Ra­jasthan may have its share of cel­e­brated royal res­i­dences–turned–lux­ury ho­tels, but the state’s more ob­scure her­itage prop­er­ties are well worth seek­ing out too—and not just be­cause they’re eas­ier on the wal­let.


Ra­jasthan may have its share of cel­e­brated palaces–turned–lux­ury ho­tels, but the In­dian state’s more ob­scure her­itage prop­er­ties are well worth seek­ing out too.

You’ve heard of the Great Wall of China. But what about the great “wall” of Kis­hangarh? Lo­cated 100 kilo­me­ters west of Jaipur in In­dia’s desert state of Ra­jasthan, it’s com­posed en­tirely of mar­ble— seem­ingly end­less slabs of stone in shades of ivory, gray, rose, and emer­ald green stacked out­side the count­less mar­ble show­rooms that line both sides of the ex­press­way lead­ing into town. Four cen­turies ago, Shah Ja­han built his Taj Ma­hal from stone quar­ried at Makrana in the hills just north of here. Kis­hangarh has since evolved to be­come the mar­ble cap­i­tal of Asia, sell­ing lux­ury stone to as­pira- tional In­di­ans whose dream home is a mini Taj Ma­hal. But I’m not here for the mar­ble. I’ve come for a palace.

My driver, Di­nesh, has driven tourists around Ra­jasthan for three decades, but never be­fore has he brought any to Kis­hangarh. This dusty city of 150,000 rarely fea­tures on tourist itineraries; it’s on mine be­cause I have a thing for palace ho­tels. Not the cel­e­brated and ru­inously ex­pen­sive for­mer royal res­i­dences epit­o­mized by Jaipur’s Ram­bagh Palace or the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur, mind you—though I’m quite happy to check in to such places when

some­one else is pay­ing. My taste is in mi­nor palaces, the faded glo­ries and for­got­ten fol­lies of In­dia’s ma­hara­jas.

There’s no short­age of them in a vast land that, at the time the Bri­tish quit In­dia in 1947, was parceled into more than 550 princely states. That’s an aw­ful lot of palaces to sus­tain, es­pe­cially af­ter Indira Gandhi out­lawed privy purses and royal priv­i­leges in 1971. Many de­frocked no­bles turned to tourism to make ends meet, and I thank them for that. There’s noth­ing I en­joy more in In­dia than liv­ing like a king on my pau­per’s purse.

On past vis­its I have bunked with the ti­tled own­ers of the 18th-cen­tury Roop Ni­was Kothi in Ra­jasthan’s Shekhawati re­gion, fa­mous for its wealthy mer­chants and painted man­sions. I have dined with a stone-deaf ma­haraja in a salon stuffed with hunt­ing tro­phies at the macabre Ran­jit Vi­las Palace in Gu­jarat. At dreamy Dar­bar­gadh Palace, also in Gu­jarat, I felt like an ex­tra in a Mer­chant Ivory film as my ter­race suite shim­mered in the haze above the Machchhu River.

As a trav­eler in In­dia, I am a hope­less ro­man­tic. One whiff of an in­trigu­ing palace and I’m di­rect­ing driv­ers on de­tours to towns they’ve never been com­pelled to visit be­fore. Hence, Di­nesh and I are now snaking along a tree-lined drive be­side Gun­dalao Lake on the out­skirts of Kis­hangarh. The high mot­tled walls of the city’s name­sake 17th-cen­tury fort come into view first, then the aus­tere arch of the Old City’s Madan Pol gate, and fi­nally the volup­tuous Per­sian-Mughal dome of Phool Ma­hal Palace.

The wa­ter­side prop­erty lies at the end of a drive­way bor­dered by beds of roses, hibis­cus, cos­mos, and marigolds. There’s a raff­ish charm to its slightly weath­ered fa­cade and a fairy-tale beauty in the el­e­gantly scal­loped arches of its bal­conies lin­ing the serene and sil­very lake.

