Winding up a hill to arrive at Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, you’d be forgiven for imagining
Winding up a hill to arrive at Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, you’d be forgiven for imaginingyourself displaced to a 1930s English countryside manor. The imposing building presents luxury on a grand, 347-room, 26-acre scale. One of the largest private residences in the world and one of Asia’s youngest palaces, Umaid Bhawan is a curious blend of identities, with a rich individuality that hides just behind its five-star-hotel façade.
Designed by Edwardian architect Sir Henry Vaughan Lanchester, the structure has a strong colonial air even though the layout of the gardens is essentially Mughal: a clean expanse of green with a large courtyard; dressy white pavilion in the centre; symmetrically lined bushes. Rajput and Hindu traditions are also amalgamated through carvings on the eaves and parapets. The domed lobby is the palace’s showpiece, in which I will find myself in a constant state of arrival as I struggle unsuccessfully to orient myself. Vibrant orange-red streams of cloth dangle from tall pillars, forcing my gaze up to the 105-ft-high cupola ceiling, its decorated glass panels filtering in the changing direction of the sun.
The lobby links the palace’s two sections, the zenana and the mardana, and leads to the museum, restaurants and Jiva Spa — recently added by Taj Hotels, who took over management in 2005. The royal family leased part of their property in 1975 to ITC, who first established the hotel. Then came Amanresorts, but they had differences with the owners, who still inhabit a section of the palace. This perhaps accounts for Taj’s careful renovation and the involvement of the royal family in all major decisions.
Each of the refurbished rooms is unique, but the style is 1930s Art Deco. Curved furniture, angular lamps, imitation Art Deco chandeliers, striped carpets, square-within-square motifs: although newly designed, the furnishings all adhere to this theme. Naturally, decadence is another primary theme. The Royal Suites come with two rooms, butler service, two LCD TVs and a bathroom that merits a few hours’ attention. Choosing between a rain shower and a deep tub overlooking the balcony is a difficult choice, but someone has to make it.
You can’t visit Umaid Bhawan without exploring its short but fascinating history, so a visit to the museum should follow the palace tour. One room is dedicated to its founder Maharaja Umaid Singh and the history of the palace, which was a contribution to his people — built as part of a famine relief programme, it employed 3,000 people over 15 years from 1929 to 1944. Most essential to visit is the outrageously black-and-gold painted Oriental Room featuring murals of the Ramayana by Polish artist Stephan Norblin. History aside, the hotel is up to date on all the accoutrements essential to upscale travel, such as the spa, which is well equipped for an afternoon of aroma-laden, oil-rich bodily decadence. Best, it’s located alongside the spectacular zodiac pool — an original element, aquamarine murals included.
That night, as I sat at a low table in the courtyard amid a sea of candles, a thali ahead of me, I contemplated what it might be like to call such a place home. Service at my beck and call, history all about, luxury unlimited. Some might call it paradise.
Location: Jodhpur, Rajasthan
Accommodation: 18 deluxe rooms, 6 luxury rooms, 28 Regal Suites, 10 Royal Suites, 1 Grand Royal Suite, 1 Presidential Suite
Tariff: Rooms Rs 20,300-32,200; Suites Rs 48,400-1.76 lakh. All rates on double occupancy plus tax.
Contact: 0291-2510101, www.tajhotels.com