Behind India’s Palace Doors: Meeting the Maharaja
The Maharaja of Jodhpur has kept me waiting. Fifteen minutes have passed since our appointed meeting time in Umaid Bhawan, his sandstone palace. With its elaborate dome rising above the city of Jodhpur, in northwest India’s Rajasthan region, it looks like the country’s version of Sacré-Coeur.
The office where I wait is panelled in dark wood, its furniture about 70 years out of date. A man whose job seems to be shuffling papers, one sheet at a time, nods a greeting. A matronly secretary steps out to offer me tea. I decline, but she returns 10 minutes later to offer again. This time, I accept.
Later, the man shuffles by again with another page and glances at the skin of milk forming in my cup. “Your tea is getting cold, madam,” he says. A fan clicks overhead. At precisely one hour past our appointed time, the secretary returns. It’s just that His Highness is so busy, you see.
The Maharaja of Jodhpur has stood me up.
I can’t quite say I’m surprised. The maharaja is merely acting like a monarch. That, after all, is what the maharajas once were: kings of the many small states that made up India. Even after Britain colonized the subcontinent, many of the royals retained their lands and influence in exchange for collaborating with the imperial government. Independence, in 1947, and the democracy that ensued were supposed to turn these former royals into ordinary citizens.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. New laws may have diminished the riches of India’s royal families, but the vestiges of generations of privilege and authority remain. That’s especially true in Rajasthan, where princely culture survived the longest and the land is dotted with palaces that are still occupied by families with regal roots. I wanted to understand the role of these families in present-day India and see how they navigate modern life while still embodying the old system, so I set out to traverse the region. It’s not hard to find these erstwhile monarchs—in an effort to hold on to their palaces, many have turned them into hotels.