Ho­tel man­ager Kishor Upad­hyaya ush­ers me into a richly pil­lared draw­ing room ap­pointed with plump so­fas, lav­ish mar­ble floors, and pic­ture win­dows onto the lake ter­race. Over a cup of masala chai, he ex­plains how Phool Ma­hal was built in 1870 by Ma­haraja Prithvi Singh as a plea­sure palace for the rul­ing fam­ily of Kis­hangarh State. The present ma­haraja, Bra­jraj Singh Ba­hadur, lives out­side the city in a hunt­ing lodge with his wife and their two princesses. From there, they man­age a trio of an­ces­tral prop­er­ties turned ho­tels—this one, Roopan­garh Fort, and Kis­hangarh House at Mount Abu, Ra­jasthan’s only hill sta­tion.

Phool Ma­hal seems rather empty. I ask Upad­hyaya how many other guests he ex­pects tonight, and his an­swer makes my heart skip. None. I have the run of the palace.

He de­liv­ers me to my quar­ters, an at­trac­tive

oc­tag­o­nal suite right un­der the dome whose walls and wardrobe are fres­coed with col­or­ful vi­gnettes of royal life. It takes a mo­ment for me to re­al­ize that the painted scenery in­side is an artist’s im­pres­sion of the scenery framed by my win­dows. There’s the low sil­hou­ette of Mokham Vi­las palace across the wa­ter, the im­pos­ing bulk of Kis­hangarh Fort loom­ing be­hind, even the domed roof of this very room.

Af­ter a sun­set gin and tonic on the ter­race, Upad­hyaya col­lects me for a stroll into Kis­hangarh’s Old City, the Pu­rana Sha­har. Be­yond Madan Pol lies an an­tique world of faded shop fronts, shut­tered havelis (man­sions), and pre­elec­tric scenes of char­coal irons at the laun­dry, trea­dle sew­ing ma­chines at the tai­lor, and caul­drons of sug­ared milk bub­bling over fire pits at the many sweet shops.

Ev­ery­one greets us, smil­ing and wav­ing. “All the peo­ple know me,” Upad­hyaya laughs. Two boys es­cort us the en­tire route on their bi­cy­cle; a doc­tor stops to chat about cricket and then in­vites me to his house for tea. For­eign­ers are a nov­elty here, and it’s im­pos­si­ble not to be touched by the ea­ger re­cep­tion. This is the ex­pe­ri­ence of In­dia I crave, where the hu­man in­ter­ac­tions are spon­ta­neous and un­fil­tered by fives­tar ar­ti­fice.

The next morn­ing, my break­fast is set up on a roof ter­race over­look­ing a scene of ut­ter seren­ity. The air is cool and still so the lake is in full re­flec­tive mode, a mir­ror to the chha­tri pavil­ions of the royal ceno­taph and Kali tem­ple on the right and the mi­rage-like Mokham Vi­las straight ahead. Herons and swal­lows carve arabesques in the air, re­as­sur­ing me I was right to seek out this for­got­ten palace hid­den be­hind a wall of mar­ble.

Two weeks later,

an eight-hour jour­ney trans­ports me from the Taj Ma­hal to Ra­jma­hal Palace, a river­side pile at the end of a rut­ted road in eastern Ra­jasthan. It’s a charm­ing sight of flak­ing ma­sonry and bloom­ing gar­dens cra­dled by the peaks of the Aravalli Hills. On cue for my ar­rival, a macaque sprints across the lawn and the fad­ing light of day tints the sky gold.

Dressed in a dhoti and suit coat, the palace’s el­derly host, Premchand-ji, shows me to my suite of mar­ble floors, fres­coed ceil­ings, and win­dows fram­ing views of the Banas River. Again, I am the only guest in the palace and, again, my driver has never been here be­fore.

Ra­jma­hal has 15 rooms ar­ranged around two court­yard gar­dens, the var­i­ous wings con­nected by a rooftop walk lined with toothy para­pets. The 1798-built struc­ture looks its age, but on­go­ing restora­tion works keep it re­spectable in­side; work­men are busy dur­ing my stay re­viv­ing an op­u­lent draw­ing room with turquoise chan­de­liers and carved stone bal­conies.

