These days travelling to India can mean staying in places formerly fit for royalty, finds Elisabeth King.
India is party central for anyone keen to play-act at being an oriental prince, nowhere more so than in the desert state of Rajasthan where many of the 200 or so heritage hotels and palaces retain harem quarters. Vacated now, of course, but the ghosts of their former occupants bear silent witness to the enviable lifestyles of the region’s once-mighty rulers.
The fact that anyone with the dosh can bed down in former royal residences isn’t the only reverse move in the cycle of reincarnation. The truck-owning Tata family now hold the deeds to such palatial properties as the Raj Palace, a former royal palace of the fabulously wealthy Maharajahs of Jaipur. A complete entertainment centre in itself, this ornate slice of the luxury life has been voted the world’s leading heritage hotel for the past three years.
If you can stand the blistering heat of an Indian summer rates begin at about $140 per night, rising to $400 or more in the high season from October to February. An eclectic band of celebrities have roamed the Raj’s marble corridors from Lord Mountbatten to Bollywood heavyhitter, Amitabh Bacchan, the father-in-law of actress Aishwarya Rai. There’s a museum for a quick study on the royal crockery, glamorous photos of yesteryear and priceless antiques. Staff dressed as faithful royal retainers dog your every footstep, serve up chota pegs (double whiskies) on request and genuinely make you feel like a pukka sahib (first-class gentleman).
Even if you don’t book the Durbar Mahal Suite – voted Asia’s Leading Suite – the entire palace is awash with 24-carat gold fittings, huge crystal chandeliers and intricate stucco work. Safaris can be organised on request and the spa treatments will leave you feeling like former resident Rajmata Gayatri Devi, Vogue magazine’s choice as one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world in the 1930s. Mealtimes really clinch the experience from afternoon tea with first flush brews – the Champagne of teas – to the dinners for two in a palace alcove, with or without live musicians.
The Real Deal
You don’t have to go that far up the former social scale, however, to enjoy noble surroundings in India. Director John Madden’s sleeper hit movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, is supposedly set in Jaipur. But the hotel used in the film is the Ravla Khempur, a heritage hotel about an hour’s drive from Udaipur.
I stayed here during a trip to Rajasthan organised by the Indian tourist authorities, who had decided that hotels in former maharajahs’ palaces were hogging international publicity. India is full of stately piles belonging to less august rulers – nawabs, akhunds, nizams and walis – and our itinerary included several Rajasthani forts, havelis (nobleman’s mansions) and palaces that once belonged to such less-exalted rulers.
The name Ravla in Rajasthani means ‘home of the village chieftain’, but in this case the description translates as a very sumptuous haveli. The multi-tiered, faded grandeur of Ravla Khempur dates back to the 17th Century and, as the hotel’s brochure puts it, “tells a passionate story of true Mewari valour”. Prince Jagat Singh of Mewar was nearly assassinated close by. Only the quick thinking of local warrior Khemraj Dadhivadia saved the day when he beheaded the would-be assassin as he approached the ruler. As his reward he was given the village, then renamed Khempur.
The warrior spirit remains strong at Ravla Khempur. The hotel’s stables are home to thoroughbred Marwari and Kathiawari horses. You can pet them, set off on a horse safari or watch a few of them strut their stuff at the evening dancing stallions performance. Nature-lovers can enjoy ‘glamping’ at the nearby lake’s edge, and jeep and camel safaris, but most people prefer to bunk down in the hotel because the 10 rooms all sport gokharas (canopied balconies). To be honest, the entire experience is like living on a film set. There’s none of the slickness of India’s top hotels but the staff really do make you feel like royalty, whether they’re serving iced tea, a candlelit dinner or breakfast. Like Dev Patel’s establishment in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the Ravla Khempur is a work in progress and a lot of fun for those who want a more authentic Indian experience.
It’s hard to believe that Neemrana Fort-Palace, close to the Delhi-Jaipur highway, was once little more than a crumbling ruin. When Raja Rajinder Singh of Neemrana moved out of the 15th Century eyrie in 1947, he couldn’t find a buyer for the estate for 40 years. In 1987, Aman Nith and Francis Wacziarg bought the property and opened the hotel in 1991 with only 15 rooms. The full restoration of Neemrana has been a 21-year labour of love for the two men and has attracted a string of awards such as the 2000 Intach-Satte Award with its unforgettable citation – “the foremost example of how we can pick architectural treasures from the national dustbin and turn them around.”
Five years ago, the restoration of Neemrana was finally completed. The result is a fairytale vision of 55 plush rooms scattered over seven palace wings across 12 levels, hanging gardens and a Hollywood-style pool and spa. At night the whole fort is floodlit to ensure a magic carpet ride feeling, all the better to enhance the performances of classical Indian musicians and dancers. Neemrana has also become a hotspot for conventions so the most exhilarating activity it offers is a lot more breathtaking than a camel cart ride. India’s first ziplining experience debuted here a few years ago and daredevils can “fly” across the surrounding mountainous terrain.
Mandawa Hotels operates a string of restored heritage hotels in Rajasthan – the Jai Niwas Resort, Mandawa Haveli Jaipur, Desert Resort Mandawa and the Hotel Castle Mandawa. We stayed at the 18th Century Castle Mandawa, 168 kilometres from Jaipur, once the stronghold of the rulers of Shekawati, a feudal principality that grew rich as a trading post on the old caravan routes that stretched from China to the Middle East. Many of the merchants moved to other parts of India when the caravan trade dried up, but several prominent families came back to Mandawa to build spectacular havelis. Many are neglected but it’s still a rare treat to stroll through the town and imagine how they looked when they were freshly painted.
The 80 rooms with period furniture are a bit dated, which disappoints European and American guests the most. But the exterior, public areas and turbaned staff of the Castle Mandawa have that opulent Scheherazade feeling from the mural-painted dining room to the multi-towered exterior and candlelit dinners on request. Rajasthani folk singers and dancers, camel and horse rides, the long bar and billiards room – all underscore the Rains Of Ranchipur atmosphere, the old potboiler of a movie that starred Lana Turner as an English aristocrat and Richard Burton in an early film role playing her Indian lover. We stayed during the festival of Holi and the entire village came to celebrate in the courtyard of the hotel. As a German couple remarked, it was like a vision from the 1001 nights.
There’s no need to dip too far into your imagination at the Samode Palace, 40 kilometres north of Jaipur. Many Bollywood movies have been filmed here and so was the 1984 TV series, The Far Pavilions, starring Ben Cross, Amy Irving and Omar Sharif. The Indo-Islamic building started life as a 16th Century fort built by the Maha Rawals of Amber and Jaipur. A hall of mirrors and the mosaic-filled Darbar Hall were added in the 19th Century to smooth out the castle’s rugged military edges.
An endless procession of writers from European fashion and interior design magazines from Elle Decor to Marie Claire UK routinely pass through to enjoy the luxury of the four-poster beds and the marble and mosaic swimming pool. The resulting articles feature the sort of hyped-up prose that money can’t buy. “Samode Palace is a gorgeous stage set and for holidaymakers staying overnight it must remain a phantasmal blur” is an unintentional gem from Conde Nast Traveler magazine. It’s true and clearly conveys the right message. You really should stay at least two nights to submerge yourself in the fantasy of being a temporary prince.