Jun 02, 2015
A decade ago, waiting for the sunset at the eerie, half-ruined Sajjangarh Palace, a hilltop stage-set circled by honey buzzards, I had just one thought. How long before an enterprising hotelier snaps up this one-time princely redoubt and does a raja-chic makeover?
Sure enough, it's been tidied up since and renamed Monsoon Palace, with tours for visitors, many still on the James Bond trail -- the palace featured in the 1983 film Octopussy as the residence of Kamal Khan, an exiled Afghan prince. But there are no faux-regal bedchambers as yet - an opportunity missed or a royal reprieve?
Just outside the lake city of Udaipur in Rajasthan, the palace was abandoned by the royal family in 1880 due to the difficulty of pumping up water supplies.
They couldn't have missed Sajjangarh too much. Like their fellow rulers in Rajasthan, they had summer and city palaces in their real-estate harem, and this monsoon property was really just a delicious folly where stars were studied with complicated astronomical instruments and rain-summoning parties held in advance of the annual deluge.
The desert state of Rajasthan in northwest India is palace central, with princely piles and forts in abundance, some richly renovated with all the five-star falderals, others bidding guests to bed down in shabby but atmosphere-laden surrounds, and still more disintegrating amid sandstorms and India's red-tape bureaucracy.
Roughly the size of France, and once known as Rajputana ("land of princes"), Rajasthan is a photographer's fantasy, the desert a vast backdrop to the emerald greens and acid pinks of swirling saris and pumpkin yellows of turbans.
I have been travelling to Rajasthan regularly for more than 25 years and for at least the past decade travel talking points have been luxe safari tents adjacent to the tiger territory of Ranthambore National Park, destination spas offering Ayurvedic treatments, and boutique digs owned by the enterprising Maharaja of Jodhpur.
Most of us have fairytale images in our minds of Rajasthan, and in its largest city, Jaipur, those dreamscapes blend with history in one intoxicating hit. There are camels on the footpaths in Jaipur's walled old quarter, three-wheeler auto-rickshaws that buzz about like disturbed bees and holy cows sleeping on the streets at inconvenient intervals, acting in a dotty way as bovine roundabouts.
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The city was the first in India to be planned with wide avenues, and it is known for its rose-coloured stonework. A must-do excursion is to the Amber Fort, 11km outside Jaipur, where visitors ride on decorated howdahs aboard elephants up to the ramparts, pavilions and belvederes of the one-time hold-out of the maharajas of Kachchwaha.
The five-star Rajvilas, 8km from the city proper, seems a galaxy removed. This low-rise Oberoi Hotels-run resort, with the severe lines of a moated garrison, is the sort of shimmering mirage a traveller might rub their eyes at in disbelief if encountered in a sandy wasteland. Rajvilas has been designed around clusters of guestrooms and teak-floored campaign tents radiating from a 250-year-old temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. This was the first hotel of this stellar standard built from scratch in India; properties converted from the palaces of bankrupt maharajas were the previous hospitality benchmark.
The hotel has also emerged as a showcase for Rajasthani arts and crafts, from peacock blue and aquamarine Jaipur tiling in the swimming pools to monumental brass-clad doors. It took 800 workers three years to complete Rajvilas; pottery and tile experts kept 12 kilns in full-time use for the duration of the project.
Over three stays, I have found the service to be pin-sharp at Rajvilas and everything works seamlessly, but just when it feels a bit too grown-up and global village on this surrealistic Planet Oberoi, I have discovered a daffy Indian detail. The resort employs a pigeon dispatcher with a white flag on a long stick. He has the sole duty of swiping at the birds so they don't leave their unwelcome droppings on rotundas and rooftops.
At Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, a member of the Taj Group, the ever-so-pukka Polo Bar is decorated with the late maharaja's trophies, and peacocks strut the grounds, dragging their tails like tattered bridal trains. The guestrooms in the old wing are completely idiosyncratic: some as large as libraries, others set with mirrors, mosaics and Lalique crystal fountains.
