Jew­els in the desert

Why the fa­bled In­dian state of Ra­jasthan is still all the rage

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

A DECADE ago, wait­ing for the sun­set at the eerie, half-ru­ined Sa­j­jan­garh Palace, a hill­top stage-set cir­cled by honey buz­zards, I had just one thought. How long be­fore an en­ter­pris­ing hote­lier snaps up this one-time princely re­doubt and does a raja-chic makeover?

Sure enough, it’s been ti­died up since and re­named Monsoon Palace, with tours for vis­i­tors, many still on the James Bond trail — the palace fea­tured in the 1983 film Oc­to­pussy as the res­i­dence of Ka­mal Khan, an ex­iled Afghan prince. But there are no faux-re­gal bed­cham­bers as yet — an op­por­tu­nity missed or a royal re­prieve?

Just out­side the lake city of Udaipur in Ra­jasthan, the palace was aban­doned by the royal fam­ily in 1880 due to the dif­fi­culty of pump­ing up wa­ter sup­plies.

They couldn’t have missed Sa­j­jan­garh too much. Like their fel­low rulers in Ra­jasthan, they had summer and city palaces in their real-es­tate harem, and this monsoon prop­erty was re­ally j ust a de­li­cious folly where stars were stud­ied with com­pli­cated as­tro­nom­i­cal in­stru­ments and rain­sum­mon­ing par­ties held in ad­vance of the annual del­uge.

The desert state of Ra­jasthan in north­west In­dia is palace cen­tral, with princely piles and forts in abun­dance, some richly ren­o­vated with all the five- star falder­als, oth­ers bid­ding guests to bed down in shabby but at­mos­phere-laden sur­rounds, and still more dis­in­te­grat­ing amid sand­storms and In­dia’s red-tape bu­reau­cracy.

Roughly the size of France, and once known as Ra­jputana (‘‘land of princes’’), Ra­jasthan is a pho­tog­ra­pher’s fan­tasy, the desert a vast back­drop to the emer­ald greens and acid pinks of swirling saris and pump­kin yel­lows of tur­bans.

I have been trav­el­ling to Ra­jas- than reg­u­larly for more than 25 years and for at least the past decade travel talk­ing points have been luxe sa­fari tents ad­ja­cent to the tiger ter­ri­tory of Ran­tham­bore Na­tional Park, des­ti­na­tion spas of­fer­ing Ayurvedic treat­ments, and bou­tique digs owned by the en­ter­pris­ing Ma­haraja of Jodh­pur.

Most of us have fairy­tale im­ages in our minds of Ra­jasthan, and in its largest city, Jaipur, those dream­scapes blend with his­tory in one in­tox­i­cat­ing hit. There are camels on the foot­paths in Jaipur’s walled old quar­ter, three-wheeler auto-rick­shaws that buzz about like dis­turbed bees and holy cows sleep­ing on the streets at in­con­ve­nient in­ter­vals, act­ing in a dotty way as bovine round­abouts.

The city was the first in In­dia to be planned with wide av­enues, and it is known for its rose-coloured stonework. Amust-do ex­cur­sion is to the Am­ber Fort, 11km out­side Jaipur, where vis­i­tors ride on dec­o­rated how­dahs aboard ele­phants up to the ram­parts, pavil­ions and belved­eres of the one-time hold-out of the ma­hara­jas of Kachch­waha.

The five- star Ra­jvi­las, 8km from the city proper, seems a galaxy re­moved. This low-rise Oberoi Ho­tels-run re­sort, with the se­vere lines of a moated gar­ri­son, is the sort of shim­mer­ing mi­rage a trav­eller might rub their eyes at in dis­be­lief if en­coun­tered in a sandy waste­land. Ra­jvi­las has been de­signed around clus­ters of gue­strooms and teak- floored cam­paign tents ra­di­at­ing from a 250-year-old tem­ple ded­i­cated to Lord Shiva. This was the first ho­tel of this stel­lar stan­dard built from scratch in In­dia; prop­er­ties con­verted from the palaces of bank­rupt ma­hara­jas were the pre­vi­ous hos­pi­tal­ity bench­mark.

