Princely families have thrown their doors open, so guests can live life the way it was-laidback, leisurely and luxurious.
To sample vintage hospitality, we toured three classified heritage hotels of Gujarat- Balaram Palace Resort, Nilambag Palace and Riverside Palace. We took off one morning from Ahmedabad, sped past Mehsana, from where a detour takes one to Modhera and Patan, both known for their delightful 11th and 12th century Solanki Rajput monuments, on our way to the Balaram Palace hotel. We had visited Modhera and Patan before so we chose to stop at Sidhpur, which is famous for a Solanki period monument- the 12th century Rudramalaya, best known for its ornate torana arches. What came as a surprise was the Bohra Muslim mansions, so European in style and design that they would not have looked out of place in Vienna or Venice!
After this, we were not surprised to find that the Nawab of Palanpur had built the Balaram Palace Resort, which we reached 45 minutes after leaving Sidhpur, in neo-classical Baroque style. The façade of the palace has been beautifully restored and the gardens landscaped according to the original Nawabi period design. We enjoyed the view of the surrounding woodlands, part of the Balaram-Ambaji Wildlife Sanctuary, and the cool breeze wafting from over the river Chitrasani. A stone slab in the forecourt informed us that the Nawab had commissioned this country retreat in 1922 but only occupied it in 1935. The Nawab’s swimming pool is an unusual-it is fed by a natural rock spring, and has an outlet that empties excess water into the river Chitrasani flowing below.
The inside of the palace, however, proved to be a bit of an anti-climax for the décor and furnishings are extremely modern. Our suite, on the first floor, was large and fitted with a TV, refrigerator, phone and air conditioner. Windows, both in the room and in the bath, offered good views of the wooded hills.
Rather than order from room service, we decided to stroll in the garden and lunch at the Chitrasani restaurant. We walked out onto the lawn and were pleased to meet Dilip Thakker, one of the owners of the palace. "We are one of the first private entrepreneurs to have bought a palace in Gujarat and converted it into a heritage hotel. All the others are ancestral properties owned and run by descendants of rulers. We have taken care to keep up the personalised contact with the guests that is the USP of a heritage hotel," he says.
We spent the afternoon touring the temple town of Ambaji, the 1062-1134 Kumbariyaji Jain temples, the Jessore Bear Sanctuary and Iqbalgarh where tribal ornaments are made in little workshops. On our return to Balaram, we were captivated by the sight of the palace all lit up, the row of lamps leading from the gate to the palace are designed like parabadis (Gujarati bird feeding posts), soft music played from cleverly concealed speakers. After dinner, it was time to sleep. To our delight, the beds had been attractively made up and there were little cards and tags in different places wishing us good night in verse and prose. Later I learnt that Thakker is a poetry enthusiast and collects quotations of famous people, poems and attractive lines in Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati and English!
We woke up at leisure and tucked into a breakfast of French toast, with honey and melted butter, aloo parathas and masala tea. I must mention, the room service was excellent. Then it was time to leave for our next stop, Gondal.
The Orchard Palace of Gondal, where we arrived after an eight-hour drive through the cities of Ahmedabad and Rajkot, is the antithesis of Balaram Palace resort. The focus is on period furniture, antiques and creating a colonial charm. No TV, phone or fridge in the rooms which are large, high-ceilinged and furnished with four poster beds, dressers, elegant settees, paintings and prints. The bathrooms are pleasantly old fashioned with English fixtures and old dressing tables. Turbaned watchmen, uniformed butlers and old retainers welcome guests but nothing is served in the rooms, except bed tea. Instead guests are encouraged to use sit-outs facing the lime and chikoo orchards, or come down to breakfast, lunch and dinner in the formal dining room
"This is the guest wing of the Huzoor Palace, which was a British Residency in the 19th century and became the royal residence in the early-20th century when late His Highness Bhagwat Sinhji moved here from the Naulakha Palace complex which became his administrative headquarters. Personal guests of the Maharajahs and Maharanis of Gondal were accommodated in this wing of the palace, while political visitors stayed at the European Guest House across the road, says Kanak Sinh, "I am related to the royal family and manage this property. Our attempt is to make guests feel at home and as if they are staying at a royal guesthouse of earlier centuries.
