In In­dia’s Ra­jasthan re­gion, one-time royal fam­i­lies are invit­ing trav­el­ers to share in the high life

Reader's Digest International - - Front Page - BY LISA ABEND FROM AFAR

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The of­fice where I wait is pan­elled in dark wood, its fur­ni­ture about 70 years out of date.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.

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. 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 An­glophile 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 par­lor 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.

MY NEXT STOP, Prithvi Vi­las, was lo­cated seven hours away and was more home stay 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 fa­vorite 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, too, 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.


driv­ing through towns, vil­lages and desert, we talked about the Ma­haraja of Jodh­pur. Ac­tu­ally, the man I’d failed to meet was all any­body in Ra­jasthan seemed to dis­cuss, be­cause his son’s wife had re­cently given birth to a baby boy. In 2005, their older son had suf­fered a brain in­jury in a polo ac­ci­dent and had yet to

fully re­cover, so the birth rep­re­sented not only a near-mirac­u­lous con­tin­u­a­tion of the fam­ily line but also tri­umph over tragedy.

“He doesn’t have any au­thor­ity, does he?” I asked. “He’s not the ma­haraja any­more. Why does ev­ery­one treat him like he’s still a king?” A smile played across Sa­yar’s lips. “Hered­ity, madam,” he said, “is stronger than any con­sti­tu­tion.”

The nearly two kilo­me­ters of ram­parts we passed as we en­tered Ranvas Na­gaur, a pala­tial ho­tel within a fortress, im­parted a de­gree of grandeur I hadn’t en­coun­tered yet. A gra­cious man­ager showed me around, and we popped into a ground-floor room. It held three beds done up in red bro­cade and a flat-screen TV. “This is where the ma­haraja stays,” the man­ager said. There he was again: the Ma­haraja of Jodh­pur. His ho­tel com­pany owns and runs Ranvas. My resid­ual an­noy­ance at be­ing ditched faded as I walked through an arch­way adorned with mar­vel­lous fres­coes and into the un­in­hab­ited part of the palace.

Make that palaces. Ranvas is ac­tu­ally a 38-acre com­plex, part ho­tel and part mu­seum, where guests can book a stay at one of 10 havelis (or man­sions) which, in an­other time, would have housed a queen. Each haveli has three to five rooms. The mu­seum in­cludes the evoca­tively named Palace of Mir­rors and Palace of Lan­terns, the lat­ter of which houses up­wards of 500 oil lamps. Dur­ing the day, the mu­seum com­plex is open to the pay­ing public, but af­ter 5 p.m., only ho­tel guests are al­lowed on the premises. Hav­ing ar­rived dur­ing the scorch­ing off-sea­son, with the ex­cep­tion of a guide, I had the place to my­self.

The fort, which has roots as far back as the fourth cen­tury, was one of north­ern In­dia’s first Mus­lim strongholds, but it’s rife with the key­hole arches and in­laid floors that char­ac­ter­ize Mughal architecture. My guide pointed to an es­pe­cially fine fresco of girls danc­ing in the mon­soon rain. “Mus­lim ar­ti­sans painted the geo­met­ric de­signs and Hindu ones the fig­ures,” he said. “Ev­ery­body did what they were best at.” He took me up to the roof, where the sun was carmine over the town be­low and the sand­stone ram­parts glowed hyp­not­i­cally. The guide in­ter­rupted my reverie. “And to think, this would have been lost with­out the Ma­haraja of Jodh­pur.”

DE­SPITE HIS STERN de­meanor, even Sa­yar seemed pleased with our last stop. Lo­cated on a ru­ral road sur­rounded by fields out­side of Jaipur, The Farm is not a palace at all. The young cou­ple who own it,


Surya and Ritu Singh, be­long to the no­ble class. Surya’s fa­ther’s es­tate was sub­merged, lit­er­ally, when the state built a hy­dro­elec­tric dam nearby. His fa­ther saved all the fur­ni­ture he could, put it in stor­age and bought a piece of land with the com­pen­sa­tion he re­ceived. Surya and Ritu feel an at­tach­ment and re­spon­si­bil­ity to their her­itage, but they’re also artists (they build in­stal­la­tions us­ing re­claimed scrap ma­te­rial) who em­brace the cre­ative power of change. And so they took that land, built cot­tages for guests and fur­nished them with pieces the el­der Singh had saved.

At The Farm, an old wagon has be­come a set­tee in the pool­side din­ing area, and it isn’t un­com­mon to see a Dodge steer­ing wheel func­tion­ing as a towel rack in your room. There are wed­ding al­bums filled with fam­ily photos in the down­stairs li­brary, but they’re one of the few signs of the past left in­tact; ev­ery­thing else has been reimag­ined.

“Some friends who own palaces, they can’t keep them up; they’re crum­bling,” said Surya. “We get to start from scratch and put the puz­zle back to­gether the way we want.”

Ritu and Surya are in their 30s, and in ad­di­tion to The Farm, they run an ex­per­i­men­tal restau­rant called Wolf in Jaipur. There, lo­cal chefs moon­light along­side the res­i­dent chef week to week to cre­ate in­no­va­tive menus. “We know plenty of peo­ple who are still stuck in the past,” Ritu says. “They be­lieve the Raj will come back. Even women I went to school with, the ones who were well-ed­u­cated and wore jeans, they come back, put on their chif­fon saris and be­come the ma­haraja’s wife. Times have to change; it’s im­por­tant to speak to your cul­ture, but you should also make use of the education you’ve been pro­vided with.”

But change never hap­pens in a straight line. Democ­racy and mod­ern-day con­sumer cap­i­tal­ism were every­where in In­dia, ex­cept where they weren’t. Priv­i­lege and ef­fort, hered­ity and abil­ity, past and fu­ture were en­tan­gled in ways I couldn’t be­gin to un­der­stand. All I’d seen in those lovely es­tates was a glimpse of the knot.

At the Su­ján Ra­jma­hal Palace, suc­ces­sive ma­hara­jas chose this space as a bed­room.

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