The ho­tel has also emerged as a show­case for Ra­jasthani arts and crafts, from pea­cock blue and aqua­ma­rine Jaipur tiling in the swim­ming pools to mon­u­men­tal brass- clad doors. It took 800 work­ers three years to com­plete Ra­jvi­las; pot­tery and tile ex­perts kept 12 kilns in full-time use for the du­ra­tion of the project.

Over three stays, I have found the ser­vice to be pin-sharp at Ra­jvi­las and ev­ery­thing works seam­lessly, but just when it feels a bit too grown-up and global vil­lage on this sur­re­al­is­tic Planet Oberoi, I have dis­cov­ered a daffy In­dian de­tail. The re­sort em­ploys a pi­geon dis­patcher with a white flag on a long stick. He has the sole duty of swip­ing at the birds so they don’t leave their un­wel­come drop­pings on ro­tun­das and rooftops.

At Ram­bagh Palace in Jaipur, a mem­ber of the Taj Group, the ever-so-pukka Polo Bar is dec­o­rated with the late ma­haraja’s tro­phies, and pea­cocks strut the grounds, drag­ging their tails like tat­tered bridal trains. The gue­strooms in the old wing are com­pletely idio­syn­cratic: some as large as li­braries, oth­ers set with mir­rors, mo­saics and Lalique crys­tal foun­tains.

In its town hall- sized din­ing room, bot­tles of old French wine stand on sil­ver tray­mo­biles and white- gloved staff stir the buf­fet cur­ries.

For those who pre­fer mothy cur­tains and the odd stuffed tro­phy, Jaipur also of­fers Ho­tel Narain Ni­was Palace, the cen­trally lo­cated former home of Gen­eral Amar Singh, one-time com­man­der of the Jaipur State Forces. Built in 1928, the man­sion has been con­verted to a ho­tel heav­ing with all man­ner of cu­riosi­ties. Some gue­strooms come with four­posters and for­mal lounges; the high-ceilinged pub­lic ar­eas have the feel of Vic­to­rian sa­lons, al­beit ran­domly dec­o­rated ones. It is like stay­ing in a mu­seum with no glass cases or do-not-touch signs.

An hour out­side Jaipur, the crenel­lated and curlicued Samode Palace has had a se­ries of facelifts and is a pop­u­lar lo­cale for film­ing Hindi pot­boil­ers. Its im­pres­sive front-en­trance steps play host to mous­tache-twirling vil­lains, veiled vir­gins and hand­some he­roes of the sort given to Satur­day Night Fever flared-trousers danc­ing as they take on the bad guys.

At the Umaid Bhawan Palace (now a mem­ber of the Lead­ing Ho­tels of the World) in the blue­painted city of Jodh­pur, 336km into the desert east of Jaipur, the res­i­dent ma­haraja, Gaj Singh II, 60 years on the ‘‘throne’’ this year, sud­denly ap­pears in car­pet slip­pers dur­ing my stay and gives me his busi­ness card.

He has a sta­ble of ho­tels, in­clud­ing a royal tented camp, and a per­sonal web­site full of florid prose, but he’s more re­strained than his an­ces­tors: those lux­u­rylovers are re­puted to have bathed in French cham­pagne and slept un­der lay­ers of per­fect rose petals picked by an army of gar­den­ers.

The art deco-style Umaid Bhawan Palace, some of its wings briefly part of the Aman­re­sorts port­fo­lio, took 3000 work­men al­most 15 years to build from mar­ble and local red sand­stone. It was com­menced in 1929 on a dry, un­likely site dic­tated by astrologers, and upon com­ple­tion was ac­claimed as the world’s largest pri­vate res­i­dence. Like other princely abodes across In­dia, and es­pe­cially Ra­jasthan, the 347room palace was con­verted to a ho­tel to es­cape puni­tive prop­erty taxes in­tro­duced af­ter In­dian in­de­pen­dence in 1947.

