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Checking In With India's Maharajahs : Even the Most Jaded Guests Are Awed by the Opulence of These-Turned-Hotels

September 30, 1990|By JAMES HEER | Heer is a producer of documentaries and a free-lance writer who lives in Toronto.

JODHPUR, India — The porter who carries my dust-covered suitcases looks almost as if he's been dressed for a scene in the movie "Plaza Suite." Over navy pants he wears a traditional red and blue bellman's jacket, but instead of a smart pillbox cap, he sports a saffron-colored turban.

"This was once the maharani's suite," he announces officiously, unlocking and pushing open the door to Room 402. "Maharani is the Hindi word for queen," he continues without considering I may already know something of India's exotic princely order.

Inside, the room is as black as the inky desert sky that has encased the former Jodhpur royal palace since my late-night arrival. The bellman, with a penchant for theatrics, steps silently into the blackness. When I see him again he is standing expressionless beside a white marble fireplace in a room with a 20-foot-high ceiling, plush Art Deco chairs, giant paintings and a bed that is larger than any I've ever seen or slept in. "Good God," I mutter. The corners of the bellman's mouth curl upward. "That's American for Allah is Great," I quip, determined not to be just another tourist gone gaga over a flashy hotel room.

The bellman bows slightly, showing respect for my blessing on the room, and walks to a set of double doors. With one grand sweep he reveals a private dining room with enough crushed velvet chairs for 12 guests. "Charming," I offer coolly, touring around the long oak table and stopping halfway to admire a Belgian crystal chandelier that drops like a mountain waterfall from the center of the room. The cascading crystals remind me of another, more impending question.

"And the bathroom?" I ask casually.

As if prompted by a stage director hidden behind the stiff Aubusson drapes, the bellman leads me down a long stone terrace and back through the main room to another set of double doors where he announces: "The toilet."

Stepping inside a room only slightly smaller than the others, I am accosted by mirrored images of me, mouth agape, looking disappointingly ordinary against this royal backdrop, which costs $155 a night. The bellman directs my attention to the dressing room's inner chamber and points to the object of my desire.

"Shall I show you the servants' quarters?" he asks.

The Umaid Bhawan Palace is otherworldly. Once the world's largest private home, it rests on an outcrop of rock at the edge of the Thar Desert, overlooking the ancient city of Jodhpur. Today, like many of India's royal palaces, it is used as a hotel.

Since 1970, when the late prime minister, Indira Gandhi, stripped the country's royal families of their prestigious titles and state allowances (for some, more than $200,000 a year), many former rulers have had to choose between opening their ancient palaces to tourists or watching them crumble.

Gaj Singh became Maharajah of Jodhpur at the age of 4, when his father died. He still owns and lives at the Umaid Bhawan, although it's tourists who now stroll the palace grounds, dine in the Great Hall and sip champagne on the marble terrace.

"I like having everything in running order again, not just a gloomy shell," says Singh, who limits his use of the 347-room palace to five rooms on the second floor. "But as business increases, there are times when one must use the side door to avoid the crowds. Otherwise it doesn't disturb me."

By converting his palace into a hotel, Singh has managed to preserve the huge red sandstone structure, as well as employ palace servants who have been loyal to the royal family for decades.

At the moment, only 66 of the 347 rooms in the palace are livable. Nearly every suite includes original Art Deco furnishings created when Singh's grandfather, Sir Umaid Singh, commissioned construction of the palace from 1929 to 1943.

Jodhpur was then the state of Marwar (Land of the Dead), and one of the Hindu Rajput states whose princes retained independence under British colonial rule. Like many princes, Sir Singh emulated British society and had English architects design the palace in the beaux-arts tradition fashionable across Europe at the time.

Propriety dictated that the palace, the future home of a potentate, be built on the highest ground in Jodhpur--which happened to be the outcrop of rock southeast of the old city. Building a monumental palace on a mountain of stone was not an easy task. The soil for the gardens had to be carried in from miles away, and pockets blasted into the rock to give root space for trees. A narrow-gauge railway was laid down to transport blocks of sandstone to the site.

From the outside, the Umaid Bhawan Palace looks oddly like an early 20th-Century municipal building, the kind that houses libraries and art galleries in London and Paris. Inside, however, the furnishings reflect a faster, more indulgent side of the 1930s, as well as the tastes of a young maharajah who flew airplanes and adored Art Deco and Jazz Modern styles.

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