India 13.02.2020 David Abram
The extravagant lives led by India’s former rulers is the stuff of legend. No strangers to ostentation themselves, even the British Viceroys were dazzled by the displays of wealth laid on by their royal hosts: the opulent train carriages; the vintage car collections; the bejewelled turbans, dancers and consorts; the caparisoned elephants; and, most of all, the fairy-tale palaces the Maharajas and their extended families inhabited.
The country’s royals certainly had to rein in their penchant for conspicuous spending after Independence, when they were deprived of their privy purses. But many managed to retain their palaces, along with the collections of antiques that came with them.
Today, in order to fund their upkeep, many royal abodes across India open their doors to paying guests, enabling visitors to experience them from the inside.
We’ve picked out nine of our all-time favourites, at locations stretching from the Himalayas in the far north to the Keralan backwaters in the far south. Our team chose them as much for the experience of local life and landscape they offer as their architecture and interior design.
We’d quite happily spend a week or two in any of these gorgeous places and always recommend clients try to include at least a couple in their trip.
Here, then, is the official ‘TransIndus Indian Palace Hot List for 2020’, ordered from north to south . . .
Stok Palace, Ladakh
Framed by vast, snow-capped mountains, Stok is a classic Tibetan-style palace built by the local ruling family at the start of the 19th century. Surrounding it is a picture-postcard village of traditional farmsteads, swathed in swirling barley terraces. Whether you stay in one of the heritage suites or cottages in the orchards below, it offers an un-rivalled, totally authentic experience of this spectacular and culturally distinct Himalayan region.
Narendra Bhavan Palace, Bikaner, Rajasthan
This opulent retreat on the fringes of the Thar Desert is the former palace of the last Maharajah of Bikaner, who packed as many travel-inspired styles as he could into the property, from Art Deco to Lusitanian azulejo. The effect is a touch whimsical, but fabulously stylish!
Alila Fort Bishangarh, near Jaipur, Rajasthan
Although only a short drive from the city, this striking fortress-palace presides over a tract of particularly bucolic countryside where you can experience traditional Rajasthani village life while enjoying the comforts of a top five-star boutique hotel. Book a room in one of the corner bastions for a matchless view.
Ranvas Fort, Nagaur, Rajasthan
On the fringes of the Thar Desert, Nagaur is a typical Rajasthani market town with a particularly beautiful and well preserved fort. Its former ladies’ wing has been converted into a dreamy boutique hideway, where you can sleep under richly sculpted sandstone beams and dine on gourmet cuisine.
Nadesar Palace, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
A rare survivor from the time of East India Company, the Nadesar became a guest house for the Maharaja of Varanasi in the 19th century and was recently restored by Taj Group to its former glory. It offers the most elegant, historic base imaginable for explorations of the sacred city on the Ganges.
Jehan Numa Palace, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh
One of the Begum of Bhopal’s former residences, the Jehan Numa is a grand palazzo-style residence in high colonial style – the seat of a famous and long-lived line of female rulers.
Ahilya Fort, Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh
It’s hard to imagine a more evocative spot for a candle-lit dinner than the roof terrace of Ahilya Fort, on the banks of the Narmada at Maheshwar. Dating from 1766, the citadel’s blackened sandstone walls fall sheer to the river, half-a-mile wide at this point and as still as oil – a spellbinding spectacle just at sunset.
Falaknuma, Hyderabad, Telangana
If one Indian palace could be said to epitomize the un-imaginable wealth of India’s Maharajas at the height of British rule, it would be this vast, opulent pile in Hyderabad, regarded by many as the country’s ultimate heritage hotel.
Chittoor Kottaram, Cochin, Kerala
There are many wonderful places to stay in the Keralan backwaters, but very few with any genuine historical palace. This is an exception. It was built in the 18th century by the Raja of Cochin to accommodate the royal family while they worshipped at a nearby temple, and has retained the feel of an antique royal palace – a perfect option for those who prefer to retreat from the bustle of the city after a day of sightseeing.