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Rude Travel: Rajasthan Royals

Vir Sanghvi marvels at the transformation of the state, but sometimes finds himself secretly longing for the quiet, sleepy Sixties Rajasthan he so loved as a boy. While most people went on holiday, he recalls Rajasthan was more beautiful back then.

india Updated: Oct 08, 2011 19:20 IST
Vir Sanghvi

It sounds funny to say this now, but when I was at school in Ajmer most Indians did not think of Rajasthan as a tourist destination. In those days, Indians went to hill stations on vacation (and very pleasant places those hill stations were too, until they were destroyed by ugly over-development) and the very rich went abroad. In any case, most people went on holiday during the summer and Rajasthan is essentially a winter destination because the heat can be unbearable in July.



But all the things that attract tourists to Rajasthan were around even then. And, in my view at least, they were cleaner, a lot less crowded and better-maintained in the Sixties and early Seventies than they are today. Chittorgarh was beautiful in those days. So were Amber and Jaigarh. The Maharajas were not fully stripped of their titles, privileges and privy purses till 1971, so Royal Rajputana, so beloved of modern tourists, was a real, vibrant experience. The water in the lakes sparkled. Pushkar had not become a pit-stop for French tourists with nasty little joints selling ‘milkshakes and fruit pancakes.’ Jodhpur was a sleepy little town. Nobody outside of Rajasthan had heard of Jaisalmer. The locals still dressed in the vibrant colours that are the signature of Rajasthan and not in ill-fitting jeans and T-shirts which read ‘Ralph Lauren Polo’ or ‘Gucci.’



Rajasthan hotel

By the mid-Seventies, a decline had set in. The Rajput boys I met at school reunions seemed to have nothing to do. Most had retired to their havelis to live in sin with monks. (Well, Old Monk, anyway.) Money was tight. When you asked them what they did for a living, they all said “farming.” And even the gods seemed to have turned their attention elsewhere. In 1976, I came to Udaipur to stay at the Lake Palace only to find that the lake was completely dry – they drove me to the hotel in a jeep on the caked mud of the lake-bed.



It is politically incorrect to say this but the truth is that tourism saved Rajasthan. And it was private sector tourism that did this in the face of political and bureaucratic obstacles. When you go to Rajasthan today, the state is booming. New deluxe hotels keep opening. Private airlines schedule more flights. And the Old Monk-lovers I remember from school are all rich. They have turned their havelis and castles into heritage hotels and are raking it in.



Though assorted tourism ministers, both at the state and centre, take the credit for this turnaround, the truth is that only one central minister did anything for tourism in Rajasthan (Madhavrao Scindia changed the rules to allow for the growth of heritage hotels; as a former maharaja, he understood the potential for family-run palace properties).



It was the Indian hotel industry that revived Rajasthan.



Rajasthan

Much of the credit must go to the Taj Group. In the early 1970s, when the Taj was still a tiny company, two maharajas, Sawai Man Singh of Jaipur (the husband of Gayatri Devi) and Bhagwat Singh of Udaipur (father of both the current maharaja and Arvind Singh, whom he left his properties to), went to see Ajit Kerkar who then ran the Taj Group. They had turned their palaces (the Rambagh in Jaipur and the Lake Palace in Udaipur) into hotels with disastrous consequences, they said. They had both independently concluded that they needed professional management. Kerkar struck a deal with them. They would retain ownership of the properties but the Taj would manage and market both palace hotels.



Thanks largely to the Taj’s Camellia Panjabi’s legendary marketing skills, both hotels soon became regarded as the two must-stay properties in India by European and American travel agents and journalists. By the 1980s, the Lake Palace was one of the world’s most famous hotels (its mystique deepened by its appearance in the James Bond movie Octopussy), the French had fallen in love with Rajasthan (perhaps it reminded them of Algeria, Morocco and other parts of their former North African empire) and Rajasthan’s hotels were full.



In the Nineties came two further momentous changes. The government’s nod to heritage hotels meant that scores of little properties (from 25 to 50 rooms usually) opened all over Rajasthan. These were family-run hotels located either in the palaces of erstwhile thakurs or in massive castles that the thakurs had not previously found a use for.



