Royal Retreats

If in the mood to experience the rich tapestry of India's multi-cultural fabric, complete with its heritage, elegance and splendour, then the many palace-hotels dotting the country from Kashmir to Kerala, are the ideal places to visit

If you want to experience five-star accommodation with the ambience and discipline of an ashram where you can have royal rejuvenation and ancient healing practices in their pure, unadulterated form, head to Kalari Kovilakam, a 19th-century palace of the Vengunad kings of old Malabar.

The restored palace has found a new life as a ‘palace for ayurveda’. Another palace retreat of the CGH group is Chittoor Kottaram, a single key palace hotel set in a maze of backwaters and coconut palms in Kerala. Built by the Rajah of Cochin, you can have the luxury of being yourself and being on your own in the cosy wood-inlaid rooms of this palace-hotel where the palace entourage caters to a single occupant at a time.

But it was Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) which pioneered heritage hospitality in Kerala several decades back. Lake Palace, a former summer palace of the Maharajah of Travancore, situated on an island in the middle of Periyar Lake, and the Bolgatty Palace, an exclusive heritage hotel located on the picturesque Bolgatty Island Resort in Kochi, are the prime properties of KTDC.

The royalty in Kerala were not flamboyant like their ilk in the other parts of India and their palaces resembled stately mansions sans excessive ornamentation.

Home turf

In our state of Karnataka, one can experience royalty in some of the palaces and guest houses of the erstwhile maharajas like the Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel, The Green Hotel (former Chittaranjan Palace), Royal Orchid Brindavan and Royal Orchid Metropole. Some of these old properties in the Imperial City of Mysore were restored and spruced up to offer the curious tourist a unique experience.

The Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel reflects the magnificent glory of the illustrious Wodeyar kings. It radiates an aura of regal charm and astounds 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.’

At Shivavilas Palace Hotel in Sandur, the heart of Karnataka’s mining hub, the home to the last Maharaja of Sandur, Yashwanthrao Ghorpade, history awaits the visitor in every nook and corner. Black and white photos of the erstwhile king and his sons grace the walls and intricate furniture of the Ghorpade family dot every part of the majestic palace.

Jayamahal Palace Hotel, the only heritage hotel in the Garden City of Bengaluru, was constructed by a Britisher in 1903 and sold to the Maharajah of Mysore in 1918. Subsequently, the Maharaja of Gondal bought it in 1948.


Chittaranjan Palace, Mysuru

The genesis of heritage hospitality can be traced back to the late 80s when members of the erstwhile royal families and a group of owners of havelis, forts, and palaces in Rajasthan realised the need to convert these properties into hotels as they had become white elephants. Finding it difficult to grapple with the decay and maintenance of the palatial abodes sprawling over several acres of land, they came up with the idea of restoring, conserving and converting their abodes into hotels. By opening their doors to guests, the refurbished palaces became revenue-generating units.  

With the formation of the Heritage Hotels Association in the early 90s, the Ministry of Tourism classified them under three categories — Heritage, Heritage Classic and Heritage Grand hotels. Though the concept of heritage hospitality originated in Rajasthan, the heritage heartland, one can find a smattering of palace-hotels from Kashmir to Kerala. ­

What makes the ambience of these palace-hotels matchless is their intriguing blend of history, grandeur, and ostentatious architecture, and a welcome relief from the monotony of standard star hotel fare. Any guest will be enthralled by their classy and lavish interiors, custom-crafted Venetian 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 fairy-tale fantasy is palpable.

The Neemrana Group pioneered the concept of heritage hospitality and transformed several heritage properties into hotels. “Neemrana’s concerted efforts towards creating another niche whereby the experience of history and its architectural treasures are tasted by one and all have now become a part of the Indian tourism repertoire. That too from crumbling ruins – turning India’s waste into assets.

The word ‘Neemranification’ has now come to symbolise viable and sustainable heritage tourism involving the participation of local communities. It is for this ‘experiential authenticity’ that the Neemrana ‘non-hotel’ Hotels have now come to be known for,” explained Aman Nath, chairman of the Group.

“We started by looking at restoring historical properties which held the stories about the glorious past of India. What was first spotted in 1977 as a vast and splendid ruin of the Fort Palace of Neemrana has since become synonymous in India as a foremost example of architectural restoration-for-reuse. Since 1986, we have focused continuously on restoring our past historical wonders into modern-day heritage hotels, which can give a true picture about our culture, heritage, and values to the discerning traveller,” says Aman Nath.

The Neemrana brand has made a mark not just nationally but internationally, too. “Neemrana Hotels just completed 25 years, and shall continue to work towards preserving India’s dilapidated ruins. We believe that our discerning travellers leave home to taste the ‘difference’ and seek authenticity rather than faked luxury by interior decorators,” explained Aman Nath.


Khirasara Palace in Rajkot

Neemrana Hotels has restored 32 properties. Of these are three palace-hotels which include Neemrana Fort-Palace, Tijara Fort-Palace, and The Baradari Palace. The 19th-century Baradari Palace, a sprawling garden-palace in the heart of culturally-rich Patiala, evokes an era of art and music generously patronised by the royal family. The Baradari Palace has worked concertedly towards creating another niche whereby the experiencing of history and architectural treasures has now become a part of the Punjab tourism repertoire. The Baradari Palace is one of the few heritage hotels in Patiala, Punjab that speaks volumes on hospitality and space,” added Aman Nath.

