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In Rajasthan's Palaces-Turned-Hotels, You Can Sleep Like a King

Onetime royals in Rajasthan are holding onto their family estates the best way they can: by inviting us in.

The Maharajah of Jodhpur keeps me waiting. Fifteen minutes have passed since our appointed meeting time in the sandstone palace called Umaid Bhawan. With its elaborate dome rising above the city of Jodhpur in northwest India’s Rajasthan region, it looks like an Indian Sacré-Coeur. The office where I wait is paneled in dark wood, its furniture about 70 years out of date. A man whose job it seems to be to shuffle papers—he shuffles past me bearing a single sheet—nods a greeting. A matronly secretary steps out to offer me tea. I decline, but she returns 10 minutes later to offer it again. This time I accept, and more minutes pass before she brings it to me. I stare at a plaque on the wall. PRESENTED TO HIS HIGHNESS GAJ SINGH II BY THE INTERNATIONAL MAHESHWARI RAJAS CONVENTION OF 2001 FOR HIS DEDICATION TO THE SERVICE OF MANKIND. The man shuffles by again with another page, and glances at the skin of milk forming in my cup. “Your tea is getting cold, madam,” he says. A fan clicks overhead. At precisely one hour past our appointed time, the secretary returns. It’s just that his Highness is so busy, you see.

The Maharajah of Jodhpur has stood me up.

I can’t say I’m surprised. The maharajah is merely acting like a king. That, after all, is what the maharajahs once were: kings of the many small states that made up India. Even after Britain colonized the subcontinent, many of the maharajahs retained their lands and influence in exchange for collaboration with the imperial government. Independence in 1947 and the democracy that ensued were supposed to turn these former princes into ordinary citizens.

The Suján Rajmahal Palace
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. New laws may have diminished the riches of India’s royal families, but the vestiges of generations of privilege and authority remain. Especially in Rajasthan, where princely culture survived the longest, the land is dotted with palaces still occupied by previously royal families. I wanted to understand the families’ place in the new India and see how they navigate modern life while still embodying the old system, and so I set out to traverse the region. It’s not hard to find these former royals—many have turned their palaces into hotels.

Ten days before I did not meet the Maharajah of Jodhpur, I explained my mission to Sayar Singh, the unsmiling man in a starched blue shirt charged with driving me around Rajasthan. He betrayed no emotion, but I interpreted his lack of response as mild disapproval. Or maybe that was my anxiety: I was uncomfortable with the idea of having a driver. Uncomfortable, that is, until we pulled into the melee of cars, motorbikes, trucks, buses, goats, pedestrians, camel carts, cows, and dogs that counts as a highway in Rajasthan. I complimented Sayar’s fast reflexes, but he was having none of my efforts to blur the class lines that divided us. “Yes, madam,” he agreed sternly.

It took us seven bone-rattling hours, but finally Sayar turned the car sharply into the hushed driveway of our first stop: Raj Niwas, a manor in the district of Dholpur that looks like it belonged to the slightly batty neighbors of Downton Abbey. In fact, I quickly realized, Raj Niwas was a veritable museum, a preserve of Anglophiliac nostalgia complete with a liveried doorman waiting in the portico bearing glasses filled with something the color of mouthwash. The furniture was dark and heavily carved, the worn carpets were silk, and every inch of the walls that was not adorned with Ionic columns was hung with paintings of regal men in turbans. Built in 1876 by a family that had been given Dholpur as a fiefdom, Raj Niwas was designed to house Britain’s Prince Albert on his first visit to India. His hosts wanted him to feel at home, which is why they designed the parlor ceiling to match the one at Buckingham Palace. Upstairs, the walls of the immense bedrooms were lined with exquisite handpainted tiles, old-fashioned brass light switches, and claw-foot bathtubs.

“Leopards, tigers, gazelles, a boar—all skinned & stuffed & looking quite dipleased—filled the hallways.”