Once there were 565 princes in In­dia; the des­ig­nated oc­cu­pa­tion in their pass­ports was ‘ ‘ ruler’’. Their ex­tra­or­di­nary wealth en­abled them to re­tain thou­sands of ser­vants, some of whom were as­signed to per­ma­nent chan­de­lier- dust­ing duty in Ce­cil B. de Mille-style epic vi­sions of carved bal­conies, cupo­las, tow­ers and tur­rets, east and west wings, polo grounds and ele­phant sta­bles.

A hand­ful of the dis­en­fran­chised rulers con­tinue to re­side in their palace- ho­tels, keep­ing to pri­vate quar­ters, and hoard­ing stashes of vin­tage Mu­rano glass,

Aubus­son car­pets and cus­tomised Rolls-Royces.

Udaipur’s Lake Palace also ap­peared in Oc­to­pussy. In any Agent 007 thriller, one ex­pects not just out­landish ma­noeu­vres but fan­tasy sets. So the no­tion of a build­ing oc­cu­py­ing a lit­tle is­land, sit­ting on a lake like a cake on a polished plat­ter, would have seemed as per­fectly ac­cept­able as any other Bond back­drop.

Ex­cept the white mar­ble Lake Palace isn’t some direc­tor’s play­thing but a real place where en­try de­pends not on wear­ing a white din­ner j acket and talk­ing into your wrist­watch but sim­ply a reser­va­tion. It was built as a summer re­treat by the then ruler of Udaipur in 1743 and is per­haps In­dia’s most fa­mous palace-ho­tel; on­go­ing re­fur­bish­ments by Taj Ho­tels have seen the suites se­ri­ously jazzed-up to in­clude vel­vet-rope plea­sure swings, crys­tal chan­de­liers, mar­ble bath­rooms with ‘ ‘ rain­for­est show­ers’’ and flatscreen tele­vi­sions.

At the Lake Palace’s Jiva Spa, guests can choose mus­tard-oil ‘‘war­rior mas­sages’’ or royal ‘‘wed­ding treat­ments’’ in­volv­ing san­dal­wood, rice grains and turmeric. This is a grand ex­am­ple of the new In­dian spa ex­pe­ri­ence where tra­di­tional Ayurvedic tech­niques meet the mod­ern in­dul­gences of aro­mather­apy mas­sages and can­dle-lit rose-petal baths.

Udaipur, ringed by the bluetinged Aravalli hills, is my favourite city in Ra­jasthan; it’s quiet, com­pact and wel­com­ing. Home to less than 450,000 in the city proper (which makes it nigh on a vil­lage by In­dian stan­dards; Jaipur’s pop­u­la­tion is more than three mil­lion), Udaipur is also home to Oberoi’s Udaivi­las, which opened in 2002, the first palace-scale de­vel­op­ment here for more than two cen­turies.

With cal­cu­lated irony, it of­fers views of the (real) Lake Palace from its pools, many of its gue­strooms, copy­cat colon­nades and clois­ters.

On a rocky em­i­nence on the east­ern flank of Lake Pi­chola sits the City Palace, where the king still lives in his cas­tle. The 76th ma­ha­rana of Udaipur runs HRH Ho­tels, a con­sor­tium that in­cludes Shiv Ni­was, in a wing of the City Palace (one suite has an all-sil­ver bed and a foun­tain), and its mid-range neigh­bour, Fateh Prakash Palace Ho­tel. When I met the ma­ha­rana in Sydney some years ago, I asked if his wife was with him. With­out skip­ping a beat he replied, ‘‘No, she’s at home, hold­ing the fort.’’

Udaipur’s bazaar (or chowk) in the old city, es­pe­cially the wind­ing streets around Jagdish Tem­ple, is a trove of good finds: small cop­per or brass serv­ing dishes with twin han­dles, bolts of bright tie-dye fab­ric that make fab­u­lous table­cloths or throws, and semi-pre­cious stones (amethysts, moon­stones, coloured quartz and more), loose or set in fine sil­ver.

