Rendezvous with royalty

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Rendezvous with royalty

Photos by authorIf you want to experience a touch of exotica and have glimpses of royal lifestyles of yesteryears, head to the opulent residences, forts, palaces, hunting lodges and guest houses of the nawabs, maharajas and thakurs, now run as plush ‘palace hotels’. These bastions of history, bristling with memories, were seats of intrigues; sites for hunts and battles, skirmishes and family feuds, political intrigues and public audiences; and a hub of lavish parties, banquets, elaborate ceremonies, celebrations and coronations.

Refurbished with contemporary comforts, these exquisite palaces have become true reflections of the grandeur and luxury of Indian royalty, attracting guests from across the globe.

With the withdrawal of the privy purses, many property owners had to wrestle with the festering decay and maintenance of the palatial abodes sprawling over several acres of land. The genesis of heritage hospitality can be traced back to the late eighties, when a group of owners (mainly members of the erstwhile royal families) of havelis, forts and palaces in Rajasthan met with the officials of the Department of Tourism to convert their properties into revenue-generating units. The advantages were manifold: it entailed restoration and preservation of the property’s magnificence, plentiful foreign exchange through foreign tourists, and the royals could continue to live graciously in their palatial abodes. With these objectives, the owners opened their doors to visitors by converting them into atmospheric hotels known as ‘heritage hotels’ and the ‘heritage state’ of Rajasthan metamorphosed into the most popular destination for inbound tourism.

Secluded and antiquated, these heritage hotels with their curious blend of history, grandeur and ostentatious architecture, make the ambience unbeatable. They were a welcome relief from the monotony of standard star hotel fare, but not a threat. Their rooms have played host to legends, and halls have witnessed world’s most powerful at play. These royal retreats have turned high profile destinations for business tycoons, Bollywood’s jet set, and the Brangelina brood.

Any visitor will be bowled over by their classy and lavish interiors, crystal chandeliers, Belgian domes, Persian carpets, gleaming marble-inlay floors, gilt-framed Belgian mirrors, carved and lacquered cupboards, velvet-covered armchairs and marble lampshades. The sweeping driveways, horse-drawn carriages, lofty entrance archways, imposing pillars, soaring ceilings and labyrinthine corridors hark back to the days of the erstwhile royalty. Behind the impeccably designed interiors, the fairytale fantasy is discernible.

Realising their commercial potential, a few enterprising entrepreneurs like Aman Nath and Francis Wacziarg, the Neemrana duo, pioneered the concept of heritage hospitality and transformed several heritage properties into hotels. “From a complete crumbling ruin inhabited by civets and bats, Neemrana Fort Palace has since become synonymous in India as a prime example of architectural restoration-for-reuse. The word ‘Neemranification’ has now come to symbolise a viable and sustainable heritage tourism involving the participation of local communities. Neemrana Fort Palace, the flagship of the Neemrana Group, was opened in the winter of 1991,” explained Aman Nath, co-chairman of the group.

“Neemrana’s concerted efforts towards creating another niche whereby the experience of history and its architectural treasures is offered has now become a part of the Indian tourism repertoire. That too from ruins — turning India's waste into its assets. It is for this ‘experiential authenticity' that the Neemrana ‘non-hotel' hotels have now come to be known for,” added Aman Nath.

Apart from the Neemrana Fort Palace, the other hotels in the group include Kesroli Hill Fort near Alwar, Pataudi Palace in Pataudi near Gurgaon, Darbargadh Palace in Morvi near Rajkot and the Baradari Palace in Patiala.  All the other hotels are mansions, havelis, bungalows, etc. The Deo Bagh Palce in Gwalior and the Tijara Fort-Palace in Alwar are under restoration and will be opened in 2011.

Though the concept of heritage hospitality originated in Rajasthan, the heritage heartland, one can find a smattering of palace hotels from Kashmir to Kerala. The Heritage Hotels Association which started in the early nineties has currently 166 members. The heritage hotels are classified under three categories by the Ministry of Tourism — Heritage, Heritage Classic and Heritage Grand hotels.

To experience royalty in Karnataka, one has to head straight down to the ‘Imperial City’ of Mysore where the erstwhile palaces and guesthouses of royalty stand tall and proud of their legacies. The old properties mirror the resplendent glory of the illustrious Wodeyar kings. Some of the palaces and guest houses of the erstwhile maharajas like the Lalit Mahal Palace Hotel, The Green Hotel (former Chittaranjan Palace), Royal Orchid Brindavan and Royal Orchid Metropole have been restored and spruced up to offer the curious tourist an unmatched experience. The Lalit Mahal Hotel run by ITDC still exudes an aura of regal charm and stuns you with the opulence and pageantry of a bygone era. The Green Hotel, now run by a British Charity Trust, is a ‘recycled royal property with a democratic heart, a palace of the populace.’

