A palace apart

A palace apart

Rediscovering Rajput history and the pleasures of doing nothing in the royal digs of Dungarpur

Anees Saigal
March 08 , 2014
10 Min Read

As I nestle into a deep cane chair, a bonfire casting a warm amber glow around me, gazing over the dark silky ripples of Gaibsagar Lake, I realise that I’ve unexpectedly received what I most needed: complete peace and quiet. The royal family’s private temple floats silently on the lake; a ghostly apparition shining under strategically placed lights, spreading vibrant night shadows on the water.

Across, the small town of Dungarpur seems almost unnaturally alive, its temple sounds drifting through the hills surrounding Udai Bilas Palace. But here on this grassy sit-out, I am in complete solitude for over an hour, soaking in the tapestry of stars that I’ll never find in Delhi’s polluted skies. As I discovered, the great appeal of this hidden corner of Rajasthan lay in doing nothing much at all.

Udai Bilas Palace evokes images of historic grandeur and size and strikes me as a slight misnomer as we drive through a set of rusted gates, through a gravelly driveway decorated by pieces of ancient machinery — a gigantic old tennis court roller flanked by cannons. My impression, one that would last, was of a sprawling private residence whose isolation we were somewhat intruding upon. This sense is reinforced by the manager, who appears immediately to greet us, genial enough but also hesitant, and informs us that he’s been with the hotel for seven years and scarcely ever has reason to leave. The attachment Mr Singh bears for his home is evident in his close and prideful management of it, and you can see why. Udai Bilas Palace is one of those classic heritage palaces that have metamorphosed into a hotel, and while it’s small enough to maintain a sense of intimacy and informality, the royal family — who still live here — is not involved at any daily level, leaving the manager largely in charge.

There’s a piercing chill in the windy December air and, arriving early morning, you’d be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, makes the 14-hour trip worth it. My small room has a fusty atmosphere, the plaster on the walls cracking and far removed from its original white. And while I turn the ancient knobs seeking the hot water that eludes me and note the rust in the bathtub, I wonder if these old properties, which have seen the passing of their most glorious days, are not best left preserved in the memories of their owners and erstwhile guests.

But when I emerge so does the Rajasthani sun, bringing with it deep cerulean skies, French press coffee and warmth hard to find in North India this time of year, drawing me out to the infinity pool. And the mustiness and knob-fussing cease to matter. The glowing emerald waters stretch seemingly indefinitely towards the lake, while pale-green stone elephants trumpet liquid arcs into the pool. The art deco-styled tiles are curiously complemented by the geometric Rajasthani layout, the mahal that houses a Jacuzzi, the marble chairs and peacocks. This is the ideal spot for a lazy midday nap; and I indulge.

Breakfast, an archetypal English-style spread of cereals, toast, eggs and juice, is served in the dining room, a large dark hall roofed by carved Burma teak with a Bikaner carpet underfoot. As the attendants pull out honey and Marmite from wooden cabinets and fiddle with cutlery, it feels a cross between someone’s private (albeit grand) dining room and a museum of the hunting days of yore: at least 30 stuffed heads of deer, tigers and leopards adorn the walls. Like much of the palace, this room has remained unaltered since the 1940s. The royal history and lifestyle is palpable, and you can imagine the long table in its former glory seated knee-deep with maharajas and their British counterparts discussing the day’s successful hunt. I can imagine aficionados of British Indian history revelling in this testament to the fabled old days.

The charming bedrooms of the palace are similarly styled, constructed in a quirky and almost haphazard fashion that reveals the layers of time through which Udai Bilas Palace was created. Since the 13th century the royal family lived in the ‘old palace’, Juna Mahal. In the 1860s, the maharaja built a portion of the current palace: a wing containing several bedrooms that are now grand suites and Ek Thambia Mahal, a magnificent one-pillared structure that forms the focal centre of the palace. Set in the middle of a courtyard, overlooked by four walls of rooms and balconies, its unrestrained ornamentation and distinctively Indian architecture at first appears oddly discordant with the Edwardian/art deco motifs. But the one-pillared palace was built for purely decorative purposes, and it’s easy to appreciate for that alone.

