Photo by João Canziani
Photos by João Canziani
Onetime royals in Rajasthan are holding onto their family estates the best way they can: by inviting us in.
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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 The office where I wait is paneled in dark wood, its furniture about 70 years out of date.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.
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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.
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.”
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.”