“Everyone who has a structure like this wants to preserve it,” said Dushyant Singh, the palace’s current owner. “That wouldn’t have been possible without tourism.” A stocky man in his 40s who talks fast and moves with kinetic abruptness, Dushyant is, in his own words, “a hotel professional.” But he is also the scion of the local ruling family, the son of Rajasthan’s chief minister, and a politician himself—a characteristic that became increasingly obvious as he began to extol Dholpur’s attractions. “We’re convenient to Delhi and to the Taj Mahal. But we also have excellent wildlife close by. Guests come here for a quiet spot to relax. Have you seen our reviews on TripAdvisor?”

Dushyant had little sentimentality for the past. He had grown up in the palace—room 6 was his childhood bedroom—but he professed no discomfort at having strangers in his home. In fact, he had built a large restaurant and modern cabanas in the palace garden in order to increase the number of guests the hotel could accommodate. Confident, even brash, with at least one eye firmly on the bottom line, Dushyant was exactly what I expected of modern India. He didn’t act like royalty; he acted like a venture capitalist. For him the past was an asset to be exploited, not a weight to carry.

My next stop, Prithvi Vilas, was more home-stay than hotel. Chandrajit Singh and his wife, Ira—he looking like Clark Kent, she resplendent in an emerald-green sari—waited in the doorway to greet me with a necklace of marigolds and a glass of juice. They graciously showed me my room, an enormous chamber containing a rose-petal-filled bathtub, then invited me for gin and tonics in a faded sitting room that looked like it was sinking beneath the weight of its Edwardian furniture and gilt-edged family photos. Every few minutes, a servant in a paramilitary uniform brought us snacks.

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Chandrajit, aka the Maharajah of Jhalawar, showed me around. Leopards, tigers, gazelles, a boar—all skinned and stuffed and looking quite displeased—filled the hallways. I counted 10 complete porcelain tea sets in the dining room. In the living room, Chandrajit picked up a silver inkwell, strangely shaped. “This is from my grandfather’s favorite polo pony,” he said. “When it died, he had its hoof plated.” Lear, the pony’s name, was engraved on the side.

In most homes, an ink-bearing, silver-plated hoof would be the pièce de résistance of knickknacks. But Chandrajit had one more thing to show me. He motioned to a corner table topped with a black-and-white photograph of a man with an aquiline nose. Something about the man looked familiar, so I walked over to read the inscription. “To my good friend,” it read. “With warm regards, Benito Mussolini.”

The family left politics when Chandrajit’s grandfather died young of a heart attack induced, they believe, by the stress of it all. But the royal scion exercises power in other ways, helping a teacher find a position in town or aiding a couple whose marriage has gone sour. This is how it used to be, the maharajah handling matters large and small for his people. “Democracy,” Chandrajit said with a sigh, “is ruining India.”

Dust threatened to ruin Prithvi Vilas. Shelves of books, trunks crammed with photographs, cupboards filled with several generations’ worth of linens: The past encroached like kudzu swallowing a tree. But in the morning, when it came time to leave, Ira pulled me to the sofa and whipped out her iPad. She swiped briskly through a series of photographs of modern rooms, all clean lines and sleek furniture. “It’s our apartment in Delhi,” she whispered urgently, as if trying to convince me—or herself—that she and her husband really were of this age.

Sayar and I continued on, driving through towns and villages and desert, past women in shimmering tangerine saris harvesting wheat; trucks riotously adorned with designs as intricate as any Andalusian mosaic; and camels that sported sequined headdresses Beyoncé would envy.

Along the way, Sayar and I talked about the Maharajah of Jodhpur. Actually, the man I had failed to meet was all anybody in Rajasthan seemed to be talking about, because his son’s wife had just given birth to a baby boy. Several years earlier, the son had suffered a serious brain injury in a polo accident, so the birth represented not only a near-miraculous continuation of the family line but also a triumph over tragedy. “He doesn’t have any actual authority, does he?” I asked Sayar. “I mean, he’s not the maharajah anymore. Why is everyone treating him like he’s still a king?” The slightest smile played across Sayar’s lips. “Heredity, madam,” he said. “In India, heredity is stronger than any constitution.”