Some state governments like the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) and the Himachal Tourism Development Corporation have also frayed into heritage hospitality. Lake Palace, a former summer palace of the Maharaja of Travancore, situated on an island in the middle of the Periyar Lake, and the Bolgatty Palace, an exclusive heritage hotel located on the picturesque Bolgatty Island in Kochi, are the star properties of KTDC. The Chail Palace, a heritage property run by Himachal Tourism Development Corporation, is a big hit with holiday seekers.

The WelcomHeritage Group, a joint venture between ITC Limited and HH of Jodhpur, ventured into heritage tourism in 1995. “We started with just five properties.

WelcomHeritage now has hotels in more than 60 destinations in 18 states in its kitty. It has 14 palace hotels till date, which have been truly resonant with the past. We encourage heritage tourism so that it preserves and contributes to the region’s heritage, culture, handicraft, cuisine and, at the same time, provide employment to the local populace,” says Sunil Shikka, head - marketing and business development, WelcomHeritage Group.

At each WelcomHeritage hotel, the guests experience India’s rich culture, heritage, traditional cuisine, and a home away from home experience. The LaLiT group of hotels like The LaLiT Grand Palace, Srinagar (former Gulab Bhavan), and The LaLit Laxmi Vilas Palace, Udaipur, have given a fillip to local tradition, rural games and sports, fairs and festivals, and the overall development of rural areas. The LaLiT Grand Palace, Srinagar still has the Chinar tree where Gandhiji once had a conversation with Maharaja Hari Singh who built the palace in 1910. Lord Mountbatten is said to have visited the palace in the year 1947.

The Taj’s bouquet of palace hotels includes the dreamlike Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur, the imposing Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, the stunning Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, the legendary Usha Kiran Palace in Gwalior, the exotic Taj Hari Mahal in Jaipur and the classic Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad. They stand testimony to the Taj’s commitment to strengthen and preserve India’s rich heritage. Undoubtedly, Taj Hotels has proved to be a worthy guardian of India’s legacy.

Families in residence for centuries now welcome you to their homes as guests. “We give a generous right to the original owners to use their properties. At Pataudi, the family has retained a secluded garden palace for themselves. Tiger and Sharmila just celebrated Tiger’s birthday at Pataudi! They spend vacations in their property or celebrate happy occasions there. At Darbargadh, the Morvi family lives across the Machu River in an amazing Art Deco Palace,” says Francis Wacziarg, co-chairman, Neemrana Group.

The scions of the royal family stay at some of these properties which include WelcomHeritage Woodville Palace. “It is an ideal getaway of the bold and the beautiful. It formed a perfect setting for Bollywood movies like Black and Three Idiots,” says Raj Kumar Uday Singh of Jubbal, managing director & CEO, Woodville Palace. The hotel’s distinctive décor is redolent of its heritage and filled with objects d’art, hunting trophies, an array of paintings and sketches. But the piece de resistance is the signed photographs of Hollywood stars of 1930s. The erstwhile owners also stay at Lallgarh Palace at Bikaner, Mandir Palace, Kasmanda Palace and RaoBagh Palace.

In a heritage property, guests can enjoy a variety of amazing cuisine — from Mughlai dishes of the nawabs to the desert cuisine of Marwar — in some of the grandest settings imaginable. And all, served with the flair of a more elegant period, often at banqueting tables presided over by erstwhile maharajas, nawabs and thakurs and surrounded by liveried, turbaned assistants. “At The LaLiT Grand Palace, Srinagar the focus is on local delicacies, ranging from the Ladakhi namak chai to the zafrani phirni. The highlight is the authentic wazwan food, a multi-course meal in the Kashmiri tradition, served in a modern style, at our fine dining restaurants,” explained Samil Malhotra, vice president – sales & marketing, The Lalit (a Bharat Hotels enterprise).

Initially, everything was not hunky-dory on the heritage tourism front.  Most of the heritage properties are located in rural India where roads are non-existent and there is a dearth of water and electricity. “Even when it is a private-public joint venture, government support in India is minimal and a majority of the work has to be privately funded. Then there are those legendary 54 permissions and outdated 19th century laws which hold back progress,” lamented Aman Nath.

“We do not receive any support or grants from the government for the maintenance of our properties. We have to fend for ourselves. For most governments, heritage tourism seems synonymous with feudalism. Rather than support, they create hurdles. As optimists, we keep thinking this is bound to change. But at what speed?” rues Aman Nath. But for those who have managed to convert their palaces into hotels, the ways of the past have become a charming reminder of the spirit now reflected in these heritage properties.

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