Behind India’s Palace Doors: A New Hotel Trend
Ten days before my botched meeting with the Maharaja of Jodhpur, I explained my mission to Sayar Singh, the man in a starched blue shirt charged with driving me around Rajasthan. He betrayed no emotion, but I interpreted his lack of response as mild disapproval. Or maybe that was my anxiety: I was uncomfortable with the idea of having a driver. Uncomfortable, that is, until we pulled into the melee of cars, motorbikes, trucks, buses, goats, pedestrians, camel carts and dogs on the highway in Rajasthan.
It took us seven bone-rattling hours, but we finally turned the car sharply into the hushed driveway of our first stop: Raj Niwas, in the district of Dholpur. The palace was a veritable museum, a preserve of anglophiliac nostalgia complete with a liveried doorman. The furniture was dark and heavily carved, the worn carpets were silk, and every inch of the walls that wasn’t adorned with Ionic columns was hung with paintings of regal men in turbans. Built in 1876 by a family that had been given Dholpur as a fiefdom, Raj Niwas was developed to house Britain’s Prince Albert on his first visit to India. His hosts wanted him to feel at home, which is why they designed the parlour ceiling to match the one at Buckingham Palace.
“Everyone who has a structure like this wants to preserve it,” said Dushyant Singh, the estate’s current owner. “That wouldn’t have been possible without tourism.”
A stocky, fast-talking man in his 40s, Dushyant is, in his own words, “a hotel professional.” But he’s also the scion of the local ruling family, the son of Rajasthan’s chief minister and a politician himself—a characteristic that became increasingly obvious as he began to extol Dholpur’s attractions. “We’re convenient to Delhi and to the Taj Mahal,” he said. “But we have excellent wildlife close by. Guests come here for a quiet spot to relax. Have you seen our reviews on TripAdvisor?”
Dushyant wasn’t sentimental for the past. He had grown up in the palace—room No. 6 was his childhood bedroom—but he professed no discomfort at having strangers in his home. In fact, he had built a restaurant and modern cabanas in the palace garden in order to increase the number of guests the hotel could accommodate. Confident, with at least one eye firmly on the bottom line, Dushyant didn’t act like royalty; he acted like a venture capitalist.
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