Gleaming marble, tall columns, grand staircases, fashionable fountains, vast expanses of manicured gardens. And inside, gilt-encrusted figurines, ornate statement furniture, the most expensive fittings, all the comforts and cadences that come with power and money. Be it Versailles near Paris, Buckingham in London, Schonbrunn in Vienna, Peterhof in St Petersburg or even lesser known yet magnificent royal residences anywhere in the world, room after room of chequered marble floors and priceless art set the bar for what the wealthy king or queen wanted in home interiors.
Closer home, when the princely states still ruled the roost, we had our own palaces planned with all the requisite bells and whistles, whether as a show of power, aesthetics or simply to provide employment for the kingdom. When you think palaces in India, you automatically think Rajasthan, the state that literally has royalty in its name! No wonder then, that the City Palace in the capital Jaipur, is as impressive as it is. Built from 1729 onwards (at the same time as the city was, when Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II moved from nearby Amber), it fuses the best of Rajput, Mughal and European styles in red and pink sandstone, white marble flooring, latticework and beautiful mirror work. It continues to be the home of the Jaipur royal family. The sprawling palace complex houses a large, internationally recognised museum too. This would be a prime candidate for participating in Palace Day festivities, we think.
Mrinalini Venkateswaran, Museum Consultant of the MSMSII Museum Trust, observes, “Palace Day seems to be, so far, an initiative by European palaces, so we are happy to help broaden the net, especially since Jaipur’s City Palace is unique. I’m afraid that COVID-19 restrictions within the walled city of Jaipur means we can only mark the day through social media posts.”
Royally suite deal
Clearly, the 300-year-old City Palace is not stuck in a staid past. In fact, the young royal scion, the polo-playing Maharaja Sawai Padmanabh Singh, even made royal luxe available to anyone with the bucks! He offered a beautiful suite of rooms in one of the hitherto private sections of the palace to guests on Airbnb. He said at the time, “I’m thrilled that my family and I are partnering with Airbnb to bring the splendour of Rajasthan to life for travellers from around the world.”
Until it was listed on Airbnb, the luxurious Gudliya Suite, which includes its own lounge, kitchen, luxurious bathroom and private, indoor swimming pool, had only been used for the royals and their special guests. The proceeds from anyone booking this unique stay help support the women’s empowerment initiatives of the Princess Diya Kumari Foundation.
The Maharaja (or Maharani) life
While this is probably the first time a Maharaja has listed a palace room on a vacation rental site, it’s certainly not the first time that Indian royals have opened up the ornate doors of their palaces to the paying public. Like Rambagh Palace, another royal residence in Jaipur, which was the first such property that the Taj Group turned into a luxury palace hotel, restoring it and running it since 1970.
What began as humble accommodation for the royal wet nurse in 1835, was converted into a modest hunting lodge in 1887. It was expanded into the magnificent Rambagh Palace we know now in the early 20th century, the grand home of much-admired Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II and his queen Rajmata Gayatri Devi.
After the success of this one, they developed many more palace hotels down the decades. Rakhee Lalvani, Vice President, Global PR and Communications, IHCL, is pleased that they group has had the chance to be a custodian and purveyor of India’s heritage. She says, “Each one of our enchanting grand palaces is an architectural gem that transports guests to the romance and history of a bygone era where every corridor, nook and corner tells a story.”
The miracle in marble, Taj Lake Palace in the middle of Udaipur’s Lake Pichola, has often been called the most romantic hotel in the world, and for good reason. And then there’s the grand Umaid Bhawan Palace, perched high above the desert capital of Jodhpur, with interesting architecture and the plushest of interiors replete with priceless art and plush fittings like a Stefan Norblin bath created out of a single piece of pink marble!
There are also relatively smaller ones like Jaipur’s Jai Mahal Palace and the Taj Fateh Prakash Palace, again in Udaipur, which was only added to the group’s tally of royal residences in January this year. But big or small, guests are made to feel they are living the Maharaja or Maharani life.
All these palaces reflect the sensitive restoration which, in some cases like that of the Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad, took a decade to perfect, with careful planning to ensure the aesthetic is retained whilst continuing to evolve to modern-day requirements. Falaknuma Palace, hailed as ‘the mirror of the sky’ was the home of the Nizam Mehoob Ali Pasha and dates back to 1894. It boasts a Durbar Hall with the world’s longest dining table lit by five beautiful Belgian chandeliers, a Gol Bungalow with a satin-glass dome and a palace library overflowing with rare richly bound volumes.
When asked what are the perks and challenges that come with the territory when running a palace hotel of this stature, General Manager Parvinder Singh Bual, says, “You are always in company of the finer things of life. The palace also comes with its own challenges with regards to maintenance of the old artifacts, chandeliers, and furnishings that have been lovingly restored. Sourcing specialists with the technical expertise to handle these is a bit of a challenge.”
Once a muse, now a museum…
Also in Hyderabad is the sprawling Chowmahalla Palace, the official residence of the Nizams, part of which is now a splendid museum showcasing their lifestyle. This is another direction that grand palaces gravitate towards, so that they can preserve the rich heritage and give visitors a glimpse into the sumptuous lives of the privileged.
For example, the 16th century City Palace complex built by the Maharanas of Mewar in Udaipur that’s as flamboyant as it is old, the gorgeous Lakshmi Vilas Palace of the Gaekwads in Vadodara, the Jai Vilas Mahal of the Scindias in Gwalior, Shaniwar Wada that was home to the Peshwas in Pune, the gold-laden rooms at the Laxmi Niwas Palace in Bikaner, the Ujjayanta Palace of the Manikyas in Agartala that’s said to have been named by Rabindranath Tagore, the Mysore Palace of the Wadiyars whose ornate many-pillared Durbar halls are an Instagrammer’s dream, the Dogra art museum inside the Mubarak Mandi Palace in Jammu, and the nine-storey Leh Palace of the Namgyals that has a large collection of Tibetan artifacts, thangka and paintings dating back more than four centuries.
Putting the magic into movies and marriages
Grand palaces are the easiest way to infuse a visual punch into anything, be it a big-budget film or a celebrity-filled wedding. As long as you get the requisite permissions, that is. And now that many palaces are getting business savvy, several are up for grabs and actively courting location scouts and wedding planners. Call it the Priyanka Chopra-fication of royal residences if you like!
But whatever avatar it is in — be it transformed into a drool-worthy stay, an ooh-worthy museum, an envy-worthy events venue or still remain an awe-inspiring private residence like the Kowdiar Palace of the Travancore royals in Thiruvananthapuram — an Indian palace pleases the senses and excites the imagination in a way that few modern-day buildings do.
Since 2016, an Association of European Royal Residences has been celebrating #PalaceDay on social media as well as offline on July 19. This year too, despite the global pandemic, they have planned to come together on social media to share their history, collections and behind-the-scenes pictures, highlighting their common culture and heritage. And though they have extended their lens slightly over the last couple of years to palaces located beyond Europe, for some reason, India’s rich wealth of palaces have neither participated nor found mention. We hope that’ll change this year if all of us share our own photographs of beautiful Indian palaces we have been to with the #PalaceDay hashtag.