HYDERABAD: The long stretch of Thar Desert ends, relieving my eyes of the desolate browns dotted with thorny bushes. As the aircraft starts descending at Jodhpur, my heart is full of anticipation, to see the familiar effervescent colours, to watch the vibrant dances and to hear the full throated rich music that travels across the desert sands.
The magnificence of Rajasthan’s palaces beckons me once again, after nearly a decade, to be dazzled by the royal splendour and to revel in its glory. There I see in yonder, the majestic Umaid Bhavan Palace. Resting majestically on a serrated projection of rock, the palace looks like a jewel mounted on a nugget of gold - a living testimony to the royal ethos of India.
Passing through the massive gates, going past royal guards mounted on horses feels like going back in time. A splendid welcome awaits me, taking me totally by surprise! Passing under a richly embroidered canopy that is held by liveried footmen standing on the palace steps, walking on soft rose petals, I am in a daze.
After the traditional ‘tilak’ and a marigold garland for my neck, I am led to the accompaniment of drums and trumpets. Musicians and dancers take over with pulsating music and dance. As I sit hypnotized by the spectacular show, Mr.Vincent Ramos, the gracious GM of Umaid Bhavan Palace explains with a smile.
That is how it is; here every guest is treated like royalty! The pomp and pageantry of the imperial legacy is continued through these traditions in this palace hotel, giving the guests an experience of the glorious past. Isn’t that a nice way of winning their hearts?
My suite, elegantly furnished, creates an ambience that mirrors the architectural style of the palace. I am bowled over by its sheer luxury and size. As I stand in my private balcony overlooking the swimming pool, a riot of bougainvillea blooms greets me in the foreground. In the bedroom, a painting depicting a peacock couple further adds to the romance; then I hear the ‘not so pleasant’ call of a real peacock in the distance!
I often get lost in the massive palace, trying to get back to my suite. But always there is chivalrous staff around to help, ready with a smile. The Belgium mirrors, French furniture, elegant upholstery, Royal Rotunda’s marble flooring (whose design inspired Titan’s watch dial for men), the magnificent high dome with blue glass, all these fascinate me immensely. To quench my curiosity, the palace historian gives me a guided tour of the palace.
The palace was commissioned in 1929 by Maharaja Umaid Singh (the present Maharaja’s grandfather), as a relief measure to provide jobs to thousands of drought and famine victims of the Marwar region. The British architect Henry Lanchester cleverly blended the then popular Art Deco with the traditional Rajputana concepts of luxury and created an edifice that is conventionally Indian, complemented by the modern and functional Art Deco. Built over 14 years (1928-42), this golden hued monument, made of desert sandstone with its expanse of 26 acres, is one of the largest residences in the world.
The hand chiselled sand stone blocks have been put together by a unique system of interlocking. They are not bound by mortar. This would enable the structure to be removed and placed elsewhere, retaining every feature and element as it exists now. The most photographed English style gardens occupy almost 15 acres.
Maharaja Gaj Singh ji (the present Maharaja) when he returned from England after his education, with a great vision combined with planning, converted his palaces, forts and royal retreats into a chain of hotels, thus conserving his heritage from a celebrated and turbulent past. Thanks to his efforts, these renowned homes, now managed by the Taj group of hotels offer well-designed hospitality laced with modern comforts.
As I dine at “Risala” whose walls display martial portraits from the Royal Collection, I can see that fine dining is taken to a different level here : an imaginative fusion menu of Indian delicacies is set off by a wide selection of fine wines. So is their “Pillars”, where misty mornings bring in morning ragas from the mellifluous flute of the palace musician, to the accompaniment of chirping birds, as the guests tuck into a hearty breakfast.
While I sit in the “Sunset Pavilion’ on the roof- top, relishing a flambéd dessert, the breath- taking view of the city and the Mehranghar Fort in the distance seem to
beckon me. I promise to come again, to explore this wonderful place called Jodhpur!
(The author is a documentary filmmaker and travel writer who blogs at www.vijayaprataptravelandbeyond.com)