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18th Mar 2017 8:00 am

Siddhant Ghalla continues his odyssey across the palaces of India in his quest for the true meaning of luxury.

The human condition is such that we get used to things. Give us enough of anything and we tend to behave as if we are entitled to it. That happened with Rajasthan’s grand palaces and me. After a few days spent living the royal life, I could not imagine going back to my mundane, non-royal, non-luxurious life. So I continued further south from Rajasthan, looking for my next dose of royalty and luxury.

Dry Country

The bright blue Elantra lit up the otherwise drab and unchanging Rajasthani landscape as it zipped down straight, almost-empty roads. The speedo needle spun happily into triple digits, though things inside the cabin remained plush and quiet. I was happily humming to Aerosmith, my right foot flexed, when a sudden checkpost forced me to grind to a halt. We had arrived at the Rajasthan-Gujarat border, and patrolmen were keen to ensure that our ensemble was booze-free.

I reluctantly hauled myself out and stood in front of the bootlid. The hazard lights blinked thrice, and the bootlid popped open. The patrolmen stared, mouths slightly ajar.

They began pulling piece of luggage after piece of luggage out, the deep boot seeming like a bottomless abyss. When they managed to pull out all eight suitcases and search them to their satisfaction, we continued our journey to Vadodara, home to the Laxmi Vilas Palace.

As we drove down the long, forested driveway, the Laxmi Vilas Palace appeared in bits and pieces. It seemed cool and all, but I could only appreciate this building when I took a step – actually, about 100 steps – back and viewed it in its entirety. Sprawling barely cuts it.

The Laxmi Vilas Palace is one of the largest private residences in the world, home to the royal Gaekwad family of Baroda. Most of it has been converted into a museum now, so I couldn’t actually live there, but a day spent meandering about it provided more than just a glimpse into how splendid life in it must have been. The interiors remind you of a European country house, what with the mosaic tiles, Belgian stained glass windows, numerous old armoury and bronze sculptures, and marble and terracotta statues. The museum has put on display a whole array of artwork collected by the royal family over the years, including a splendid collection of paintings by the celebrated Indian painter, Raja Ravi Varma.

What really takes the cake though is the palace’s exterior. The palace design borrows from several architectural styles, including Indian, Mughal and Christian. Every square-inch of the structure is covered with intricate detailing, ornamentation or relief. The palace is not symmetric when viewed head-on, but there is a brutalist beauty to its asymmetry. A particularly striking element is a mural that adorns a small portion of its walls; while it is obviously European in its theme, the characters crowding it are all Indian.

The sprawling Laxmi Vilas Palace features fine, intricate architecture and ornamentation.

As I stood in the seemingly endless lawn, gazing upon this leviathan structure, a revelation dawned upon me. I realised that true luxury includes one more element – pride. I could totally imagine the Maharaja who commissioned this palace standing in front of it upon its completion, brimming over with the warmest sense of accomplishment.

Guerrilla Warfare

Vadodara to Pune was yet another long stretch, and the sun had long set by the time we reached Maharashtra’s second city. Our destination, however, demanded that we rally on for another 30-odd kilometres. Traversing those brought us to a long, broken rural road. Exhausted and craving for some shut-eye, I decided to power through it.

My oh my, that suspension! It soaked up everything, every single one of the bumps and lumps. And to top that, the car maintained composure very well – I wasn’t tossed about and my vertebrae were not rearranged.

At the end of the pseudo-rally-stage, rising out of a hillock, was Fort Jadhavgadh. Built all the way back in 1710 as a safe haven for Shri Pilaji Jadhavrao, a Maratha general, this fort is small but strategically located. It overlooks flattened plains in every direction, allowing unobstructed views of a progressing enemy. When war isn’t raging, it allows you to enjoy the serene, picturesque vistas of the Maharashtrian countryside.

Fort Jadhavgadh with its stone walls is more practical than luxurious.

