Rajasthan may have its share of celebrated royal residences–turned–luxury hotels, but the state’s more obscure heritage properties are well worth seeking out too—and not just because they’re easier on the wallet.
You’ve heard of the Great Wall of China. But what about the great “wall” of Kishangarh? Located 100 kilometers west of Jaipur in India’s desert state of Rajasthan, it’s composed entirely of marble—seemingly endless slabs of stone in shades of ivory, gray, rose, and emerald green stacked outside the countless marble showrooms that line both sides of the expressway leading into town. Four centuries ago, Shah Jahan built his Taj Mahal from stone quarried at Makrana in the hills just north of here.
Kishangarh has since evolved to become the marble capital of Asia, selling luxury stone to aspirational Indians whose dream home is a mini Taj Mahal. But I’m not here for the marble. I’ve come for a palace.
My driver, Dinesh, has driven tourists around Rajasthan for three decades, but never before has he brought any to Kishangarh. This dusty city of 150,000 rarely features on tourist itineraries; it’s on mine because I have a thing for palace hotels. Not the celebrated and ruinously expensive former royal residences epitomized by Jaipur’s Rambagh Palace or the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur, mind you—though I’m quite happy to check in to such places when someone else is paying. My taste is in minor palaces, the faded glories and forgotten follies of India’s maharajas.
There’s no shortage of them in a vast land that, at the time the British quit India in 1947, was parceled into more than 550 princely states. That’s an awful lot of palaces to sustain, especially after Indira Gandhi outlawed privy purses and royal privileges in 1971. Many defrocked nobles turned to tourism to make ends meet, and I thank them for that. There’s nothing I enjoy more in India than living like a king on my pauper’s purse.
On past visits I have bunked with the titled owners of the 18th-century Roop Niwas Kothi in Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region, famous for its wealthy merchants and painted mansions. I have dined with a stone-deaf maharaja in a salon stuffed with hunting trophies at the macabre Ranjit Vilas Palace in Gujarat. At dreamy Darbargadh Palace, also in Gujarat, I felt like an extra in a Merchant Ivory film as my terrace suite shimmered in the haze above the Machchhu River.
As a traveler in India, I am a hopeless romantic. One whiff of an intriguing palace and I’m directing drivers on detours to towns they’ve never been compelled to visit before. Hence, Dinesh and I are now snaking along a tree-lined drive beside Gundalao Lake on the outskirts of Kishangarh. The high mottled walls of the city’s namesake 17th-century fort come into view first, then the austere arch of the Old City’s Madan Pol gate, and finally the voluptuous Persian-Mughal dome of Phool Mahal Palace.
The waterside property lies at the end of a driveway bordered by beds of roses, hibiscus, cosmos, and marigolds. There’s a raffish charm to its slightly weathered facade and a fairy-tale beauty in the elegantly scalloped arches of its balconies lining the serene and silvery lake.
Hotel manager Kishor Upadhyaya ushers me into a richly pillared drawing room appointed with plump sofas, lavish marble floors, and picture windows onto the lake terrace. Over a cup of masala chai, he explains how Phool Mahal was built in 1870 by Maharaja Prithvi Singh as a pleasure palace for the ruling family of Kishangarh State. The present maharaja, Brajraj Singh Bahadur, lives outside the city in a hunting lodge with his wife and their two princesses. From there, they manage a trio of ancestral properties turned hotels—this one, Roopangarh Fort, and Kishangarh House at Mount Abu, Rajasthan’s only hill station.
Phool Mahal seems rather empty. I ask Upadhyaya how many other guests he expects tonight, and his answer makes my heart skip. None. I have the run of the palace.
He delivers me to my quarters, an attractive octagonal suite right under the dome whose walls and wardrobe are frescoed with colorful vignettes of royal life. It takes a moment for me to realize that the painted scenery inside is an artist’s impression of the scenery framed by my windows. There’s the low silhouette of Mokham Vilas palace across the water, the imposing bulk of Kishangarh Fort looming behind, even the domed roof of this very room.
After a sunset gin and tonic on the terrace, Upadhyaya collects me for a stroll into Kishan-garh’s Old City, the Purana Shahar. Beyond Madan Pol lies an antique world of faded shop fronts, shuttered havelis (mansions), and pre-electric scenes of charcoal irons at the laundry, treadle sewing machines at the tailor, and cauldrons of sugared milk bubbling over fire pits at the many sweet shops.
Everyone greets us, smiling and waving. “All the people know me,” Upadhyaya laughs. Two boys escort us the entire route on their bicycle; a doctor stops to chat about cricket and then invites me to his house for tea. Foreigners are a novelty here, and it’s impossible not to be touched by the eager reception. This is the experience of India I crave, where the human inter-actions are spontaneous and unfiltered by five-star artifice.
