The Taste With Vir: The stark difference between Indian and European palace hotels
As beautiful places to stay, India’s palace hotels are unmatched. But no, they are not particularly historical. They were built or rebuilt in the 20th century and the overwhelming influence in many of the palaces comes from the British raj or from European country houses.
One of Indian tourism’s claims to fame is the palace hotel. It is one of the reasons why well-heeled foreign tourists come to India. They stay at the Lake Palace in Udaipur, one of the most spectacular hotels in the world. Or at the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, a sprawling, beautiful property.
Part of the charm of staying at these hotels is that guests can recreate the era of the maharajas. The Rambagh Palace features in Gayatri Devi’s A Princess Remembers. It was where she lived with her glamorous husband, the late Maharaja Sawai Man Singh (‘Jai’). At Umaid Bhawan in Jodhpur, the Maharaja is still in residence (in a separate wing of the hotel). And since 1992 or so, Rajasthan has been dotted with hotels that were once castles, forts and palaces, all of them owned by princes and thakurs. They lack the glamour of the big palaces. But they offer a connection with the era of the princes.
All of this leads Indians to believe that we are the only country to offer a historical palace experience.
Well, we are. And we are not.
We had maharajas till 1969 (when Indira Gandhi took away their titles) so the connection to the royal families is relatively recent and often played up. For instance, in Udaipur, the Lake Palace is owned by Arvind Singh, a member of the royal family. But even other hotels that have nothing to do with Arvind’s extensive property empire, play up a connection with the Udaipur royal family to remind guests of the maharaja-era associations.
The problem is that while our palace hotels have royal connections (and usually royal ownership), they are not particularly historical. The Rambagh, designed by Brits, was built in the 1920s and is less a Rajput palace and more a Rajasthani version of Downton Abbey. Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhawan was commissioned by Maharaja Umaid Singh in 1929 and only completed in the 1940s. Hyderabad’s Falaknuma Palace was never a palace at all but a 20th century residence that was used as a guest house by the Nizam. The style is distinctively European. The Lake Palace does have history. But it was originally a small structure that doubled in size with new construction when the Taj group took it over in the 1970s.
So, as beautiful places to stay, India’s palace hotels are unmatched. But no, they are not particularly historical. They were built or rebuilt in the 20th century and the overwhelming influence in many of the palaces comes from the British raj or from European country houses.
In fact, there are much older (and extremely luxurious) historical hotels in Europe. Some are part of real palaces. (You can now stay at a hotel that is part of the Versailles complex, once home to France’s Sun King.) And others are residences of nobles that date back to the Middle Ages or are, at the very least, several centuries old.
It took me some time to get used to the idea of European palace hotels, but now I actively seek out medieval palaces (or palazzos as the Italians call them) or converted medieval monasteries. They are as expensive, relative to hotel rates in their countries, as the palace hotels are in India. But if you love history, architecture and art, they are simply stunning.
In my experience, Italy has the best European-style palace hotels. Some years ago, I went to the Gritti Palace, generally regarded as one of Venice's two best hotels (the Cipriani, on an island near the city, is the other one) and was startled, not just by the levels of discreet luxury but by its history and the art and architecture.
It was the private residence of the Doge (a sort of elected king) of Venice in the 16th century and became a hotel in 1895. Throughout my stay, I was conscious that the canal-facing room I was staying in was at least 500 years old. (To put it in context, the palace was built 250 years before the Battle of Plassey, before the beginning of the British raj, at a time when many Rajput states did not exist.)
I was lucky, last week, to stumble on to another wonderfully historical hotel, the San Domenico Palace in Taormina in Sicily. Like many Italian palace hotels, it has a complicated history.
In 1435, before the country we now call Italy was created (and before the future Mughal Emperor Babar was even born), the property was built as a fortress by a powerful nobleman called Baron Damiano Rosso. Later, after he found God, Rosso donated the fortress to a wealthy order of Dominican monks. They ran it as one of the most luxurious monasteries in the region, buying great art, drinking good wine and enjoying good food. All went well till Giuseppe Garibaldi unified (or created, depending on your perspective) Italy in the late 19th century. The Garibaldi regime took over all the (very wealthy) monasteries. But the Dominican monks argued that there was a clause in Rosso’s will (through which the original bequest had been made centuries ago), that said that were the Dominicans to lose control of the property, it would revert to Rosso family ownership.
After a long battle, the descendants of the Rossos got the property back and in 1896, they began to turn it into a hotel. For over a century, it was the most glamorous hotel in Sicily, hosting the global jet set, and such Hollywood celebrities as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as well as heads of State: It hosted a G-7 Summit in 2017
Eventually, it began to look a little tired so the Four Seasons took over, closed the hotel and lovingly restored the property (in a manner that preserved its history) so that it became, once again, one of the world’s great historical hotels.
One major difference between European palace hotels and ours is that while the Indian hotels play up the luxury lifestyle of the maharajas, the European hotels take the luxury for granted. They focus instead on the history. At the San Domenico Palace, I was reminded at every turn that there were centuries of history in the hotel.
The cloisters, where the monks used to gather for contemplation, have been spruced up but they retain a quiet reverential air. The beautiful garden which stretches to the sea has been replanted with 50 varieties of citrus (the smell fills the air even before you see the garden) but you can easily imagine what it was like when the original fortress looked fiercely out to the sea. There is still the old chapel (this was a monastery, after all) with its bell tower. And the art, most of it consisting of museum-quality, serious works, draws on the monastery’s collection of paintings (not all of them religious in theme). There is also a reverence for antique furniture which Indian hotels simply don’t get: There are almost no historical pieces of furniture at our hotels. An entire room at the San Domenico Palace is dominated by a centuries-old, double-facing desk where monks would sit. There are chairs that date back hundreds of years.
So, if the Italians (and other Europeans) can do it, why can’t we? Why do our palace hotels only celebrate the hedonistic lifestyle of the maharajas while paying so little attention to the art and the history?
Some of it, I guess, is unavoidable. Our palaces don’t have centuries of history behind them. Most palace hotels are located in structures that are so recent that even Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel is much older. Many (if not most) maharajas became obedient vassals of the British and sought only to emulate them. Hence the English gardens, the Palladian architecture and the country house style of many of our palaces. They were not designed to do very much more than keep the maharajas happy in the style to which their British masters had made them accustomed. Even the Lake Palace, parts of which are genuinely old, was not built as a residence but as a small pleasure palace where the maharaja could have fun.
Which is a shame. Any hotel with a historical connection should not be so one-dimensional. In this respect at least, the Europeans have got it right.
And I often wonder: Do we not have historical buildings that we can transform into hotels that showcase art and history? Surely, we must have some that can do more than just offer a taste of princely luxury?