Removed from their thrones after India’s independence and the following democratic reforms, Rajasthan’s eccentric princes faced the tedious task of having to earn a living. Some have been opening their regal homes to tourists, offering travelers a unique glimpse into their lavish pasts.
Excitement rippled through the great Durbah Hall. Men in tails and turbans and women wrapped in miles of dazzling silk, clinked glasses as they moved around the stately room, packed with Delhi’s A-list of politicians, princes and tycoons. But it’s a small wooden box which is gaining the most attention; crowded at its sides women push and jostle for a peer into one of the four little windows… where the Hindu God Krishna is frolicking with two naked concubines.
An 18th century masterpiece, Lord Krishna’s Picnic is one of many miniature artworks on display at Delhi’s Imperial Hotel. Part of the private collection of Brajraj Singh, His Highness the Maharaja of Kishangarh, it’s the first time the collection has been shown. Head of a former princely state in the heart of the Rajasthan desert, the Maharaja is using his ancestor’s collection of priceless art to launch his latest venture; the conversion of the family palace into a boutique hotel. A small village two hours’ drive outside of Jaipur, Kishangarh is far from the tourist path that zigzags its way across Rajasthan’s harsh desert sands. Crumbling, archaic and painted a brilliant indigo blue to deter mosquitoes, it engenders a distinct feeling that time has stood still; streets are fi lled with sari-clad women selling fresh vegetables, while a man pours sweet milky tea into disposable clay cups before handing them to his son to shuttle to patrons talking in the midday shade. The Maharaja’s small palace is the grandest and most luxurious building around; humble by Maharaja standards, as an hotel it is simple and quaint. Swapping life as a socialite for that of a hotelier, Brajraj Singh is not alone. Stripped of their titles in the 1970s, Rajasthan’s princes have since been converting their stately properties into hotels.
“Providence created the Maharajas to offer mankind a spectacle,” wrote Rudyard Kipling of the princes of Rajasthan. A vast arid expanse in western India, Rajasthan was once better known as Rajputana, home to the Rajputs, a group of warrior clans who lived under the protection of princely states. Chivalrous and eccentric, the leaders of these princely states, the Maharajas, Maharanis and their regal kin, created India’s reputation for extravagance and gave the desert its romance- adorning the arid land with enchanting palaces, grand forts and intimate havelis, and then sprinkling them with lavish helpings of pomp and splendour.
Their kingdoms were a battlefield for great victories and mortifying losses, boundaries and allegiances shifting as often as the sands surrounding them. But nothing had a bigger impact on the Rajputs and their extravagant ways than the Mughals, who swept across the desert plains in the early 1500s, slaying the rulers, conquering the forts and stealing the Rajput women, renowned for their grace and beauty. Built by the first Moghul King of India, Shah Jahan, the Taj Mahal is the most famous Moghul monument in the country. Known as the world’s greatest testament to love, the Taj was built as a tomb for the King’s fi rst wife. But he only ever saw the finished version from the small window of his cell at the Red Fort; the throne was seized by his son, and the King spent most of the tomb’s 30 year construction period under house arrest.
Rajasthan’s second great battle was with the British Raj. Also renowned for their love of luxury, the Raj saw a mirror in the materialistic princes and consequently allowed them to retain their autonomy and their despot fortunes, conditional on political restrictions and the occasional home-stay.
It was, however, India’s independence and the democratic reforms which followed that saw Rajasthan’s princely states not only stumble and fall, but also face profound changes. Removed from their thrones, their land taken by the state, their titles null and void, and their public purses diminished, the princes were forced to face the tiresome task of earning a living. Left with only their palaces- enchanting, intricate and spectacular monuments spanning epochs and empires, their architecture a fusion of the cultures which they had conquered- the Maharajas have started converting their majestic houses into hotels. Scattered across the far reaches of the Great Thar Desert, Rajasthan’s plethora of heritage hotels come in every shape and size, from small city havelis, to vast forts where guests are offered a chance to stay in the Zenana, a segregated section of the palace once strictly manned by the most trusted of male servants, usually eunuchs. Richly ornate with tiny mirrors and solid gold fittings, the queens, princesses, concubines and dancing girls all stayed within the Zenana, behind hand-carved screens where they could peep out onto the courtyard below, but where only the fragrance of perfume and the faint chiming of ankle bells revealed their presence. With more than 200 hotels scattered across the vast shifting sands, in Rajasthan, there is a regal room for everyone.