In its town hall-sized dining room, bottles of old French wine stand on silver traymobiles and white-gloved staff stir the buffet curries.
For those who prefer mothy curtains and the odd stuffed trophy, Jaipur also offers Hotel Narain Niwas Palace, the centrally located former home of General Amar Singh, one-time commander of the Jaipur State Forces. Built in 1928, the mansion has been converted to a hotel heaving with all manner of curiosities. Some guestrooms come with four-posters and formal lounges; the high-ceilinged public areas have the feel of Victorian salons, albeit randomly decorated ones. It is like staying in a museum with no glass cases or do-not-touch signs.
An hour outside Jaipur, the crenellated and curlicued Samode Palace has had a series of facelifts and is a popular locale for filming Hindi potboilers. Its impressive front-entrance steps play host to moustache-twirling villains, veiled virgins and handsome heroes of the sort given to Saturday Night Fever flared-trousers dancing as they take on the bad guys.
At the Umaid Bhawan Palace (now a member of the Leading Hotels of the World) in the blue-painted city of Jodhpur, 336km into the desert east of Jaipur, the resident maharaja, Gaj Singh II, 60 years on the "throne" this year, suddenly appears in carpet slippers during my stay and gives me his business card.
He has a stable of hotels, including a royal tented camp, and a personal website full of florid prose, but he's more restrained than his ancestors: those luxury-lovers are reputed to have bathed in French champagne and slept under layers of perfect rose petals picked by an army of gardeners.
The art deco-style Umaid Bhawan Palace, some of its wings briefly part of the Amanresorts portfolio, took 3000 workmen almost 15 years to build from marble and local red sandstone. It was commenced in 1929 on a dry, unlikely site dictated by astrologers, and upon completion was acclaimed as the world's largest private residence. Like other princely abodes across India, and especially Rajasthan, the 347- room palace was converted to a hotel to escape punitive property taxes introduced after Indian independence in 1947.
Once there were 565 princes in India; the designated occupation in their passports was "ruler". Their extraordinary wealth enabled them to retain thousands of servants, some of whom were assigned to permanent chandelier-dusting duty in Cecil B. de Mille-style epic visions of carved balconies, cupolas, towers and turrets, east and west wings, polo grounds and elephant stables.
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A handful of the disenfranchised rulers continue to reside in their palace-hotels, keeping to private quarters, and hoarding stashes of vintage Murano glass, Aubusson carpets and customised Rolls-Royces.
Udaipur's Lake Palace also appeared in Octopussy. In any Agent 007 thriller, one expects not just outlandish manoeuvres but fantasy sets. So the notion of a building occupying a little island, sitting on a lake like a cake on a polished platter, would have seemed as perfectly acceptable as any other Bond backdrop.
Except the white marble Lake Palace isn't some director's plaything but a real place where entry depends not on wearing a white dinner jacket and talking into your wristwatch but simply a reservation. It was built as a summer retreat by the then ruler of Udaipur in 1743 and is perhaps India's most famous palace-hotel; ongoing refurbishments by Taj Hotels have seen the suites seriously jazzed-up to include velvet-rope pleasure swings, crystal chandeliers, marble bathrooms with "rainforest showers" and flat-screen televisions.
At the Lake Palace's Jiva Spa, guests can choose mustard-oil "warrior massages" or royal "wedding treatments" involving sandalwood, rice grains and turmeric. This is a grand example of the new Indian spa experience where traditional Ayurvedic techniques meet the modern indulgences of aromatherapy massages and candle-lit rose-petal baths.
Udaipur, ringed by the blue-tinged Aravalli hills, is my favourite city in Rajasthan; it's quiet, compact and welcoming. Home to less than 450,000 in the city proper (which makes it nigh on a village by Indian standards; Jaipur's population is more than three million), Udaipur is also home to Oberoi's Udaivilas, which opened in 2002, the first palace-scale development here for more than two centuries.
