furniture
Anglo-Indian furniture around a highly carved settee evokes respectful gatherings. ©James Mcdonald

Bilehra’s Palace Architectural

Design

Bilehra Palace is a striking example of Indo-European regency architecture, overshadowing the pugnacious Indo-Gothic style. The palace, built with lakhori bricks and mortar, boasts a simplistic yet elegant design that contrasts with the more glorious architecture found throughout India. The whitewashed entrance, adorned with gongs and string beds, exudes a serene charm, while the half-finished details in some areas invite more keen observation.

The Imambara as seen from the palace’s
The Imambara as seen from the palace’s upper gallery ©James Mcdonald

Interior Highlights

The palace’s interior spaces are a testament to its former glory. The halls, once adorned with chandeliers and vibrant stenciled motifs, reflect a bygone era of grandeur.

Bilehra's Palace
Simple bed – The silk cover is from Kashmir, while a white sheet covers the floor ©James Mcdonald

The three-bay doors, two of which are adorned with dainty fanlights, lead to a hall lined with Victorian parlor chairs and paintings of young princes. The ochre-colored bedrooms contrast with the sapphire hues of the stenciled walls, while the durbar hall, complete with two Romanesque-influenced fireplaces, retains a lively atmosphere reminiscent of past ceremonies and festivals.

uttar pradesh Bilehra Palace photos 8
Imambara, or shrine ©James Mcdonald

Family Legacy and British Resistance

Rani Kaniz Abid

After her father’s demise, the elder daughter, Kaniz Abid, became the rani, fortifying the family line through a strategic marriage to her cousin. This union aimed to strengthen its position in society and prevent British encroachment on the Bilehra province. Her son, Mohammad Amir Mohammad Khan, is the current custodian of the palace.

Rani of Bilehra, Kaniz Abid
An oxblood-coloured ceiling; starkly simple bedchamber of the last Rani of Bilehra, Kaniz Abid ©James Mcdonald

British Intrigue

The British, aware of the kingdom’s strategic importance, attempted to take control of the estate. However, the resilience of the royal family and their strategic alliances helped them maintain their autonomy, preserving the heritage and legacy of Bilehra Palace.

the dining room to a colonnaded terrace
Shuttered doors lead off the dining room to a colonnaded terrace ©James Mcdonald

Personal Anecdotes

Raja Mohammad Amir Mohammad Khan

Raja Mohammad Amir Mohammad Khan, the current custodian of Bilehra Palace, shares a profound connection with his ancestral home. Despite growing up about an hour away, Mohammad Amir Mohammad Khan did not enter the gates of Bilehra Palace until he was 29 years old, in 1973. His mother had forbidden him from visiting the site out of superstition and possibly long-held regret for her family’s suffering. However, as he stood in the dimly lit Durbar Hall, he felt a profound sensation of belonging.

The Bilehra Palace Today

Preservation and Restoration

Today, Bilehra Palace stands as a dilapidated yet poignant reminder of its illustrious past. Efforts to preserve and restore the palace are ongoing, with a focus on maintaining its historical and architectural integrity. The whitewashed portico, the dainty fanlights, the Victorian parlor chairs, and the Romanesque fireplaces all contribute to the palace’s unique charm, making it a living history.

turquoise and brick-red Islamic and European stenciled motifs
The anteroom is a blaze of turquoise and brick-red Islamic and European stenciled motifs ©James Mcdonald

Living History

The palace continues to resonate with the sounds of its feudal past, standing as a testament to the enduring legacy of the royal family and the cultural heritage of Uttar Pradesh. The tales of resistance, strategic alliances, and personal sacrifices imbue the palace with a sense of living history, bridging the gap between the past and the present.

Bilehra's Palace
Bilehra Palace defines elegance through Indo-European heritage ©Facebook

FAQs

Where is Bilehra Palace located?

Bilehra Palace is located near Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh. The palace is accessible via a mango-grove-lined drive from Lucknow, providing a scenic approach to this historical landmark.

What is the history behind the construction of Bilehra Palace?

Bilehra Palace was constructed between 1835 and 1865 by two rajas of Bilehra, a father-and-son duo. The family awarded the estate in the 14th century, initially lived in a mud fort before building the palace using lakhori bricks and mortar. The construction reflects a solid yet elegant architectural style reminiscent of the merchant villas of Calcutta.

What architectural style is Bilehra Palace known for?

Bilehra Palace is known for its Indo-European regency architecture, characterized by simple lines and elegance that preceded the more ornate Indo-Gothic style. The palace’s design reflects a blend of European and Indian architectural elements.

Who was the last raja of Bilehra Palace?

The last raja of Bilehra Palace was Abul Hasan Khan, who died in 1918 during the Spanish flu pandemic. His death marked the beginning of the palace’s untouched state, as it has been left almost abandoned since then.

Written by Isha Chaudhary

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