Historical pitch

The 15th-century Neemrana Fort-Palace, the flagship of the Neemrana Group, which was opened in the winter of 1991, belonged to the Chauhan dynasty and the project was taken up by the Neemrana management for restoration, upkeep, and heritage hospitality. One can sample the amazing lifestyle experience of a 553-year-old medieval fort. The hotel has hosted eminences like Calvin Klein, Julia Roberts, Kate Winslet, Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Rekha, besides other celebrities.

The HRH Group of Hotels has been growing through the 1980s to emerge as India’s largest chain of palace-hotels under private ownership. ‘Experience the Original in the Abode of Kings’ is the USP of the HRH Group of Hotels. In Udaipur, Shiv Niwas Palace, Fateh Prakash Palace, and Jagmandir Island Palace are iconic palace-hotels, much awarded by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India over the last three decades. Gajner Palace in Gajner, Bikaner is a sprawling palace-complex, built along the Gajner Lake with a wildlife sanctuary bordering it. These are authentic palaces where the royalty used to live and entertain their guests. Its architecture, objet d’art, paintings, period furniture, crystal, and mirrors have been preserved for 21st-century guests.

Indian and foreign guests have treasured their heritage holidays, weddings, ceremonies and corporate events at HRH Group palace-hotels. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of the HRH Group of Hotels chairman and managing director Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, Udaipur has secured its place as the ultimate destination for ‘Regal Weddings’ at the historic venues of these palace-hotels. Jagmandir Island Palace remains the most exclusive venue for regal weddings, family celebrations, and high-profile corporate events.   

According to Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, the 76th custodian of the House of Mewar, “HRH Group palace-hotels attract the discerning travellers who wish to soak in the history and heritage of Mewar and Rajasthan. They are high net worth individuals/groups who have a special interest in art, architecture, cuisine, photography, and lifestyle. The City Palace Museum of Udaipur is also a major draw for such heritage travellers who can holiday in a ‘living palace’ and enjoy the serene setting amidst lakes, hills and blue skies.” 

Shiv Niwas Palace, Fateh Prakash Palace, and Jagmandir Island Palace are an integral part of the sprawling City Palace where Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar resides with his family at the private Shambhu Niwas Palace.

The family is intensely involved in the management of The City Palace Museum and the iconic palace-hotels.

Equally impressive is Narendra Bhavan, a heritage hotel in Bikaner, which reflects the life of the last reigning Maharaja of Bikaner, His Highness Narendra Singhji. Designed as a Grand Residence, the experiences curated by the hotel showcases the various phases of His Highness’s life — from world traveller to nationalist. The towering Khirasara Palace in Gujarat, dominating the landscape for miles around, harks back to the days of the erstwhile royalty. This bastion of history was the seat of intrigues, bristling with memories. From crumbling ruins, this property was painstakingly restored to its present graceful and royal state by Shri Dilipsingh Rana.  

Dream-like

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. It was way back in the early 1960s that Jag Niwas Palace was ‘converted’ into the Lake Palace Hotel. This pioneering decision of His late Highness Maharana Bhagwat Singh Mewar put Udaipur on the world map of tourism. Lake Palace Hotel remains an iconic luxury hotel, probably the most photographed after the Taj Mahal in Agra. Their rooms have played host to legends, and halls witnessed world’s most powerful at play.

The WelcomHeritage Group, a joint venture between ITC Limited and HH of Jodhpur, ventured into heritage tourism in 1995. It started with just five properties when the company was incorporated, but as a true exemplar of growth, 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. Heritage tourism is encouraged so that it preserves and contributes to the region’s heritage, rich culture, handicraft, traditional cuisine, and at the same time provide employment to the local populace.

At each WelcomHeritage hotel, guests can have a blast from the past and also experience India’s rich culture, heritage, traditional cuisine, and a home-away-from-home experience. Some of the royals continue to live graciously in their palatial abodes which include WelcomHeritage Woodville Palace, Himachal Pradesh. An ideal getaway of the bold and the beautiful, it formed a perfect setting for Bollywood movies.


 Noor-Us-Sabah Palace, Bhopal, Photos by author 

The hotel’s distinctive décor is redolent of its heritage and filled with objets d’art, hunting trophies, an array of paintings, and sketches. But the main attraction is ‘The Hollywood Bar 1930s’, a galaxy of signed photographs of Hollywood stars of 1930s. Noor-Us-Sabah Palace Heritage Hotel in Bhopal, meaning the ‘light of dawn’, was a former palace owned by the family of the State of Bhopal. With its tranquil ambience and magical views of the Bada Talab, it is equally fascinating.

Initially, there were teething problems on the heritage tourism front like minimal financial support from the government, the legendary 54 permissions, and outdated 19th-century laws. Currently, these royal retreats have metamorphosed into high profile destinations for business magnates, Bollywood’s jet set and celebrities, and turned into revenue-generating ventures offering out-of-the-box experiences and experiential luxury holidays.

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