Jack­eted staff ar­range a clothed ta­ble and two wicker chairs in the gar­den be­side a crack­ling bra­zier, serv­ing beer and snacks in the ros­es­cented night air. A cres­cent moon hangs in the sky be­tween two sil­hou­et­ted peaks as the sound of bells and chant­ing drift over the palace walls from the vil­lage. Later, in the for­mal din­ing room, wait­ers re­lay pip­ing hot cha­p­atis from kitchen to ta­ble along­side chicken and cau­li­flower cur­ries, cumin pota­toes, dhal, and rice. Royal an­ces­tors watch over the ban­quet. At one end of the room is a por­trait of Thakur Mo­han Singh Kan­ota in an ivory silk jacket and jew­eled neck­laces; at the other, his grand­fa­ther, Narain Ni­was, poses astride a horse.

The lat­ter’s name lives on in Ra­jma­hal’s sis­ter prop­erty, Narain Ni­was Palace, which lies three hours up the road in Jaipur. It’s a beau­ti­ful ho­tel, but too op­u­lent and ob­vi­ous for my tastes. In­stead, I bed down across town at the 51-room

Bis­sau Palace, a ram­bling, heav­ily em­bel­lished af­fair on the edge of Jaipur’s Old City. Built in 1919, it has seen bet­ter days—all these palaces have—yet it wears the patina of age well and has abun­dant charm.

High­lights in­clude the Bis­sau’s sun-drenched pool and lawns, break­fast in the showy Shish Ma­hal (Palace of Mir­rors), and wan­der­ing roof ter­races in the late af­ter­noon as the sky comes alive with kites and Tiger Fort glows in the dis­tance. Ad­mit­tedly, the ser­vice will never win any awards and the food is un­mem­o­rable. But this lav­ishly dec­o­rated oa­sis brims with the ro­mance of a by­gone era. As the ho­tel’s own web­site pro­claims, Bis­sau Palace has “an at­mos­phere preg­nant with in­trigue, ex­cite­ment, tragedy.”

Farther west, deep into the desert, lies the citadel city of Jaisalmer. While there are a hand­ful of palace ho­tels here, there is some­thing even more spe­cial—one of the world’s old­est in­hab­ited forts. About 4,000 peo­ple live within the sand­stone walls of the Sonar Qila (Golden Fort), built by the King Jaisal Singh in 1156 atop Trikuta Hill. For three nights, I live among them.

Killa Bhawan is a labyrinthine inn set within three of the fort’s 99 bas­tions. With its nu­mer­ous sit­ting rooms, nooks, and ter­races con­nected by Escher-like stairs, it feels se­cret, ven­er­a­ble—the orig­i­nal houses are sev­eral cen­turies old—but also sump­tu­ous. There are just eight rooms, each done up with rich fab­rics, an­tiques, and old tim­ber doors and seem­ingly sculpted into the warm stone like lux­u­ri­ous caves. Mine fea­tures a pro­ject­ing jharokha bal­cony whose dec­o­ra­tive edges frame panoramic views of the fort, the city, and the bound­less wilder­ness of the Thar Desert. I spend my days perched above Jaisalmer re­clin­ing on cush­ions in the jharokha or bathed in warm win­ter sun on one of Killa Bhawan’s many roof ter­races. The con­stant life force of the fort and city pro­vides in­fi­nite dis­trac­tion and in­spi­ra­tion; the scenes that play out on this desert stage feel time­less and authen­tic.

One evening I get a lit­tle drunk with Killa Bhawan’s Swiss-born owner, Luca Borella, a tex­tile en­tre­pre­neur who first came to Jaisalmer in 1989 and fell in love with the place.

“When I saw this build­ing, I thought, ‘This is too beau­ti­ful,’ ” he re­calls. “It was like walk­ing into a his­tory book.”

I know ex­actly what he means. He could be de­scrib­ing my own feel­ings each time I step in­side one of In­dia’s sto­ry­book royal ho­tels.

Lake­side suites at Ho­tel Phool Ma­hal Palace.

Above, from left: A domeroofed suite at Ho­tel Phool Ma­hal Palace in Kis­hangarh; a view across the Banas River to the Ra­jma­hal Palace and the Aravalli Hills. Op­po­site: The main court­yard of Jaipur’s Bis­sau Palace.

Above: Set high in the bas­tions of Jaisalmer Fort, Killa Bhawan’s jharokha bal­conies and roof ter­races af­ford panoramic views of the an­cient desert city.

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