Rajasthan’s royal hideaways
Leading up the faint trail towards the crumbling bastions of Udgir Fort, I pause to regard our party: two Forest Department rangers, our driver, the local village headman plus friend, and a pair of palace “guards”. Their attention is focused on my twenty-something companion Vivasvat Pal, scion of the house of Karauli, a former princely state in southeast Rajasthan.
Perched on a spur at the edge of the Daang Plateau, overlooking the Chambal valley, Udgir is a remote spot. From its lofty ramparts, seemingly endless bullock-tilled fields of mustard, wheat and lentils wrap time-forgotten hamlets. The silvery sheen of the Chambal River — the boundary between the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh — coils eastwards into a hazy horizon. Few outsiders venture here, in part because the Chambal and its distinctive ravines were until recently the haunt of folkhero bandits and outlaws.
As far as many local villagers are concerned, most outsiders clambering up to Udgir are probably after one thing — loot. Passing through a pair of open masonry gateways, Pal laments the vandalism and pilfering wrought by treasure-seekers whose ignorance and desperation has prompted the violation of Udgir’s ancient long-abandoned temples, palaces and barracks built by his forebears.
Our posse reaches a huge rectangular pool hewn from solid rock — a neat source of masonry for Udgir’s encircling walls and buildings. We fantasise how it might become Rajasthan’s largest and most magnificent swimming pool in the state’s wildest and most exclusive heritage property. The brilliant iridescent-blue flash of a darting kingfisher brings us back to earth and nature.
Pal and I patrol some battlements; it’s only his second visit and he’s thrilled to be here, connecting with the family’s convoluted half-forgotten heritage. Then, after a picnic lunch, while I scamper off to explore the ruins, he kneels before a rudimentary shrine to pay respects to the ancestors.
This is offbeat Rajasthan and I’m staying mainly in smaller, lesser-known properties in which the state’s royalty and aristocrats still reside or are actively involved. The idea is quite simply to enjoy a more intimate and personable experience in this so-called Land of Kings.
Back in Karauli town that evening, we settle down in the imposing courtyard of Bhanwar Vilas Palace for Scotch and a chat. Built in 1938 as a modern alternative to the family’s medieval City Palace that still dominates the town, it is home to Pal, his wife and parents; his father, the titular Maharaja of Karauli, is of a Rajput clan claiming direct descent from the Hindu god Krishna.
It’s a charming mansion-like property with the feel of a relaxed comfortable homestay rather than slick luxury, and no one pretends otherwise.
Like many such royals, the family is involved in politics. “Consequently,” continues Pal, “we occasionally open Bhanwar so the townspeople can visit. It’s amazing how many still want to believe in secret gold, hidden jewels ... I’ve overheard people claiming to friends that suchand-such is buried just over there or over here.”
Later I meet his mother — the Maharani and a former member of parliament — in their private lounge under the glass-eyed gaze of tiger and antelope heads. City Palace, she explains, was pillaged for years until they beefed up security, bricked up subterranean passages and, frankly, took more interest in it. Today, guests can enjoy an ex- clusive tour of its various sections spanning centuries of building and quaint indulgence.
I mention Timangarh, an ancient nearby fort I’d heard of in the context of rampant antiquities smuggling. “Yes,” she continues dolefully, “in past times we actually saw plenty of sculptures lying everywhere or half-buried in the ground … but now hardly anything remains.”
In this far-flung corner of Rajasthan, who could blame impoverished villagers for making a quick buck? It is from obscure and often unguarded sites like this that dealer Vaman Ghiya was accused of sourcing statues for turn-a-blind-eye Western art collectors and auction houses in the late 1970s and 80s. Jailed for a decade, he was acquitted of the charges in 2014.
One particularly brazen theft was in 1998 at the Baroli temple complex near Bhainsrorgarh. From an upper alcove in one of these beautiful 10th-century temples, thieves prised askew its jambs to steal a Shiva statue
which found its way to a London dealer. “It’s easy to spot the alcove,” says Hemendra Singh, the younger son of Rawat (or Lord) Shiv Charan Singh of Bhainsrorgarh, “because its jambs remain open at an odd angle. Those ASI [Archaeological Survey of India] people never repaired it … but it’s still well worth visiting.”
Hemendra and I sit in a rooftop pavilion at Bhainsrorgarh Fort Hotel having breakfast. I’m in no mood to go anywhere. The serene Chambal River 60m below us describes a gentle arc through countryside that almost resembles the Dordogne. It’s joined by an equally tranquil tributary and on the highest cliff between the two is the small palace.
As in Karauli, Bhainsrorgarh is a comfortable, atmospheric homestay with sweet, obliging staff, five-star views that are arguably the best in Rajasthan and with relatively few visitors. Hemendra arranges a rowing boat for me to enjoy the Chambal and observe its crocodiles for a few hours. Later I stroll into the pretty countryside where people’s lives are little changed from when his ancestors assumed control of their fiefdom in 1741.
Hemendra grew up here just as the family resisted the first overtures from international hoteliers in the early 1990s, when India opened its economy. Bhainsrorgarh eventually began receiving guests in late 2006 and today just four guestrooms complement the original five suites.