Several new wings were added to the palace in the 1940s, when the family shifted from the old palace to the new. I’m struck by the family history built into each bedroom: “This was the maharani’s sister’s room,” says Mr Singh of one, “And this was the room such-and-such always stayed in” — and on the list goes. Each room is unique, and while the singles are sweet, cosy affairs, the suites and grand suites are the most enchanting. Lavishly sized, with 1940s wallpaper from England, quaint alcoves, original art deco furniture and private balconies, most brightly lit by views of the lake or gardens, they’re a true medley of influences. Old trunks are topped with glass to make tables, and the white bathrooms are fitted with early-century enamel bathtubs. I’m hard pressed to select a favourite, but the obvious choices are the 1860s suites, which have large sections of wall swathed in luminous glass- and mirror-work tiles in terribly intricate patterns.

But Udai Bilas has more to offer than rediscovering history, lazy-person naps and dreaming the day away, and that’s found on Gaibsagar Lake, a bustling centre of life. While the palace entrails are more historic than contemporary, the lake is a busy year-round home to masses — of birds. Winter months are particularly thriving, when the waters become an important centre of migrating visitors. Taking a slow ride in a small boat that was recently fitted (I am informed proudly by the manager) with a new Suzuki motor, we watch the sun set over the placid golden water, trees dip and sigh in the wind, and flocks of birds soaring through the fading light. Most striking are the white-necked storks, lovely large creatures gently flowing through the air.

After a night of long, restful slumber, I’m more than ready for what I come to see as the main event at Udai Bilas Palace, a journey through the ancient royal Rajput history in Dungarpur as seen through Juna Mahal. Many words could describe the rambling complex set upon a hill: decrepit, impressive, towering, teetering. Seven-storey and composed of a warren of narrow passages, steep stairways, ornate doorways and columns, the old palace is a layered amalgamation of styles dating from the 13th century and a sumptuous feast for the eyes. I start with the Darbar Hall, not majestic as much as a lush riot of colour, every wall, column and stretch of ceiling painted with frescoes depicting princely life. But this is still not the highlight; nor is the Sheesh Mahal that crowns the palace, offering a panoramic glimpse of the countryside and an equally glittering view inside through the reflections of thousands of muted mirror-work tiles. The cream of Juna Mahal is the breathtakingly flamboyant maharani’s room, every column encrusted in miniature coloured-glass paintings, every wall in murals and reliefs. It’s a dark, low-roofed and cavernous room, and outside, the sunny views of hills and houses, the town sounds and fresh air; seem almost unreal in contrast to this decadent slice of royal history. Sheaves of time are stacked thick and rich; even the Brits are painted in here and there, and a dusty glass mural of Queen Victoria dangles mutely in an empty corner.

Later, we climb up to Vijay Garh, the original and most ancient fortification on these hills, also the pinnacle of the region. The Aravallis undulate gently around the 360o view, and Juna Mahal seems so small from this vantage point, its splendour fading to yet another point in time gone by. Gaibsagar lake is an azure strip in the far distance; Udai Bilas Palace not even visible. I am wrapped in warm breeze and silence, a storehouse of history just below, for now just sitting on top of the world.

The information

Getting there: BY AIR Jet Airways, Kingfisher Airlines and Indian Airlines all fly daily to Udaipur from Delhi and Mumbai, with fares starting at Rs 3,725 on Kingfisher (one-way including taxes). From Udaipur airport, it’s a 2hr30min drive to Dungarpur; a taxi costs approximately Rs 1,500.

BY TRAIN: Mewar Express departs Delhi from Nizamuddin at 7pm and arrives at Udaipur at 7am; a one-way 2A berth costs Rs 1,444. The station is 110km from Dungarpur; the 1hr30min drive costs approximately Rs 1,000 plus toll tax.

Where to stay: The historic Udai Bilas Palace is one of the main attractions of the Dungarpur region as well as being a peaceful and scenic base from which to explore the area. There are no TVs or phones in the rooms, so bring a book and make sure your mobile has roaming. TARIFF The hotel offers 22 rooms: 3 singles (Rs 3,025 per night); 3 double rooms (Rs 3,825); 10 suites (Rs  4,600) and 6 grand suites (Rs 5,750), excluding taxes. Meals are extra: breakfast Rs 250; lunch Rs 400; dinner Rs 450, excluding taxes. CONTACT 02964-230808.

What to see & do: The hotel organises boat trips on Gaibsagar lake for bird watching as well as treks into the nearby private forest reserve; a boat is also the only way to reach the royal family’s private temple on the lake. The highlight of a visit to Dungarpur is a trip to Juna Mahal, a complex of turrets, towers and well-preserved Rajasthani art. Vijay Garh lies even higher up along the hills that run through the region; the old lookout point is worth a visit for its fabulous views. The hotel can also organise expeditions to the ancient temple complex of Dev Som Nath, but you might prefer to just relax by the lovely infinity pool instead.

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