The Taste with Vir: Only in India can you stay in a real palace converted into a luxury hotel
If I asked you which the first significant Palace hotel in India was, I am pretty sure you would get it wrong. Which, I guess, is fine.There is no reason why most of us should be well informed about the history of palaces or hotels.
But what’s interesting is this. I reckon that around 90 per cent of the travel business would get it wrong too.
And I am not even sure what you could say was the ‘correct’ answer. When the Taj Mahal Hotel opened in Mumbai over a century ago, it was called the Taj Mahal Palace. In those days, a grand hotel was regarded as a palace hotel and often used the word ‘palace’ in its name. All over Europe you will find so-called ‘palace’ hotels, none of which were ever palaces but were always built to be hotels.
So yes, the Mumbai Taj was the first palace hotel of note in India. Except that it wasn’t really a palace.
The first real palace to be converted into a hotel was the Srinagar palace which Dr. Karan Singh gave over to the Oberoi group to run as a hotel in the late 1950s. There was no hotel boom in India in those days and only a small number of foreign tourists.
On the other hand, Kashmir was the hot destination for tourists from the rest of India and for shooting Hindi movies. So the hotel always did well and inspired other maharajas to consider turning their palaces into hotels.
Among the first maharajas to take the plunge were Sawai Man Singh of Jaipur and Bhagwat Singh of Udaipur. Sawai Man Singh lived in a relatively modern palace (early 20th Century construction) in Jaipur, called the Rambagh, and decided to move out to another palace (the older City Palace) and turn the Rambagh into a luxury hotel. The Udaipur family owned a beautiful palace in the middle of Lake Pichola overlooking their main palace and they turned that into a hotel.
Unlike the Oberoi Palace in Srinagar which boomed under Oberoi management, neither Rajasthan palace did very well because maharajas are not born hoteliers and most of them are bad businessmen.
In the late 1960s, Sawai Man Singh of Jaipur walked into the office of Ajit Kerkar who then ran the Taj Mahal Hotel (the Palace had been dropped from the Taj name at that stage - it came back in the 21st Century) and flung a file on his table. He was fed up with the losses the Rambagh was incurring, the Maharaja said, so could the Taj take it over?
At around the same time, the Udaipur family came to the same conclusion and also reached out to the Taj.
Why not turn to the Oberois who already ran the Srinagar hotel and knew how to turn palaces into hotels?
Good question. In fact, it has often been suggested that the Jaipur family reached out to the Oberois first but that the Taj made a better offer. I have no idea if this was indeed the case but most people believe that the Oberois were indeed the first choice.
The Taj looked at both palaces and came to the obvious conclusion. The palaces failed as hotels because they had too few rooms. They would never make money unless more rooms were added.
In the case of the Lake Palace as many as 75 rooms were built in the 1970s and I suspect that a whole extra floor (if not an entire wing) was added. At the Rambagh, the lower ground floor which was hardly used for residential purposes became a whole new section.
It is a measure of how good a job the Taj did that anyone who stays at either hotel feels that he or she is sleeping in a room previously occupied by some royal personage. In fact, at the Rambagh, many of the guest rooms were godowns and the like before the Taj took over. And at the Lake Palace, the majority of the rooms did not even exist in the era when it really was a palace.
Those two hotels became the Taj’s calling card and were soon among the most famous hotels in the world. In the 1970s and the 1980s, when even luxury hotels in India depended on foreign group business, the Taj would refuse to allow any groups into the palaces unless they took Taj hotels in all the other places they visited.
The royals were pleased to make money but the relationship with the Taj could be tense. In the case of the Jaipurs, there was a family split and the Taj got involved in the dispute. Rajmata Gayatri Devi who lived in a lovely little house on the Rambagh’s grounds had no say in the running of the hotel. In the 1980s, I once spent a day with her at Lily Pool, her cottage, and she made many digs about how the Rambagh was run.
In the case of the Lake Palace, there was also a family dispute once the late Maharana died and left the property not to the new Maharana but to Arvind Singh, his second son. The family litigation continues in one form or another but the Taj and Arvind Singh seemed to have got on well.
Other palaces fared less well. Umaid Bhavan in Jodhpur (also a 20th Century palace) was managed by other hotel groups (including briefly, Aman Resorts) but only took off in the 21st Century when Maharaja Gaj Singh gave the management to the Taj.
Princess Esra Jah who owned Hyderabad’s Falaknuma Palace began talks with the Taj to turn it into a hotel in the early 1990s but it took nearly two decades for the Falaknuma to open as a Taj hotel. Jaipur’s Jaimahal Palace, owned by another branch of the royal family became the Taj’s second string palace hotel and has only recently reached the top levels. Also in Jaipur, the Raj Mahal (owned by yet another branch) was briefly a Taj hotel but is now a Sujan resort.
But while attention was focussed on the grand palaces, another quiet revolution was taking place. Rajasthan has only a handful of major maharajas but the landed gentry is widespread.
In the 1990s, helped by changes in government policy, smaller thakurs and minor royals began turning their castles and country houses into small hotels. Many of these properties had been locked up before the boom hit and the (frequently impoverished) thakurs quickly re-opened them, invited tourists in and made small fortunes.
The thakurs offered a good deal to visitors. Their hotels were cheaper than the big palaces. Many were charming. And in nearly every case, they were family managed which foreign visitors loved. There was often a sense of warm hospitality and because most were small, the service was personalised.
As these smaller properties (soon to be called ‘heritage hotels ’) opened, the grander palaces wondered what to do. The answer came from a unlikely source: Biki Oberoi.
Biki had bought an old fort in place called Naila and made many trips to Jaipur to renovate it. He stayed at the Rambagh each time and discovered how badly run it was. “At first”, he told the HT Luxury Summit many years ago, “I took my own food, my own towels and eventually my own toilet paper.” (To be fair to him, he did not name the Rambagh in his speech.)
Convinced that Rajasthan needed great hotels, he created three Vilas properties in Jaipur, Udaipur and Ranthambore which charged unheard of rates but soon topped the lists of the world’s best hotels.
Convinced that such high rates were now within reach, the Taj and the royal owners of the palaces finally got their act together and invested in their properties. The best General Managers were despatched by the Taj to Rajasthan. Gaurav Pokhriyal turned the Rambagh around and Satyajeet Krishnan finished the job. Two kick ass General Managers —Digvijay Singh and Parveen Chander –turned the Lake Palace around and suddenly the palace hotels were back in the game.
I defected to the Vilas hotels soon after they opened because of the sheer excellence of the conception and the brilliance of the service. But a few days ago, I went back to the Rambagh for an event after a full decade.
The hotel was as I remembered it - only better. The old suites had been redone, the regular rooms were larger ( they had reduced the number of keys) the vast grounds were better maintained and the Taj had played the royal heritage card at every opportunity. It was not a Vilas but it had a distinct and unique historical charm. And service standards were higher than I had ever known them to be.
There aren’t that many great palaces left to be converted into hotels so this, I imagine, is it. There will be more modern ‘palace’ hotels’, I reckon.
But the real palaces, converted into grand hotels, will remain India’s unique contribution to the world of hoteliering.
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