With calculated irony, it offers views of the (real) Lake Palace from its pools, many of its guestrooms, copycat colonnades and cloisters.
On a rocky eminence on the eastern flank of Lake Pichola sits the City Palace, where the king still lives in his castle. The 76th maharana of Udaipur runs HRH Hotels, a consortium that includes Shiv Niwas, in a wing of the City Palace (one suite has an all-silver bed and a fountain), and its mid-range neighbour, Fateh Prakash Palace Hotel. When I met the maharana in Sydney some years ago, I asked if his wife was with him. Without skipping a beat he replied, "No, she's at home, holding the fort."
Udaipur's bazaar (or chowk) in the old city, especially the winding streets around Jagdish Temple, is a trove of good finds: small copper or brass serving dishes with twin handles, bolts of bright tie-dye fabric that make fabulous tablecloths or throws, and semi-precious stones (amethysts, moonstones, coloured quartz and more), loose or set in fine silver.
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Tailoring costs a song (but insist on at least two fittings) from shops with such photo-worthy names as New Pinch Clothing, Ladies Fits and Fat Uncle Amit's Shirtings and Suitings. Bargain with bravado.
There's something so romantic about cities set beside lakes, and Udaipur is almost like a Mediterranean town with a rooftop jumble of cafes and bars angled toward Lake Pichola. Just outside Udaipur, Devi Garh represents the latest face of palace-hotel accommodation. The minimalist rooms of this converted 18th-century hill fort feature cool marble, cream silk cushions, snowy-dressed beds and terrazzo floors.
The look has been dubbed "Armani-sur-Rajasthan" but Devi Garh is far more restrained than that description suggests: it's the opulence of the maharajas stripped bare and reconstituted. Where once there would have been walls of beaten silver and tiny mirrors, now filmy fabric shot with slivers of gold thread floats against a backdrop of pure white.
There are 23 individually decorated suites and six tents; and one dines, of course, on silver-leafed morsels and rose-petal ice cream.
Another Rajasthani city set on a lake is Pushkar, 288km west of Jaipur and venue for an annual camel fair and races each November. There is terrific bazaar shopping, walks around the holy lake, hundreds of temples, horseriding, scattering marigolds in the water after a puja, some of India's best vegetarian food . . . the annual camel festival almost seems an unnecessary gilding.
Stay in a balconied room at the lakeside Pushkar Palace for a dress-circle view, or in one of the 20 luxury tents at the merrily named pop-up enclave of Camp Bliss (November 18-27 this year) in a quiet orchard of gooseberry trees a short walk from all the mad action.
The medieval desert fort city of Jaisalmer, meanwhile, from where camel treks depart across the Thar Desert, and Ranthambore, gateway to tiger territory, are other Rajasthan must-ticks. The latter has hit the luxury safari-goer's radar since the opening of Oberoi's Vanyavilas and Amanresorts' Aman-i-Khas camps at the entrance to the 40,000ha national park.
Ranthambore safaris are not in the hushed, reverential mode of those in Africa. Fleets of truck-like affairs known as canters, and smaller four-wheel-drives called gypsies, ferry hundreds of tourists at a time.
It has the air of a noisy fete, but despite all the hurry and shouting, I have spotted a tiger here, not too distant and with a very bored look on its face.
After more than 30 visits, I like to think I am an old India hand, cool and appraising. But I was thrilled to my bones as the tiger then walked across the track in front of our rackety old truck, and I joined in the joyous melee all around, squealing like a banshee.
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Susan Kurosawa is the author of the bestselling novel Coronation Talkies, set in 1930s India. Parts of this feature were first published in association with American Express.
This article originally appeared as 'Jewels in the desert' on www.theaustralian.com.au and is re-published here under license. Susan Kurosawa is a writer at The Australian and is not affiliated with Qantas.