Tai­lor­ing costs a song ( but in­sist on at least two fit­tings) from shops with such photo-wor­thy names as New Pinch Cloth­ing, Ladies Fits and Fat Un­cle Amit’s Shirt­ings and Suit­ings. Bar­gain with bravado.

There’s some­thing so ro­man­tic about cities set be­side lakes, and Udaipur is al­most like a Mediter­ranean town with a rooftop jum­ble of cafes and bars an­gled to­ward Lake Pi­chola. Just out­side Udaipur, Devi Garh rep­re­sents the lat­est face of palace- ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tion. The min­i­mal­ist rooms of this con­verted 18th­cen­tury hill fort fea­ture cool mar­ble, cream silk cush­ions, snowydressed beds and ter­razzo floors.

The look has been dubbed ‘‘Ar­mani-sur-Ra­jasthan’’ but Devi Garh is far more re­strained than that de­scrip­tion sug­gests: it’s the op­u­lence of the ma­hara­jas stripped bare and re­con­sti­tuted. Where once there would have been walls of beaten sil­ver and tiny mir­rors, now filmy fab­ric shot with sliv­ers of gold thread floats against a back­drop of pure white.

There are 23 in­di­vid­u­ally dec­o­rated suites and six tents; and one dines, of course, on sil­ver­leafed morsels and rose- petal ice cream.

An­other Ra­jasthani city set on a lake is Pushkar, 288km west of Jaipur and venue for an annual camel fair and races each Novem­ber. There is ter­rific bazaar shop­ping, walks around the holy lake, hun­dreds of tem­ples, horserid­ing, scat­ter­ing marigolds in the wa­ter af­ter a puja, some of In­dia’s best veg­e­tar­ian food . . . the annual camel festival al­most seems an un­nec­es­sary gilding.

Stay in a bal­conied room at the lake­side Pushkar Palace for a dress-cir­cle view, or in one of the 20 lux­ury tents at the mer­rily named pop-up en­clave of Camp Bliss (Novem­ber 18-27 this year) in a quiet or­chard of goose­berry trees a short walk from all the mad ac­tion.

The me­dieval desert fort city of Jaisalmer, mean­while, from where camel treks de­part across the Thar Desert, and Ran­tham­bore, gate­way to tiger ter­ri­tory, are other Ra­jasthan must-ticks. The lat­ter has hit the lux­ury sa­fari-goer’s radar since the opening of Oberoi’s Vanyav­i­las and Aman­re­sorts’ Aman-i-Khas camps at the en­trance to the 40,000ha na­tional park.

Ran­tham­bore sa­faris are not in the hushed, rev­er­en­tial mode of those in Africa. Fleets of truck-like af­fairs known as can­ters, and smaller four-wheel-drives called gyp­sies, ferry hun­dreds of tourists at a time.

It has the air of a noisy fete, but de­spite all the hurry and shout­ing, I have spot­ted a tiger here, not too dis­tant and with a very bored look on its face.

Af­ter more than 30 vis­its, I like to think I am an old In­dia hand, cool and ap­prais­ing. But I was thrilled to my bones as the tiger then walked across the track in front of our rack­ety old truck, and I joined in the joy­ous melee all around, squeal­ing like a ban­shee. Su­san Kuro­sawa is the au­thor of the best­selling novel Corona­tion Talkies, set in 1930s In­dia. Parts of this fea­ture were first pub­lished in as­so­ci­a­tion with Amer­i­can Ex­press.

MAIN PIC­TURE: AP/KEVIN FRAYER

Clock­wise from above, camel herders at the annual fair in Pushkar; Oberoi’s Udaivi­las in Udaipur, look­ing to­wards Lake Pi­chola; Samode Palace ho­tel near Jaipur; and Lake Palace ho­tel in Udaipur

Sheesh Ma­hal Suite in the Samode Palace ho­tel near Jaipur

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