Discover the Heritage Hotels of India
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
It was a passionate saga, penned by Col. James Tod in the early 19th C., that immortalized “Oodipoor” for the benefit of the modern world. “The palace (of Oodipur) is a most imposing pile,… nor is there in the East a more striking or majestic structure…” wrote Col. Tod in “Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan”, Vol.I, 1829. Udaipur has been hailed as a city of peace; the “Venice of the East”, the smiling capital of the Sisodia Rajputs ever since Maharana Udai Singh II laid the foundation stone in 1559 AD. Its magnificent palaces and island-palaces, in the backdrop of misty mountains and lakes, beckon you to plan memorable holidays in a unique heritage city.”
The above is what I read in the booklet “Experience the Original in the Abode of the Kings” given to me by His Majesty Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar in September 2006 when he came to Moscow for the launch of an album “Fashion and Style of the India Royal Houses”.
And – I’m here! And although my hands are still shaking as I walk up to the Palace gate after the multi-hour flight from Moscow to Delhi, a transit from the International to the local airport, several hours of waiting for the local flight and a four-hour flight from Delhi to Udaipur with a landing in Jaipur.
But all that is over and I’m here, at the Royal Palace in Udaipur, India. I’m here for the Maharana Cultural Foundation Awards at the invitation of His Majesty who is also the Maharana Foundation President and the owner of the Palace, or, to be more exact, the Udaipur Palace Complex, a city within a city.
When democracy reached the shores of India the Mewar family turned their property into luxurious hotels. How many stars? Five? Seven? – much more. For I’ve never stayed in a hotel like this. And the Mewar family made me feel very welcome and loved.
"But you have palaces at home, in Russia, in St. Petersburg, for example," - said Shriji.
"But those palaces are museums, so you are being shown a marble bath-tub that belonged to the tsar and here, in Udaipur, I’m bathing in the royal bath-tub myself and for a while it belongs only to me," I answered.
Yes, I’m here at the Royal Palace of the Udaipur Group of Hotels, as they are called now and I’m staying at the Fateh Prakash Palace. My room is wonderful. Absolutely Royal. All marble and through the window I can see another gate and a guard wearing a flamboyant Indian costume against the background of flowering bougainvillea.
As I’m falling into a lethargic sleep instead of going to the dining room for breakfast I can feel the embracing softness of a marvelous bed and the miraculous serenity of the Palace energy engulfing me.
Several hours later I was awaked by the manager who was my chaperone. “Miss Olga: Lunchtime.” As soon as I left my room several boys wearing uniforms rushed to help me with the lock and I walked down from amazingly high steps covered by a light-turquoise plush carpet to the diningroom. The way down was somehow easier than up or maybe I’d rested or maybe I was growing into an Indian... Hard to tell, but the Palace accepted me and the King’s hospitality was reaching me even without his presence.
In the dining-room, which is all about a huge glamorous hall with huge crystal chandeliers and the Royal family portraits covering the walls plus a little museum “A Crystal Gallery” upstairs, I met Her Royal Highness Maroni, the wife of the King.
We had first met in London back in 1989 at a tennis tournament attended by Princess Diana. Maroni recognized me at once and we had a pleasant talk spiced with tasty Indian food. When lunch was over I ran up to my room right above the dining-room and next door to the Crystal Gallery to fetch a Kuznetsov tea-service, my present to the Royal family.
Lake and Palace, Udaipur
All I wanted to do after lunch was to come back to my room and sink into the Kingdom of Morpheus once again, but during the lunch I struck up a conversation with a Professor of London University Dr. Richard Wyse (doing a project in Russia) and he immediately invited me to see the Lake Palace he was staying at. Thus my exploration of the Udaipur Palace Complex began.
If you sit on the Sun Setting Terrace (where I usually had my meals) and look out at the lake with the Palace Hotel floating like a ship and another Palace, Kumbhalgarh Fort, high in the mountains, where the Royal family used to rest during their tiger hunting and another Palace on the left called Jagmandir which is empty, one may have poetic inspiration.
But back to my first day. After a boat trip round the lake with Dr Wyse landing at Jagmandir and looking at all kinds of birds, including those from Siberia, it’s time for the Awards Ceremony. And yet we manage to stop by the Lake Palace once again to hear a little concert in the foyer(hotel life goes on regardless of all the ceremonies); beautiful Indian dancers sitting on the floor.
What is the dancing is just their hands; the waving flexible and tender skillful hands of Oriental dancers. Around them aromatic smoke streams upwards while in the bar there are other people resting. Who are they? Maybe travelers on their way to the Himalayas?
City Palace, Udaipur
Now we must be in a real hurry. We not only have to take a boat to “the continent,” but I have to change.
