7 decades into In­dian democ­racy, a royal palace con­tin­ues to thrive

‘The idea is to treat guests like kings and queens’

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

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.”

Royal priv­i­leges

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 can­cel­ing 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 can­celed 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 year-round, 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. Colon­naded ve­ran­das guide one’s eye up to in­tri­cately carved pil­lars, styl­ized sculp­tures and fi­nally a mas­sive cen­tral dome topped by a 30-me­ter (105foot) golden cupola. 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.

Re­gion’s her­itage

Vis­i­tors are greeted by a smil­ing guard wear­ing one of Jodh­pur’s fa­mous han­dle­bar mous­taches; he opens the door while ho­tel staff shower guests with rose petals. Pea­cocks roam the palace lawns. Fur­ther in­side, pul­sat­ing Ra­jasthani folk tunes fill the air as col­or­ful dancers move in chore­ographed cir­cles. Guests min­gle amid crys­tal chan­de­liers and silk-draped fur­ni­ture. Gold-leaf fur­ni­ture and or­nate mir­rors are ar­ranged around gleam­ing mar­ble floors, while the walls are dec­o­rated with fam­ily por­traits, as well as leop­ard skins and the busts of other an­i­mals hunted by for­mer roy­als. The dec­o­ra­tion was done over three years by Pol­ish artist Ste­fan Nor­blin, who had fled from war-torn Europe in 1944. He also painted fres­coes and mu­rals in the royal suites.

The royal fam­ily has long fo­cused on con­serv­ing the re­gion’s her­itage as a way to uti­lize its enor­mous real es­tate hold­ings. It man­ages trusts en­gaged in water con­ser­va­tion, ed­u­ca­tion and cul­tural re­vival projects, cre­at­ing em­ploy­ment for thou­sands of lo­cals. “I know at one time, roy­alty was a bad word,” said Singh’s daugh­ter, 42-year-old Shivran­jani Ra­jye. “Now you don’t have to shy away from it.”

The Cam­bridge-ed­u­cated Ra­jye runs most of the fam­ily’s busi­ness op­er­a­tions, though the fam­ily heir is her brother, Shivraj Singh, who also lives with his fam­ily in the palace. He has kept a low pro­file since spend­ing sev­eral months in a coma af­ter a near-fa­tal ac­ci­dent play­ing polo in 2005. Jodh­pur’s res­i­dents still see the fam­ily as their roy­als, and Gaj Singh as their ma­haraja. And he “very much be­lieves he is the king,” said Ra­jye, el­e­gantly dressed in a chif­fon sari with a hint of jewelry. “He never gave up his ti­tle - he doesn’t have it of­fi­cially, but he knew who he was, and he knew he com­manded re­spect of the peo­ple.” — AP

JODH­PUR: In this March 6, 2007 photo, shows a gen­eral view of the Umaid Bhawan Palace. —AP

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