The next morning, my breakfast is set up on a roof terrace overlooking a scene of utter serenity. The air is cool and still so the lake is in full reflective mode, a mirror to the chhatri pavilions of the royal cenotaph and Kali temple on the right and the mirage-like Mokham Vilas straight ahead. Herons and swallows carve arabesques in the air, reassuring me I was right to seek out this forgotten palace hidden behind a wall of marble.
Two weeks later, an eight-hour journey transports me from the Taj Mahal to Rajmahal Palace, a riverside pile at the end of a rutted road in eastern Rajasthan. It’s a charming sight of flaking masonry and blooming gardens cradled by the peaks of the Aravalli Hills. On cue for my arrival, a macaque sprints across the lawn and the fading light of day tints the sky gold.
Dressed in a dhoti and suit coat, the palace’s elderly host, Premchand-ji, shows me to my suite of marble floors, frescoed ceilings, and windows framing views of the Banas River. Again, I am the only guest in the palace and, again, my driver has never been here before.
Rajmahal has 15 rooms arranged around two courtyard gardens, the various wings connected by a rooftop walk lined with toothy parapets. The 1798-built structure looks its age, but ongoing restoration works keep it respectable inside; workmen are busy during my stay reviving an opulent drawing room with turquoise chandeliers and carved stone balconies.
Jacketed staff arrange a clothed table and two wicker chairs in the garden beside a crackling brazier, serving beer and snacks in the rose-scented night air. A crescent moon hangs in the sky between two silhouetted peaks as the sound of bells and chanting drift over the palace walls from the village. Later, in the formal dining room, waiters relay piping hot chapatis from kitchen to table alongside chicken and cauliflower curries, cumin potatoes, dhal, and rice. Royal ancestors watch over the banquet. At one end of the room is a portrait of Thakur Mohan Singh Kanota in an ivory silk jacket and jeweled necklaces; at the other, his grandfather, Narain Niwas, poses astride a horse.
The latter’s name lives on in Rajmahal’s sister property, Narain Niwas Palace, which lies three hours up the road in Jaipur. It’s a beautiful hotel, but too opulent and obvious for my tastes. Instead, I bed down across town at the 51-room Bissau Palace, a rambling, heavily embellished affair on the edge of Jaipur’s Old City. Built in 1919, it has seen better days—all these palaces have—yet it wears the patina of age well and has abundant charm.
Highlights include the Bissau’s sun-drenched pool and lawns, breakfast in the showy Shish Mahal (Palace of Mirrors), and wandering roof terraces in the late afternoon as the sky comes alive with kites and Tiger Fort glows in the distance. Admittedly, the service will never win any awards and the food is unmemorable. But this lavishly decorated oasis brims with the romance of a bygone era. As the hotel’s own website proclaims, Bissau Palace has “an atmosphere pregnant with intrigue, excitement, tragedy.”
Farther west, deep into the desert, lies the citadel city of Jaisalmer. While there are a handful of palace hotels here, there is something even more special—one of the world’s oldest inhabited forts. About 4,000 people live within the sandstone walls of the Sonar Qila (Golden Fort), built by the King Jaisal Singh in 1156 atop Trikuta Hill. For three nights, I live among them.
Killa Bhawan is a labyrinthine inn set within three of the fort’s 99 bastions. With its numerous sitting rooms, nooks, and terraces connected by Escher-like stairs, it feels secret, venerable—the original houses are several centuries old—but also sumptuous. There are just eight rooms, each done up with rich fabrics, antiques, and old timber doors and seemingly sculpted into the warm stone like luxurious caves.
Mine features a projecting jharokha balcony whose decorative edges frame panoramic views of the fort, the city, and the boundless wilderness of the Thar Desert. I spend my days perched above Jaisalmer reclining on cushions in the jharokha or bathed in warm winter sun on one of Killa Bhawan’s many roof terraces. The constant life force of the fort and city provides infinite distraction and inspiration; the scenes that play out on this desert stage feel timeless and authentic.
One evening I get a little drunk with Killa Bhawan’s Swiss-born owner, Luca Borella, a textile entrepreneur who first came to Jaisalmer in 1989 and fell in love with the place.
“When I saw this building, I thought, ‘This is too beautiful,’ ” he recalls. “It was like walking into a history book.”
I know exactly what he means. He could be describing my own feelings each time I step inside one of India’s storybook royal hotels.
Khetri House Rd., Jaipur; 91-1412/304-371; doubles from US$68.
Jaisalmer Fort, 445 Kotri Para, Jaisalmer; 91-2992/251-204; doubles from US$76.
Phool Mahal Palace
Old City Rd., Deshwali Mohalla, Kishangarh; 91-1463/247-405; doubles from US$90.
Rajamahal, Tonk District; 91-1434/234-209; doubles from US$60.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Palace Intrigues”).