Phool Mahal Palace Hotel, Kishangarh
What fairytales are made of, the Phool Mahal is set on the shores of a lake teaming with herons and fl amingos, under the imposing shadow of an old fort, once inhabited by Maharaja Brajraj Singh’s family, and still boasting original frescoes. Built in 1648, the Roopangarh Fort is an eclectic blend of styles, and succeeding generations have added on to the original building. Stay in the Queen’s Suite, originally the Zenena.
Double rooms from $100; +91 11 6687000; www.royalkishangarh.com
Devi Garh, Udaipur
Gazing over the ancient village of Delwara and sitting snugly within the mountain walls of the Aravelli range, Devi Garh is Rajput romance epitomised. Built during the 18th century, the fortress sits on land once given to a brave and loyal warrior who assisted the ruler of Mewar defend the kingdom from Mogul insurgency. Neglected for decades, Devi Garh has been returned to its former glory, opening as the most outstanding of restored heritage hotels in Rajasthan. Very Zen, the hotel blends contemporary swank with archaic grandeur; 400-year-old wall murals with white marble furniture, terrazzo fl oors the brilliant yellow of sandstone, selected features studded in semiprecious stones, raw cotton and a splash of silk. The hotel also has an Ayurvedic spa.
Doubles from $450; +91 11 23755540; www.deviresorts.com
Rajmahal Hotel, Jaipur.
Built in the late 1940s by Jaipur’s HH Maharaja Sawai Bhawami Singh, the Rajmahal Hotel is a modern Art Deco palace. Set on 10 acres of rambling lawns, the 14 room palace is small and quiet, a real gem in the heart of energetic Jaipur. Queen Elizabeth, Charles, Diana and the Kennedys all stayed here.
Doubles from $80; +91 14 15105665
Samode Palace, outside Jaipur
The Samode Palace is one of three hotels owned and run by two brothers from the Samode family. Set in a small village on the edge of the Aravalli Mountains, the Samode Palace is a masterpiece of Mughal-Rajput art. Elaborate and intricate, it has marble floors and romantic alfresco courtyards- the perfect place to sip gin and tonics at night.
Doubles from $150; +91 14 12632370; www.samode.com
Bhanwar Niwas Haveli, Bikaner
One of Rajasthan’s best kept secrets, Bikaner overflows with pristine architecture; havelis carved out of red sandstone retell history on their intricate walls. Tucked into a side street, Bhanwar Niwas has been lovingly restored, each room unique and filled to the brim with antiques.
Double rooms from $100; +91 15 1529323; www.bhanwarniwas.com
Umaid Bhawan, Jodphur
Breathtaking in size and views, the Umaid Bhawan commands views over the pink city and the colossal Fort Mahrangarb, which Kipling once described as “the work of angels, fairies and giants”. An eclectic blend of east and west, the palace has Roman columns and domes, French provincial wings, a floor plan based on the great Cambodian temple Angkor Wat, and Art Deco furnishings � all the rage when the palace was being built. The best Deco rooms are the Maharaja’s and Maharani’s suites, with curved lacquered wood, painted mirrors and bath tubs carved from a single piece of marble. Downstairs is a blue tiled Deco swimming pool, its walls covered with drawings of bubble-blowing fish.
Double rooms from $300, the Maharaja and Maharani Suites from $1000; www.tajhotels.com
Shiv Niwas, Udaipur
Part of the rambling City Palace complex and personally run by the charming Maharani of Newar, Shiv Niwas is a beautiful old palace filled with white lattice, frangipani trees and a luscious blue pool. Try room 15 for celebrity value; coupled with one of the world’s best balcony views, it was also featured in the James Bond movie, Octopussy.
Double terrace rooms with views over the lake from $300; +91 11 26611273; www.hrhindia.com