Photo: João Canziani
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The office where I wait is panelled in dark wood, its furniture about 70 years out of date.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.
Photo: João Canziani
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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Photo: João Canziani
Behind India’s Palace Doors: Vestiges of the Power and Privilege
My next stop, Prithvi Vilas, was located seven hours away and was more homestay than hotel. Maharaj Rana Chandrajit Singh and his wife, Ira—he looking like Clark Kent, she resplendent in an emerald-green sari—waited in the doorway to greet me with a necklace of marigolds and a glass of juice. They graciously showed me my room, an enormous chamber containing a rose petal–filled bathtub, then invited me for gin and tonics in a faded sitting room that looked like it was sinking beneath the weight of its Edwardian furniture and gilt-edged family photos. Every few minutes, a member of the serving staff in a paramilitary uniform brought us snacks.
Chandrajit, a.k.a. the Maharaja of Jhalawar, showed me around. Leopards, tigers, gazelles, a boar—all skinned, stuffed and looking quite displeased—filled the hallways. I counted 10 complete porcelain tea sets in the dining room. In the living room, Chandrajit picked up a silver inkwell, strangely shaped. “This is from my grandfather’s favourite polo pony,” he said. “When it died, he had its hoof plated.”
In most homes, an ink-bearing, silver-plated hoof would be the pièce de résistance of knick-knacks. But Chandrajit had one more thing to show me. He motioned to a corner table topped with a black-and-white photograph of a man with an aquiline nose. Something about the man looked familiar, so I walked over to read the inscription. “To my good friend,” it read. “With warm regards, Benito Mussolini.”
The family left politics when, in 1967, Chandrajit’s grandfather died young of a heart attack induced, they believe, by the stress of it all. But the royal scion exercises power in other ways, helping a teacher find a position in town, say, or aiding a couple whose marriage has gone sour. This is how it used to be, the maharaja handling matters large and small for his people. Some residents “miss the earlier times,” Chandrajit said, “when there was a ruler to hear the problems of the public.”
Signs of those earlier times still filled Prithvi Vilas. Shelves of books, trunks crammed with photographs, cupboards packed with several generations’ worth of linens: the past encroached like kudzu swallowing a tree. But in the morning, when it came time to leave, Ira pulled me onto the sofa and whipped out her iPad. She swiped briskly through a series of photographs of modern rooms, all clean lines and sleek furniture. “It’s our apartment in Delhi,” she whispered urgently, as if trying to convince me—or herself—that she and her husband really were of this age.