A former pleasure palace of Chamba Royal House, partially converted into a museum, the Rang Mahal was a treasure of Pahari Art, with the paintings and murals now removed adorning the galleries of the National Museum at Delhi and the Bhuri Singh Museum, housed in the old palace itself.
Located in Surana Mohalla of Chamba township, the hill fortress like building today also houses the Himachal Emporium, where traditional crafts and handlooms are on display and available for purchasing also.
A rich collection of manuscripts, sculptures, jewellery and coins are also on permanent display at the Bhuri Singh Museum, besides some of the most exquisitely embroidered specimens of Chamba rumaals, costumes both royal and traditional, arms and armour, musical instruments and many traditional artefacts.
Foundations of Rang (meaning paint) Mahal were laid in the early 18th century, with the architecture a mix of British and Mughal styles, is mainly constructed with brick and wood.
Started by Raja Umed Singh (1748 – 1764), the large building complex was finally completed by 1860 with significant additions made by Raja Jit Singh, Charat Singh and Raja Sri Singh.
The paintings on display present intricate designs done by master artists of Pharari genre, mostly themed around the life and exploits of Lord Krishna.
Rang Mahal was initially constructed as a residence for the royal family. The interiors of the Mahal were beautifully decorated with exquisitely carved wooden doors, windows and ceilings followed by the fine art work in the corridors and balconies.
Even the living room and the puja rooms were finely decorated by traditional artefacts and embellishments constituted the mural paintings that displayed exquisite workmanship in complete lucid Pahari style.
The exterior structure of the Mahal with its imposing facade overlooking the Chamba town completely looked like a formidable Rajput fortress woven in the Mughal architecture. The thick brick walls of the Mahal coupled with bay windows and sloping roofs, add to its grandeur.
The state of the royal Mahal was however completely neglected when the successors of Raja Shri Singh moved into Akhand Chandi the newly built palace in the centre of the town. However, entry for any outsider into the Rang Mahal was still prohibited.
It was only after the independence, that the gates of heritage Mahal were thrown open to the general public. At that time NC Mehta, an eminent art historian and connoisseur, was appointed the first Chief Commissioner of the newly carved union territory of Himachal Pradesh.
It was on Mehta’s first visit to Chamba in 1948 that the frescoes on Rang Mahal walls attracted his attention. Exercising administrative authority, he immediately ordered that steps be taken for preservation and conservation of the works and released funds for maintenance of Rang Mahal.
Experts were assigned the task removing mural panels, who did so with great care and caution. Some of better ones were removed and have been put up at the National Museum in New Delhi at many are on display at Bhuri Singh Museum, Chamba
The large Rang Mahal complex also houses some government offices which include an office of art and culture department.
Heritage structure of Rang Mahal is evocative of a bygone era but much of its charm and grandeur is lost.
Rooted in culture and history, a demand is often raised to convert the Rang Mahal into a heritage hotel, which has so far not been considered by the Himachal Pradesh state government.