“My family took some persuading to go it alone,” he recalls, “but I was passionate. In 1991 I’d visited Samode Palace [near Jaipur] and it made such an impact to see how a heritage property could work.”
Samode is among Rajasthan’s most famous palace hotels. Still owned and managed by landowning nobles related to Jaipur’s royals, the palace’s impeccable staff, 43 guestrooms and suites, two pools and restaurants offer a polished rather than homely experience in an alluring 19th-century confection of Rajput-Mughal architecture. I’m barely through the first muscular gateway when I glimpse the car collection — including a Morgan Plus 4, a vintage Chevrolet sedan and a 1950s Mercedes Ponton — housed in open-fronted garages. Samode’s accommodation is ranged around a pair of deep courtyards while the main pool with its arabesque tilework dominates a sun-drenched terrace.
The jewel in the hotel’s crown is its pristine Durbar Hall with walls, pillars and ceiling forming a kind of giant tapestry adorned with myriad painted images and motifs inspired by Indian mythology and Hindu beliefs. “The palace was our private home until 1987,” says co-owner Rawal Yadavendra Singh, “and we as a family constantly maintained it. There were even special cloth covers to protect the hall’s paintings from the sunlight.”
What might have become a post-independence money pit evolved into an extremely successful business, drawing on the old-fashioned romance and glamour of Rajasthan’s princely states.
At Ravla Bhenswara, a modest property hidden amid a tight knot of lanes in Bhenswara village in southwest Rajasthan, Kunwar Shiv Pratap Singh tells how he and his wife first welcomed guests in 1993.
“Many homes like this just didn’t survive; ours was in pretty poor condition, we had many rooms full of halfforgotten utensils and trinkets … but necessity is the mother of invention.” So after working out what architecturally could be salvaged and tapping into his wife’s interest in interior design, they set about restoring the mansion and lending quirky touches, such as wall patterns outlined by studded one-rupee coins and old wooden cartwheels used as garden tables.
Shivdutt, the Singhs’ son, takes me out one afternoon in a Mahindra jeep. We cross the bone-dry Jawai River past scattered hamlets and head towards the surrounding hills. Sandy tracks skirt the heels of bouldery granite outcrops and we pause for snacks and sundowners at a vantage point at their base. “We bring horses here for riding and camping safaris,” he says, waving his hand into the distance at more brooding hills, “but another attraction is leopard.”
As darkness falls, Mheda, our assistant, turns on the spotlight and we descend to a more forested area of gnarled trees, gullies and ledges. Mheda launches into a volley of alarm calls, first mimicking the throaty honk of a langur monkey before switching to the plaintive bleating of a lost kid. Within minutes our beam picks up the pinprick gleam of eyes up amid the rocks, but the wary leopard refuses to budge. “We used to have more sightings,” says Shivdutt, “plus hyena and jackal. But despite their hideouts, poisoned carcasses and habitat encroachment are making life tough for all meat-eating animals here.”
Days later in Jhalawar’s Prithvi Vilas Palace, I’m reminded of the even tougher old days for India’s wildlife. Built in 1921 on the edge of town, as a hunting lodge for the royal family, it has a dimly lit entrance hall that is arguably its most memorable feature. Along with a few display cabinets, its walls erupt with mounted deer, antelope, tiger and leopard heads. The front portion of an enormous tiger stands by the front door, though I’m told this specimen was found dead rather than hunted. “Yes, some guests are a bit uncomfortable with the heads,” admits Maharaj Rana Chandrajit Singh, “but most don’t seem to mind. You can’t change the past; the ancestors enjoyed hunting.” Today he relishes the varied company drawn to his property. Being something of a backwater, Jhalawar sees just a steady trickle of visitors even though nearby Gagron Fort, skirted by two rivers, is among Rajasthan’s most picturesque.
After drinks in the drawing room, where there is an autographed photograph of Mussolini, we dine together, matter-of-factly using the family silver. Uniformed staff pad about like cats. Our conversation turns to heritage lost and faded. Jhalawar’s main 19th-century garh, or city palace, is now mostly used as government offices but there’s a mildly diverting little museum of ancient sculptures, handwritten manuscripts and an armoury.
The real oddity of the complex is the Natya Shala, a 1920s theatre built by his urbane great-great-grandfather. Complete with stage ramps for props and horses, the disused and deteriorating theatre has become an impromptu badminton court for the caretaker and his pals.
Singh sighs at its mention. “Some years ago we heard that workmen modifying a dwelling abutting the city palace found some treasure [and] jewellery items hidden in its walls.” As they argued over the spoils, the police were alerted. When they turned up, things quietened, but that was the last anyone heard of the loot. “Maybe,” he grins broadly, “I should have put in my own claim.”
Bhainsrorgarh Fort Hotel in Rajasthan, above
Samode Palace Hotel near Jaipur, top; antique motoring at Bhanwar Vilas Palace Hotel, Karauli, above; the Royal Family, Bhanwar Vilas Palace, above right; a garlanded statue at Bhanwar Vilas Palace, below