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The kilometers of ramparts we passed as we entered Ranvas Nagaur, a palace hotel within a fortress, imparted a degree of grandeur I hadn’t encountered yet. An exceedingly gracious manager showed me around the hotel, and we popped into a ground-floor room. It held three beds done up in red brocade and a large flat-screen TV on the wall. “This is where the maharajah stays,” the manager said. There he was again: the Maharajah of Jodhpur. His hotel company owned Ranvas. Even though he had stood me up, I found my annoyance fading as I walked through an archway adorned with the most marvelous frescoes of angels, and into the uninhabited part of the palace.

Make that palaces. Ranvas is actually a 35-acre complex that includes five royal homes, including the evocatively named Palace of Mirrors and Palace of Lanterns, as well as gardens, pools, and many other buildings. During the day, the complex is open to the paying public, but after 5 p.m., only hotel guests can enter. With the exception of a guide, I had the place to myself.

The fort, which dates back to the 12th century, was one of northern India’s first Muslim strongholds, and was rife with the keyhole arches and inlaid floors that characterize Mughal architecture. My guide pointed to an especially fine fresco of girls dancing in the monsoon rain. “Muslim artisans painted the geometric designs, and Hindu ones the figures,” he said. “Everybody did what they were best at.” He took me up to the roof, where the sun was carmine over the town below and the sandstone ramparts glowed hypnotically. The guide interrupted my reverie. “And to think, this would have been lost without the Maharajah of Jodhpur.”

I had to know more about this man who loved art and stood up journalists. I went back to my room and Googled him. In the first article I found, he complained that he and his fellow princes were made out to be “unpopular tyrants,” and portrayed himself as a victim of Indian democracy. But in the second, conservators from the Getty Foundation praised him for the sensitive restoration of Ranvas and for his visionary realization that one way to save India’s ancient palaces was through tourism. Maybe, I thought to myself, longing for the past and looking toward the future were not mutually exclusive.

Perhaps Sayar was just glad to be rid of me, but he seemed pleased with our last stop. Located on a rural road surrounded by fields outside of Jaipur, The Farm was not a palace at all. The young couple who own it, Surya and Ritu Singh, belong to the noble class. Surya’s father’s palace was submerged, literally, when the state built a hydroelectric dam nearby. His father saved all the furniture he could, stuffed it into storage, and bought a piece of land with the money he received in compensation. Surya and Ritu still feel a certain attachment and responsibility to their heritage, but they are also artists who embrace the creative power of change. And so they took that land, built cottages for guests, and furnished them with pieces the elder Singh had saved from his drowned palace.

At The Farm, an old wagon becomes a settee in the poolside dining area, girders have been turned into iron “trees,” and a Dodge steering wheel functions as a towel rack. There are wedding albums filled with family photos in the downstairs library, but they are one of the few signs of the past left intact; everything else has been funkily reimagined into a boho-chic fantasia.

“We have plenty of friends who own palaces, and they can’t keep them up; they’re crumbling,” said Surya. “We get to start from scratch and put the puzzle back together the way we want.”

Ritu and Surya are in their 30s, and in addition to The Farm, they run an “experimental” restaurant in Jaipur. “We know plenty of people who are still stuck in the past,” Ritu says. “They believe the Raj will come back. Even women I went to school with, who were well educated and wore jeans; they come back, put on their chiffon saris, and become the maharajah’s wife. But the times have to change.”

Change never happens in a straight line, though, I was realizing. Democracy and modern-day consumer capitalism were everywhere in India, except where they weren’t. Privilege and effort, heredity and ability, past and future didn’t merely coexist, but were entangled in ways I couldn’t begin to understand. All I had seen, in those lovely palaces and in the Maharajah’s waiting room, was a glimpse of the knot.

On the morning I was to leave, Sayar picked me up early. As we drove through the already jammed streets of Jaipur on our way to the airport, we passed a bakery I had heard about. I asked if we could go back, expecting him to turn around at the next light. But without blinking, he pulled a U-turn and whipped the car into the oncoming stream of sparkling Mercedes and dusty livestock, old Ambassadors and newly painted camel carts. Much screeching and blaring ensued before we were safely on the other side. Madam,” he said to me with what might have been a smile, “in India, all things are possible.”

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