A taste of the royal life

Seven decades into democ­racy, a royal In­dian palace thrives as part-home, part-ho­tel, part-mu­seum

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - PERSPECTIVES - BY VINEETA DEEPAK

In the sum­mer of 1944, hun­dreds of roy­als gath­ered for the open­ing of Umaid Bhawan Palace, a mag­nif­i­cent sand­stone ed­i­fice that dom­i­nates the sky­line in In­dia’s north­west­ern city of Jodhpur. It was the last of its kind.

Three years later, In­dia was free from Bri­tish colo­nial rule, and more than 500 princely states — the semi-sov­er­eign prin­ci­pal­i­ties ruled by royal clans — faced an un­cer­tain fu­ture.

Most have faded into ob­scu­rity, but the fam­ily that built this palace con­tin­ues to thrive — in part by con­vert­ing a sec­tion of it into a ho­tel.

“How many places do you know in the world where you can ac­tu­ally live right where the ma­haraja is liv­ing next door to you?” said the ho­tel’s gen­eral man­ager, Mehrnawaz Avari. “The idea is to treat our guests like kings and queens.”

The 347-room palace, con­sid­ered one of the world’s fan­ci­est res­i­dences, was used as the pri­mary lo­ca­tion for “Viceroy House,” a film by direc­tor Gurinder Chadha be­ing re­leased Fri­day in In­dia.

The movie de­tails the last days of the Bri­tish Em­pire in In­dia and the bloody par­ti­tion with what be­came Pak­istan in 1947.

The iconic struc­ture in this west Ra­jasthani city known for its tra­di­tional hand­i­crafts was named af­ter Ma­haraja Umaid Singh, the last king of what was known as the Mar­war-Rathore Dy­nasty. He com­mis­sioned the project in 1929 with a “spirit of grand­ness,” said royal fam­ily as­so­ciate Karni Singh Ja­sol. “He had a larger-than-life vi­sion.”

Af­ter in­de­pen­dence, most of In­dia’s princely states opted to join the demo­cratic repub­lic, and ini­tially main­tained their ti­tles, prop­erty and a de­gree of au­ton­omy. Within decades, the roy­als lost al­most all of it, though. In­dia amended its con­sti­tu­tion in 1971, giv­ing its cit­i­zens equal rights and can­celling royal priv­i­leges, in­clud­ing the reg­u­lar pay­ments royal fam­i­lies re­ceived from the state.

Stripped of their al­lowances and un­sure how to sur­vive as com­mon­ers, many royal fam­i­lies de­scended into chaos. Some held onto prop­erty, only to lose it amid in­ter­nal bick­er­ing over ri­val claims.

“The prop­er­ties that they in­her­ited were in a true sense white ele­phants,” Ja­sol said. “The royal fam­i­lies were high on as­sets, but low on liq­uid­ity. They didn’t have large bank bal­ances to turn their fam­ily prop­er­ties into some­thing grand or sus­tain it for the fu­ture.”

The Singhs of Jodhpur not only main­tained their hold­ings, but man­aged over decades to grow.

The last reign­ing ma­haraja’s grand­son, Gaj Singh, was only 4 when his father died in a plane crash in 1952, mak­ing him sole owner of the palace and other fam­ily prop­er­ties, in­clud­ing the an­ces­tral Mehran­garh Fort.

When royal al­lowances were can­celled in 1971, the young Singh pa­tri­arch acted quickly.

The fam­ily opened part of its palace as a ho­tel in 1978, and turned the fort into a mu­seum, in­vest­ing prof­its into pre­serv­ing Jodhpur’s royal an­tiq­ui­ties.

“They to­day serve as the main eco­nomic levers for the city,” said Ja­sol, who is direc­tor of the fort and mu­seum.

The palace is open to vis­i­tors year­round, and has be­come a go-to des­ti­na­tion for gov­ern­ment lead­ers, other roy­als, and Hol­ly­wood and Bol­ly­wood stars alike.

In 2007, Bri­tish ac­tress Elizabeth Hur­ley mar­ried In­dian busi­ness­man Arun Na­yar be­neath the white mar­ble canopy, or baradari, on the palace lawn; they have since di­vorced.

The palace is di­vided into a home for Gaj Singh and his fam­ily, and a her­itage ho­tel of 64 rooms and suites run by the lux­ury ho­tel chain Taj Group since 2005. De­signed by Bri­tish ar­chi­tect Henry Vaughan Lanch­ester, the palace fea­tures el­e­ments of the art deco style pop­u­lar in Europe and Amer­ica in the ‘30s and ‘40s, com­bined with tra­di­tional In­dian crafts­man­ship.

The cost of the royal ex­pe­ri­ence ranges from $500 to more than $12,000 a night. For those who can af­ford it, the ho­tel pulls out all the stops.

AP PHOTO

The Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, In­dia. The 347-room palace, con­sid­ered one of the world’s fan­ci­est res­i­dences, was used as the pri­mary lo­ca­tion for “Viceroy House,” a film by direc­tor Gurinder Chadha.

AP PHOTO

The en­trance of the Mehran­garh Fort in Jodhpur, In­dia.

AP PHOTO

A gen­eral view of the Umaid Bhawan Palace gar­dens in Jodhpur, In­dia.

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