Fresh from losing their privy purses with Indira Ghandi’s reforms in the 1970’s, Rajasthan’s eccentric Princes faced the tedious task of earning a living. Many started converting their majestic forts and lavish palaces into hotels. Now the desert state’s class of lords and nobles are following suit.
Two decades ago, Rajasthan’s maharajas began converting their family estates into hotels. Extravagant and eccentric, these warrior princes had given Rajasthan its romance, festooning the desert with majestic forts and lavish palaces.
They lived in astonishing wealth but lost much of their land and official titles when India declared independence in 1947. Then they lost their privy purses, or royal payments, in Indira Gandhi’s reforms in the 1970s, forcing the princes to face the rather inconvenient task of earning a living. So some lent their door keys to hotel groups, who set about carving a well-worn tourist trail between the palaces.
Now Rajasthan’s thakurs – Rajput lords and nobles who worked as aides to the maharajas – are following suit. Their palace-hotels, set in remote rural regions and operated by the thakurs themselves, give travellers a unique insight into a bygone era.
“[The thakurs] are royals, not hoteliers,” my British friend, Philippa Kay, warns me before we leave Delhi. “But this is one of the most unique and genuine Rajasthani experiences visitors can have.” Kay owns a company called Indian Experiences, which specialises in personalised and off-the-beaten-track journeys here.
My first stop is at the home of Kunwar Shiv Pratap Singh, the heir of Bhenswara, a tiny town and farming area two hours’ drive south of Jodhpur. Over an evening tipple in the palace’s central courtyard, Pratap explains how his family came to be hoteliers. Ethnic Rajput warriors renowned for their fighting bravura, the thakurs were given petty fiefdoms and titles as lords and nobles by the ruling maharajas as reward for winning battles. These privileges were then passed down to the first-born male.
When feudalism ended, so did the thakurs’ role. “We were left without crutches,” Pratap says, adding that at one stage his father tried to put the property on the market. Then they discovered tourism. “Tourism allows us to both live here and restore the building. It is the perfect solution,” he says.
Built in stages over the past 200 years, Ravla Bhenswara is an eclectic warren of styles and eras. Behind a two-storey wall in the centre of the dusty town, the salmon-pink sandstone palace has elaborately carved doors and window frames and a medley of gods and maidens painted on its walls. The 26 guest rooms are comfortable, though their bold, glittery colours are more kitsch than cool. But few visitors come here for the rooms; they’re drawn by the chance to stay with royalty and explore the magnificent countryside, a scrubby desert landscape inhabited by tribal peoples and wild leopards.
The next afternoon, I head out with a palace guide. Our first stop is at a village of conical mud huts overseen by a medicine man who spends his days playing with snakes under a bodhi tree. Men in white jodhpur-like trousers and cherry-red turbans tend to flocks of sheep and goats and women are swathed dramatically in pleated maroon skirts and tight bodices, their arms layered high with bone bracelets (signifying they are married, I’m told). They walk effortlessly with pots of water balanced on their heads.
Next day my driver, Raj, and I head east to the district of Bhainsrorgarh. In Rajasthan it’s imperative to have a good driver to negotiate the state’s notorious back roads, which are littered with potholes, trucks, indifferent cows and camels and children playing cricket.
Bhainsrorgarh Fort is as dramatic as it is regal, perched on the edge of a rocky ridge with views over the Chambal River. Intermittently inhabited since the 14th century, the palace was opened recently as a small hotel by Kunwar Herendra Singh Chundawat, whose father is the ruler of Bhainsrorgarh. As with Pratap, Herendra hopes to fund the fort’s costly and ongoing restorations with income from tourism. The facade is in terrible condition – the walls are crumbling and sprouting weeds – but its interior is fit for a princess. The five spacious guest suites have marble bathrooms, four-poster beds draped in fine Indian cotton and intricately carved windows opening above the river.
The fort is best enjoyed from its terraced roof, where a stone cupola blocks the sun and a gentle breeze blowing off the water is natural air-conditioning. I spend all day here, indulging in spicy aloo parathas (potato-stuffed bread) with home-made curds served on antique silver. Late in the afternoon, when the heat eases, I head out to rarely visited Baroli Temples, a cluster of ninth-century shrines heavily influenced by those in Bagan, Burma.
From Bhainsrorgarh, Raj and I drive to Shahpura, stopping for lunch at the sugar-cube town of Bundi, where the old fort is being converted into a museum. For now there isn’t much here to see but I’m told the town will join the thakur tourist trail within a few years.
The trail is varied, from lodgings that are dinky and disorganised and feel more like a wealthy friend’s house than a hotel, to the Shahpura Bagh, arguably rural Rajasthan’s best find.
Five years ago, Yuvraj Shatrujeet Singh and his wife, Maya, swapped professional careers in Mumbai for a chance to convert their family’s two art-deco mansions in Shahpura into a boutique hotel. When they arrived, the grounds and buildings were a shambles and there were no telephones. There are now 10 spacious guest rooms, with four-poster beds, Persian and Kashmiri carpets, claw-foot baths and chaise longues. Each night they host drinks beside the newly built swimming pool, followed by a silver-service dinner with traditional Rajasthani dishes (think las maas, a rich lamb curry, and pithor, curried wheat cutlets) in a formal dining room shared with a stuffed tiger.
Shahpura Bagh’s facade is stark white but its heart is green: produce is organic and grown locally, there is grey-water recycling and solar hot water and a portion of the tariff funds community development projects.
With one of Shahpura’s guides, Raj and I go shopping in the village for colourful mujari, embroidered leather sandals, and then climb Dhikhola Fort, the family’s former home, which is now a dilapidated fortress with views across the chapati-flat plains.
Skirting the edge of Rajasthan’s famous tiger park, Ranthambore National Park, we ramble through dusty villages and remote farming communities to our last thakur: Kunwar Ravi Raj Pal, the 12th-generation ruler of Ramathra Fort.
It appears to have come straight from mediaeval England, with three-metre-thick stone ramparts and corner turrets bearing cannon-firing positions. Its thick wooden gates are studded with metal spikes that once protected the fort from the elephants of enemy armies.
The fort was uninhabited for decades, then four years ago Ravi took on the ambitious project of restoration. He started by erecting six traditional canvas tents on the palace greens. Six rooms in the oldest part of the palace, each with views over the ramparts and across the plains, opened last year, finished with textiles from Jaipur and furniture from Jodhpur.
A stone’s throw from two of India’s biggest tourist sites – the Taj Mahal at Agra and the city of Jaipur – Ramathra Fort, which is also the name of the hotel, feels a world away. There is no television reception and only a limited signal for mobile phones.
Ravi and I head off on a jeep safari to a sacred watering hole that feeds a waterfall and then on a boat ride along nearby Kalisil Lake. Here, on its shores, Ravi plans to build a safari-style tented camp, just like the old days. “With tourism we can bring the thakurs back to life,” he says.
Indian Experiences arranges personalised road tours of Rajasthan’s thakur palaces. A 10-day tour costs from 74,947 rupees ($1800) a person, including accommodation, transfers from Delhi and most meals. www.indianexperiences.com
Ramathra Fort has double rooms from 8400 rupees with full board and excursions, www.ramathrafort.com. Bhainsrorgarh Fort has double rooms for 11,500 rupees with full board, www.bhainsrorgarh.com. Shahpura Bagh has double rooms for 5000 rupees with breakfast, www.shahpurabagh.com.