The first night of the ceremony is a fantastic concert of Indian songs and music. However, we have to wait for the King who is on his way from the airport. While every everyone’s waiting I venture to put my foot out of the Palace gate – into the night of Udaipur and immediately herds of salesmen are after me and a variety of smells much different from those of the Palace hit my nose. So I decide to put off the exploration of the city until the next morning.
When Shriji finally arrives and the concert starts we all fall in love with the solo singer, Mrs. Sulochana Brahaspati. Although a lady of 75, she sang for over two hours almost without a break and without a sip of water, her passionate vibrating voice going up and up all along the Palace Wall where pigeons find refuge at different levels; the Palace that took twenty two generations to build.
After the concert I finally met His Majesty to give him my present – CDs of my poetry put to music. As we sit at a party in the open air in front of the huge Palace Wall I remember the famous saying: ”The World fears Time, but Time fears the Pyramids.” I would say, the same is true of the Udaipur Palace. What century are we in? The 16th? The 17th? Maybe, if you look at the Palace and the grounds. Or in the 21st century judging by the most modern service and equipment.
The next morning was with my visit to the City Temple. I was accompanied by the Chief Manager of the Palace Hotel Complex and was not only amazed by the miraculous Temple, but by the crippled beggars at the entrance.
An old man with a wall-eye is sitting solemnly under the belly of a stone elephant. He is wearing a turban over his head and looks like the head of the gang. I give him a ten dollar banknote. He takes the banknote and runs his fingers over it several times as if he has never seen anything like that. After this careful scrutinizing of the banknote he gives me an appreciating stare. We exchange glances of gratitude and understanding.
Kids surround tourists
Hardly could I catch my breath when the Chief Manager took me to the Palace Museum to learn the history of the Mewar dynasty. And isn’t it impressive!
Time for the Ceremony. The picturesque event housed 200 people, the first rows designed for the VIP's, and lasted long into the night. We watched all the nominees of Indian science and culture, including students and army girls, go up to the King, touch his garment as a sign of respect, get their award and then giving their place to the next person.
Very late at night we had a Grand Celebration Party in one of the inner courts around a swimming pool and an unusual tree whose wide massive branches stretched to both sides so far from the trunk that it looked like a fur hat of a mountain herdsman.
The last morning at the Palace started with a most unexpected thing. Shriji was blessing a Himalayan rally – the owners of vintage cars from all over the world had gathering at the Udaipur Palace to start a non-competitive rally to the Himalayas.
As we stood at the Royal Palace cars drove up and stopped in front of us. Drivers got out of their cars, walked up to shake hands with the King who then raised a red flag and waved it in a gesture of blessing. The sight was both flamboyant and exciting. We saw all kinds of vintage cars of the beginning of the 20th century – Rolls Royces, Mercedes and so on.
Spice Market, Udaipur
My next stop in India was a private estate (also turned into a posh hotel) of a Lord and college friend of the King in Rohe Gart, Jodpur.
On our five-hour journey from Udaipur to Jodpur, a road which goes through the jungles, over the rivers with stone bridges where an unheard of miraculous Jain temple carved of marble and cleverly hidden in the mountains from the Moslems where:
each little thing
is meant to symbolize Infinity...
We stop at one more Palace of the King in Fateh Bagh, the latest addition to the HRH Group of Hotels. It’s a Royal retreat located in Ranakpur, the famous Jain temple city of Rajasthan. Fateh Bagh is recreating a forgotten chapter of Rajasthan’s history. It is India’s first attempt at transplanting a palace, faithfully preserving the richness of Rajpur architecture for the 21st century.
Finally we get to Rohe Gart and although nothing can hold a candle to the Udaipur Palace Complex I can appreciate this place the next day, which I spent entirely by the swimming pool relaxing I need some rest before the next leg of my trip – to Goa.
I also need to sort out my impressions of the Palace and as I lay at the swimming pool having my slightest whim satisfied by the estate's servants. I remember my meeting an American couple at the Sun Setting Terrace. The husband is the head of the Chicago Bears football team. They have come to visit their daughter who is at school in the Himalayas. They’ve had a safari to see tigers. When I asked them if their room is being cleaned every time you leave it (all the towels changed, the bowls of fruits changed, boxes of chocolates changed if you take at least one piece), they shook their heads and I realized what it meant to be a special guest of Shriji. They enjoyed themselves anyway and I introduced them to the King during the blessing of the rally.
Another episode: At night when I took a boat trip around the lake the sailors told me about a horrible creature named “kokoral, which is three feet long, lives in the lake and eats people”. A good beginning for an epic poem in the style of Vedas, isn’t it?
Sunrise from rooftop terrace of the
Jaisalmer Heritage Hotel