Palace Tourism has a charm all on its own. Stories, myths, legends, tales of valour, intrigue and bravery are passed on from one generation to the next. Each narration lends its own colour to the story, making it even more fascinating and exotic. There are palaces across the world, from Europe to the Far East that have successfully opened their majestic gates to tourists and luxury travellers who want to experience the life of a Maharaja or a Maharani, soaking in the ambiance and feeling of being a royal, even if for a few days, walking in haloed portals of courtyards, partaking fine dining in centuries-old court darbars and participating in regal activities performed in the days of yore, recreated now with precision.
Delving into the fascinating world of tradition, customs and folklore
India has a fascinating history where royal families of different territories had not only the most opulent palaces of their time but followed customs, traditions and cultures which were unique to their land. From food, attire and language to architectural styles, interiors and festivals, they led lives that were larger than life, awe inspiring for their subjects. The loyalty of their people was so intense and unflinching that even today, when privy purses have long been snatched, the low key presence of royal descendants still commands respect, reverence and unbridled love. Through a Constitutional Act in 1971, all privileges and allowances to royal families, who were in any case no longer rulers in the traditional sense, were ceased.
Today, out of all the palace states in the country, Rajasthan has the highest number of visitors. Luxury travellers and backpackers alike find this Indian state of forts, palaces and ruins riveting. The hospitality of the locals combined with their simple demeanour is endearing. For the camera yielding tourist too, the riot of colours that Rajasthan offers against a stark desert has a mesmerising pull.
Chronicling lives of the royals
When exactly did the royals who are known to fiercely guard their privacy, open up their doors for commercial interest? Anu Malhotra, their official biographer spent almost two years extensively documenting their lives, especially with Maharaja Gaj Singh and Maharani Hemlata of Jodhpur. From being India’s foremost travel story teller, launching the first series of travel shows, Namaste India, she went on to do seminal documentaries, chronicling the Nagas, Shamans of the Himalayas and the Maharaja of Jodhpur. In between she dabbled in photography and is now researching for a documentary on Shamans of Andhra Pradesh besides launching herself as an artist.
The insights she acquired through her many interactions, stories she heard, most importantly of the transition the family had post 1970’s, provides food for thought for anyone interested in India’s royalty and how they converted their most prized assets – the palaces they lived in, into hotels and commercial properties.
After the privy purses, Maharajas were not left with much liquid assets. Many fell into bad times. While they maintained the demeanour of royalty, inside the palace, the resource crunch was evident. Interiors fell into a state of ruin, staff strength dwindled and in many of the princely states, precious antiques and jewellery began to be sold, to foreign buyers. The financial squeeze with no light at the end of the tunnel became an omnipresent scenario.
It was Maharaja Gaj Singh of Jodhpur who decided not to sell any of the treasures but find a respectable way out of the situation. He was perhaps the first member of the royal family in the country to let out his residence and private estate, the majestic Umaid Bhawan palace to the government owned Indian Tourism Development Corporation, going on to create a company called Heritage Hotels. The company provided consultancy to other royal families – namely revamping parts of their hotel and opening the gates to tourists while retaining a wing for their own families.
Presently Umaid Bhavan is run by the Taj Group of Hotels who have spent a fortune renovating and giving it a luxury status. The hotel is a popular venue for Bollywood movies which have a period setting with the vibrant backdrop of Rajasthan. It is popular for destination weddings with Elizabeth Hurley, Madonna and Russel Peter tying the knot here in recent times. Soon, other members of semi royalty followed suit by opening up their homes and ancestral properties to tourists. This exclusive offering and personalised experience is highly recommended for those who love to sample a slice of history, taking the unbeaten path and allowing themselves to merge with the past and the present.
Anu Malhotra has been invited to participate in the prestigious Hue- Bourne II exhibition at the Bruno Gallery, Singapore. Her vibrant kaleidoscopic series will be on display from 10th to 27th September, 2015.
Making the most of Jodhpur’s heritage visit
- Coincide the trip with a local fair or festival like the Nagaur fairor the horse fair or processions and festivities that take place during holi and dusshera
- While staying at the Umaid Bhavan palace, you can meet a member of the royal family, by asking for an appointment
- Start your city tour from Mehrangarh fort and walk through the old blue city. Do take the audio tour which has voiceovers of the royal family
- Great if you can experience any of the luxury trains, including the famed Palace on Wheels
- Check out local warehouses which have a treasure trove of artefacts and original antiques sourced from villages
- Stay in any of the boutique hotels that members of the extended royal family or ‘semi royalty’ have converted from what private estates
- Be careful of how you dress, for this is a conservative place where women still cover their heads
- Try the local cuisine