This led to another wave of tourists. Because the hotels were real palaces and castles, because they lacked the commercial gloss of chain hotels and retained a slightly rough edge, and because they were usually less than half the cost of say, the Rambagh or the Lake Palace, the heritage properties attracted a different kind of tourist: one who cared about Rajput history and architecture and wanted a unique experience.



By the late 1990s, Rajasthan had been transformed. The tourist dollars had changed the fortunes of the state (and of my old school mates who gave up on ancient monks and looked for new Western friends with such names as Johnnie Walker). Historical Rajputana, once in decline and frowned upon in the socialist dispensation of the Seventies, had suddenly become the state’s ticket to global fame.



By then, of course, another change had occurred – outside of India’s borders. Because the Indian government had made such a hash of tourism (sector-unfriendly policies, punitive taxation, poor infrastructure, miserly bilaterals which restricted the number of flights into India, cretinous tourism ministers in many states, etc.), South-East Asia developed as a vibrant tourist hub. Visitors began overflying India to go to Phuket, Bali, Singapore or wherever. Fortunately, many of those who did come to India still went to Rajasthan. The bad news was that well-heeled tourists still preferred Jimbaran Bay to Jaipur, and spent their money outside of India.


At the very end of the 20th century came the next wave.



It is now universally accepted that the Oberoi chain’s Vilas properties transformed the Indian hotel industry. Three hotels opened in the five years after 1997 and changed Indian tourism forever. All three were in Rajasthan: Jaipur’s Rajvilas, Udaipur’s Udaivilas and Ranthambore’s Vanyavilas.



Of the three, Vanyavilas and Udaivilas have both topped lists of the world’s best hotels (earlier, no Indian hotels would make the top 20) and, in some years, they have been joined by Rajvilas in lists of the top ten hotels in the world. These lists are voted by readers (usually, rich readers) of travel magazines so that should give you some idea of how successful the Vilas properties were in luring to India those tourists who usually went to Ubud or beyond.



While the success of the Vilases has pitch-forked the Oberoi into the front rank of the world’s hotel companies, it has also ensured that Rajasthan now offers visitors tourist experiences at all price levels, from real luxury (the Vilases) to palaces (the Lake Palace etc) to heritage (the family-run hotels) to basic five star (say, the new Sheraton in Udaipur) to lots of three star (hundreds of properties scattered all over the state).



Two years ago, when I last went to Udaipur, I wrote that even though global travel magazines rated it as the world’s greatest destination, Indians tended to ignore its charms, leaving it to foreigners to fill the hotels. That is now changing. Udaipur has become a great wedding location and as more hotels open, rooms are available at all price ranges.



Speaking for myself, I have slightly mixed feelings. When I stay somewhere like Udaivilas – which must be the single most luxurious property in India – I marvel at the transformation of Rajasthan and I am delighted to see the new wave of properties. Some of them get even better with time. For instance, under its current general manager, Jan B Tibaldi, Udaivilas is easily India’s finest resort, and the one gap in its offering – the quality of the food – has been filled by the new executive chef, Deep Mohan Singh Arneja, who has moved from Vanyavilas where he used to turn out amazing meals day after day.



But, stick-in-the-mud that I am, I sometimes find myself secretly longing for that quiet, sleepy Sixties Rajasthan that I so loved as a small boy.



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On a different note, two apologies, both to do with wine. Many stand-alone restaurateurs have pointed out that even though they pay import duty on wine (hotels pay zero import duty), they price their wines lower than deluxe hotels. For instance, the Mouton Rothschild that cost `1.2 lakh at Delhi’s Leela Palace was only around `20,000 at Diva. So, I’m sorry guys, I should have pointed this out.

Also, in a risotto recipe I wrote that you could use any crap wine, even Sula, while cooking the rice. Many people on Twitter and elsewhere have risen up in protest. One guy has said that Sula got him through college; a few have argued that no matter what anyone says, they like to even drink Sula, not just cook with it. So, apologies to all concerned. I’m against all wine snobbery. If you like a wine then that’s all that matters. You shouldn’t care that neither I nor anybody else I know would ever drink it. Wine is subjective. Your own opinion is the one that counts – not mine.

From HT Brunch, October 9

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