Our room on the first floor, named Strawberry suite (all the seven guestrooms are named after different fruits), was, as the name suggests, swathed in pink tapestries and linen. It was large and spacious, and had elegant period furniture. The bathrooms were proportionately large with a separate sitting area.
We stepped out on to a gallery, with sit-outs facing the gardens, and into the Indian theme sitting room, which has brass lined patara chests, woodcarvings, miniature paintings, lover’s seats, brass idols and traditional textiles. The sitting room downstairs is simpler, and more in keeping with the Rajtheme, with cutlasses, a birds’ egg collection and European furniture.
Just next to the guesthouse is a royal rail saloon, standing on tracks next to a platform with European lampposts and benches. Kanak showed us the interiors of the saloon which are beautifully appointed with inlaid wood, carved furniture and richly upholstered settees. The en suite bath has a cute looking telephonic shower and the kitchen, now no longer in use, a coal cooking system.
We walked down, past an empty swimming pool, to the garages where the vintage, classic and sports cars are kept. We saw the 1910 New Engine, the Delage and Daimler, both 1930s models, the 1935 Mercedes seven seater and a 1935 Packard two door convertible coupe. The royal family also has a large fleet of imposing American cars of the 1940s and ‘50s including 1941 and ’47 Cadillac, 1955 Cadillac limousine, Fords, Buick, Stude Backer and Chevrolet.
"In the 1960s and ‘70s, both Maharajah Jyotinder Singhji and his younger brother, Maharaj Saheb, were into motor sports. In this period they collected the best sports models of the time like the Mercedes 300 SL, Jaguar XK 150, Surtees formula 5000 and Chevrolet Camaro," says Kanak Sinh, and won many trophies with these cars in South India. Yuvraj Himanshu Sinh too loves fast cars and his recent purchases include sports models of Corvette, Dodge and Ferari. We also saw a number of all-terrain vehicles, including jeeps, station wagons, pick-ups and an amphibian, that must have seen many a hunting trip (one with a beautiful crane mascot, we learnt from Kanak, once belonged to Raol Saheb Dharamkumar Sinhji, a well known naturalist.
It has been inherited by his daughter, Kumud Kumari, a Rolls Royce and a Mercedes. A buggy, one of the score of horse carriages at Gondal, was being restored in one of the garages, perhaps one day it will be used for carriage rides by guests.
The love of cars is visible in the drawing room of the Huzoor Palace, where guests staying at the heritage hotels of Gondal were invited for high tea with the family. Most of the furniture seemed to be French gilt wooden pieces, the glass cabinets were full of lalique and crystal, royal portraits spanned the walls, and car models in lalique and to scale were exhibited everywhere.
The tea was entirely silver service, with butlers bringing in silver trays laden with silver urns, silver tea pots and platters of sandwiches, biscuits, pedas and ganthias. "A European guest recently remarked that we offer the five Cs of a heritage hotel experience-calm, class, cleanliness, cuisine and character, says Kumud Kumari, "and, of course, we have lots to show by way of princely relics. You could be sitting on the gallery and a Buick or Cadillac limousine would drive by as if in the 1940s and ‘50s. She proudly showed us two trophies awarded to the Orchard Palace at Madrid and Paris, and the Heritage classification certificate in favour of the Riverside Palace issued by Government of India.
The courtyard of the Naulakha Palace, built in 1748, is surrounded by intricately carved columns. A brass inlaid wooden door leads to the former living quarters of the royal family which are now the museum. The first room has silver, brass and beadwork. The second is dedicated to Maharajah Bhagwat Sinhji. The silver room has caskets that carried messages for the Maharaja on his silver and golden jubilee as ruler of Gondal, as also his 61st birthday, silver plated elephant howdahs, jhoolas and horse caparisons.
The toys room has a range of playthings from 1870s, hand-painted horses and elephants to 1970s dinky cars. "At Gondal we have an ayurvedic pharmacy, set up in 1910, which is an attraction for our European guests who want to see traditional herbal medicines being made. We arrange Ayurvedic oil massages and consultations with ayurvedic physicians for guests interested in alternative therapies, Durgesh told us.
