by Tim Dawe
“Your suite comes with an on-call butler,” smiles our beautiful receptionist with a gold-embroidered sari, hands clasped in the Indian traditional namaste greeting.
“Welcome to Rambagh Palace.”
We’re in Jaipur, capital of the State of Rajasthan, on a private tour of India’s ‘golden triangle’ – just my wife and me and a succession of middle-aged tour guides who quietly materialise each morning with a driver in a shiny black car.
It’s my first visit to India; my wife’s second.
In the early seventies as a twenty-something recent graduate she crossed India in a busted bus doing the proverbial overland trip from Kathmandu to London.
Now, after the decades have faded the memory of gastro-inducing food and squalid accommodation, I am joining her in fulfilling her youthful vow to return and stay in one of India’s magnificent palaces.
Rambagh Palace is not just the hotel’s name. It is a palace – or rather was a palace; the former residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur.
India abounds with palaces, especially in Rajasthan – the land of the kings – many surviving, and thriving, by conversion to upmarket hotels.
Unlike the many crumbling Mughal-era palaces, Rambagh is a relative youngster, starting life in 1835 as a garden pavilion – a gift for life from the Maharani of Jaipur to her wet nurse. The property returned to the family in 1856 and was developed into a royal hunting lodge for the surrounding deer park.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries successive Maharajas built and extended the palace and transformed the 47-acre (19 ha) estate into a lavish playground of manicured terraces and gardens, polo fields, squash and tennis courts, and a huge indoor swimming pool.
By 1957 the last Maharaja of Jaipur, ‘Sawai’ Man Singh II, a modern diplomat and champion polo player, realising his playboy days of the former Raj were over, converted his desirable stately home into a hotel. It is now managed by the ubiquitous Taj hotel chain.
Back to the present and our place in history. We are swept through shining marble colonnades to our lavish four-room suite by our receptionist, who promises us a tour of the hotel and drinks in the famous Polo Bar.
The expansive, refurbished suite contains antique furniture. Attention to detail to impeccable and the courtyard view from floor to ceiling is stunning.
But we remain butler-less.
It is time to luxuriate in our suite. If ours is ‘entry level’, what opulence awaits the higher-ups? We wander and take in the wonder of the grounds and rooms, including the collections of a Maharaja: old cars, even older trains, birds and even rarer, tracts of wild forest.
Shadows lengthen on the lawn as dozens of waiters in turbans fuss over our coffee. Dusk descends and half a dozen of so newly-arrived guests assemble in the foyer for our introductory tour. What drama awaits us?
India is theatre. But the theatre of the streets – cows eating rubbish in the middle of busy street, shaving at an improvised barber shop under a billboard at the traffic roundabout and throngs of aimless people staring blankly at anyone with a camera – is little compared to Rambagh Palace’s foyer slowly building to mild farce.
It starts with the official portrait of founder Ram Singh II that strangely resembles a psychedelic hippie from Carnaby Street and ends with the extraordinary pomp and circumstance of the Indian Minister of Finance entering stage right.
However, before the emergence of the great man we are treated to a procession of underlings in ascending rank and importance. On arrival each official is greeted with excited bowing and scraping; the scraping being attempted shoe-touching – the lower the attempt the higher the rank.
We are enthralled by the spectacle, especially at faux attempts at show touching – but manage to restrict our impulse to applaud to muted yet enthusiastic comments.
Our group’s ice being well and truly broken, we are shown around the hotel’s public spaces, including exquisitely ornate and intimately-sized dining rooms with their echoes of grand feasts for important dignitaries.
On our way to the Polo Bar we are confronted with uniformed soldiers leaning on ancient rifles – straight out of BBC-TV’s Dad’s Army. Ministerial protection we are told.
We pass a bored-looking coachman sitting atop an immaculate brougham.
“Would madam be wanting like a ride?” The memsahib is not interested.
The Polo Bar is a hoot. It’s a veritable shrine of trophies, photographs and memorabilia to the polo-mad Man Singh II, who famously died on the field and in the saddle. Complementary champagne flows and memories of the Raj are vicariously absorbed by common travellers.
After more champagne and an invitation to ‘please take your glasses with you’, all of us are now keen for a horse-drawn turn around the grounds.
The buildings are outlined in lights, diners on terraces are softly lit, workers install fairy lights on enormous wedding tents, the giant fountain is ablaze and there is excitement in the balmy air as we weave our way along gravel driveways.
We repair to the gilded dining room for a sumptuous silver-service Rajasthani dinner with our new-found friends from New York and Paris. Our high spirits attract the head chef who invites us to taste his kulfi (ice cream) and visit his kitchen. Entertainment on the terrace follows.
Only six hours in Jaipur and we feel at home; our senses are delighted. We are wined, dined, entertained and accommodated royally.
Jaipur has so much to offer it’s best to allocate three or four days to take it all in. At the centre there is the walled old city – the pink city – surprisingly a product of urban planning dating from 1727, with wide boulevards making walking an easy option to explore its architecture and craft shops.
In the heart of the old city there is the City Palace with museums, sublime diwans (private and public reception buildings) and courtyards. Nearby is the Govind Dev temple, and the Hawa Mahal or palace of the winds, an intricate five-storey façade, purpose-built to allow palace women to see into the street without being seen.
A visit to the Jantar Mantar, an observatory of amazing complexity and accuracy built in the eighteenth century by Jai Singh, Jaipur’s remarkable founder and city planner, is a must.
But no-one should leave Jaipur without a visit to the Amber Palace and fort, entering its narrow gate atop a lumbering elephant. A former capital, only 10 km from Jaipur, the Amber Palace’s dramatic siting on strategic mountain ridges, its beautiful buildings and Mughal-style gardens are a highlight of our Indian tour.
Returning to Jaipur we stop to see the Jal Mahal, breath-taking testimony to the power, wealth and grandeur of the Rajput kings. It is a folly; a massive and majestic building dedicated to pleasure and set in the middle of a man-made reflective lake on a scale commensurate with an absolute potentate – and fortunately for us, one with style and panache.
And what of our personal butler – never called, never seen? We know this watchful Jeeves exists because every time we return to our room, even after an absence of only a few minutes, shoes are cleaned and aligned on a mat, clothes picked up from the floor and handtowels are neatly folded and topped with a fresh orchid.
The butler did it.