There’s no better way to gain a sense of what life must have been like for the inhabitants of Rajasthan’s forts and palaces than to spend a night or two in one.
In India, palaces aren’t just monuments, they’re homes too. India must be the only place in the world where you can find yourself sleeping in a king’s bed having only recently met his descendants over a gin and tonic for an update on the latest cricket results or a more serious discussion about water harvesting and the lack of monsoon rains.
Centuries ago there were dozens of kingdoms and principalities where rulers displayed their wealth in the adornment of their stately homes, but the withdrawal of royal privileges and the abolition of the status of royalty in 1971 pulled the rugs from under their feet. Maharajas sold up, leased to hotel chains or took in paying guests to meet the bills and have now become hoteliers in their own right. There can’t be many other places in the world where you can stay in a former palace and the window it offers immense historical and cultural diversity without breaking the bank.
Rajasthan abounds with palaces seemingly of every shape and size. Palaces were more than dwellings: many of the rulers led very public lives and as well as the royal residence there were areas for public audiences, workshops and acres of perfectly manicured gardens.
These opulent retreats have been restored to their original splendour complete with five star facilities and swimming pools with views to die for and the awe-inspiring Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur takes some beating. One of the largest residences in the world, one wing of the sandstone and marble palace is still lived in by the Maharaja of Jodhpur. Although you may not meet him personally, you can still enjoy its opulent Indo Deco style and be waited on hand and foot – by staff in jodhpurs.
Just half a day’s drive away the lake-fringed city of Udaipur is one of Rajasthan’s most romantic spots, crowned by its sprawling city palace. Nearby, floating in the middle of Lake Pichola, the cool white marble of the Lake Palace is an instantly recognisable landmarks and one of the country's most celebrated hotels.
There’s character a plenty in many a simpler place. Head to the palaces and country-house residences at Deogarh or Narlai and their maze of steep stairways and narrow corridors that demand a ball of string to find the way back to your room. Furnished with old four poster beds so high that you need steps to climb up to them at night simply add to their charm.
Palace decor is invariably stunning with walls decorated with murals of peacocks and gods and hung with paintings and sepia photographs of maharajas in their full regalia. The elephant foot umbrella stands and teeth baring trophies of tigers which glared down at dinner time have now usually been discretely removed and relocated to private apartments or storerooms. Ask, and you may get to have a look.
Wherever you stay, you’ll be welcomed with traditional Rajput hospitality, delicious meals prepared to secret family recipes and turbaned bearers ready to attend to your every need. It’s easy to get used to and you’ll begin to wish that you too are of royal blood.