Those interested in birds are taken to the lakes and grasslands of Gondal where they could also see nilgai, jungle cat and jackal. Swaminarayan temple is another attraction with its murals and aarti atmosphere. Those interested in handicrafts can watch artisans at work on spinning, weaving, wood carving, beadwork, embroidery and silversmithing in Gondal. Also arrangements can be made for folk performances like the Rajput sword dance, Bharwad dandia-ras and garba. A tribal study group recently was taken to villages of the Bharwad and Charan communities. Visits to the stud farm of Kathiawadi horses and Gir cattle on the outskirts of Gondal town are also possible.
Kanak showed us the Riverside Palace, a mansion built on the shores of the river Gondali in Gondal town. The rooms are large and high-ceiling with four poster beds, old dressers, elegant settees, English prints, oil paintings, rich tapestries and wall-to-wall carpeting. We stepped up to the terrace, with its glass-corridor gallery, offering a view of the river. White breasted waterhen bobbed among the reeds and two ibises were perched on a tree facing the river. A vulture’s nest could be seen on a tree top.
We stepped down to the Indian room, a marvelously appointed sitting arrangement with lover’s seats, low seating, mattresses, bolsters, a Raja Ravi Varma print, brass artifacts and local beadwork. I saw a spotted owlet entering the hollow of a tree in the Riverside Palace garden.We drove past the attractive Swaminarayan temple to the Veri lake, where large flocks of pelicans, a small group of flamingoes, a few white and black ibis, and motley duck were among the many birds seen.
We headed back to the Orchard Palace in the dark. In keeping with the colonial period architecture and décor of the property, dinner was Continental and served by butlers in true Raj style. We did try a bajra rotla with white country butter and local dhokla. We awakened to the call of peacocks in the garden and the temple bells across the road and after a sumptuous breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast left for the Nilambag Palace Hotel, Bhavnagar.
The Nilambag Palace is situated on the thoroughfare into the city from the highway, but the multi-acre grounds with their tall trees act as a buffer against the noise of the city and make the palace seem isolated from the main road. We entered by stepped arches and found ourselves in a lobby that served as the living room of the royal family. King-size portraits, European chandeliers and teakwood carvings are a feature of the lobby. The central courtyard has a pleasure pool, now empty, and rows of old drawings.
We visited the library, furnished with 1950s Burma teak cabinets, with the office desk of the directors, Rajmata Brijraj Nandini and Maharajah Vijayraj Singh of Bhavnagar. "My ancestors came to this coastal area in the 13th century from Marwar. This palace was built in 1859 AD as a garden retreat," explains Vijayraj, "and became the royal residence after independence replacing the city centre Darbargadh palace complex”.
Recalls the Rajmata, "We were hardly using this property and so signed up with Welcomgroup to convert it to a heritage hotel. It did not do well and, after the contract was over, we decided to run it personally. My first attempt was to give it the look of a palace rather than a hotel. The reception desk was moved from the lobby to the portico as I wanted to give guests, the moment they entered the palace, to get the feeling of being in a spacious royal living room".
The clientele of the palace is divided between business visitors to Bhavnagar and its nearby ports and coastal projects, the reason the Nilambag retains the undeniable stamp of a business-class hotel, and foreign travellers visiting the Jain temples of Palitana and the Velavadar Blackbuck National Park.
We accepted an invitation for tea with the family at their bungalow in the palace precincts. The bungalow is surrounded by aviaries and flower hedges. A labrador played in the forecourt. The Bhavnagar royal family has recently opened their Gopnath bungalow, a 1940s mansion retreat set on a promontory, flanked by rocks and offering unending views of the Arabian Sea, as an economically priced heritage hotel for weekenders from Bhavnagar.
“We have another superbly located property-the Vijay Mahal, built in 1945 on Chanch island. My husband loves the place. If converted into a heritage hotel, it would be a unique property -a palace hotel on an island in the sea! Unfortunately, it needs a lot of restoration, renovation, furniture. Water is another problem,” explains Samyukta Devi. We walked back to the Nilambag Palace Hotel in the dark, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere. An ibis called from a sprawling tree where it was roosting. We ended our day with a dinner of tandoori chicken, paneer tikka, dal and rice, before settling in our room for the night.
(The author has written extensively on Gujarat for Indian and overseas publications)