Catch your breath after climbing the many, many steps to the main gate and guards, dressed in typical Maratha attire welcome you with blaring horns and beating drums. Grand welcomes never get old. Inside, the hotel management (oh, it’s now a hotel, by the way) has retained as much of the original structure as they could. Rough-cut stone is visible everywhere you go, be it in your room, the pool area, the restaurants or the common areas.

The management has tried very hard to infuse luxury into the otherwise functional Fort layout, by adding open-air showers in rooms, creating a poolside area and providing all the amenities you would expect of a luxury hotel, but fact of the matter is that this ‘fort’ just does not conform to the generally accepted definition of luxury. Rich tapestries, gold gilding and intricate ornamentation have been replaced by impregnable stone and strategic construction. For the Maratha rulers of yore, laying in the lap of luxury took a backseat to military victory, and their palaces – well, forts – reflect that.

Nevertheless, Fort Jadhavgadh was a great experience. The surrounding countryside would become a sea of fog in the morning, and a short hiking trail from the fort took me to a playground for deer and wild bovine. This fort might not be indulgent, but it felt secure. That, I think, is a great luxury in itself.

Palaces in the Sky

Pune to Hyderabad is a long drive. I was dreading it, mentally cribbing about the ordeal, until a crested small hillock came eye-to-eye with the most satisfying sight. In front of me was a straight, undulating ribbon of tarmac that stretched till the horizon. The Pune-Solapur highway, lads, is the stuff of dreams.

It stretches on for nearly 350km, and on account of being recently built, is in mint condition. Four lanes of straight road facilitates quick – really quick – driving, with golden fields filling in the vistas outside the windows. Reach Solapur, however, and that dream abruptly grinds to a halt. The national highway from Solapur to Hyderabad degrades into a series of diversions with broken approach and departure points, slowing your average speed down to a measly 30kph. Frustrated with this crawl, I relegated myself to the back seat and sunk in the supple leather with my book in hand. I stuck my nose out of the pages only when the Elantra drove through the wrought iron gates of the Taj Falaknuma Palace.

Falaknuma means ‘mirror of the sky’ in Urdu, a metaphor equating the palace with heaven. The main gate allows you onto a dusty, rally-stage road that takes you to the main entrance. Here, you are asked to kindly leave your car behind and climb into a horse carriage. The hotel manager later tells me that cars are kept outside so as to transport guests back in time and offer them the true-blue palace experience. That works just fine for me.

Falaknuma is built in the shape of a scorpion, with two wings serving as the stings. Nawab Sir Vikar-ul-Umra, the Prime Minister of Hyderabad back in the 1880s, commissioned this building in 1884. He was an avid traveller, and his globalised influences are evident in the architecture.
I climb up the Italian marble stairs to the lobby. Enter Falaknuma and an overwhelming feeling of richness seeps into you. While the Lake Palace was unique, Umaid Bhavan intimidating and Laxmi Vilas Palace leviathan, Falaknuma is plush. It relies on superior materials and priceless artefacts to bring forth its luxury quotient. As you walk, your feet fall either on Italian marble or deep carpets, and you are constantly confronted by structures made of glass, crystal or polished hardwood. The central atrium of the palace is dominated by a grand staircase that leads to an assortment of sitting and dining rooms.

Falaknuma is a vision at night, when it is all lit-up. The sprawling main palace is very European in design.

The Jade Room is a large sitting room, boxed in by jade-coloured walls. Amongst and around the carefully crafted sofas and chairs are a number of artefacts collected by the Nawab and Nizam over the years, including delicate ivory carvings, a large Chinese vase, complex chandeliers and an assortment of other tchotchke. The highlight of the Jade Room, though, is its balcony – it overlooks all of Hyderabad, imbibing whoever is standing there with a sense of boundless power.

Next to the Jade Room is the Hookah Lounge, a man den of sorts outfitted with a bar, hookahs, a large pool-table, chessboards, and sink-in armchairs to lounge in, whiskey glass in one hand and cigar in the other.

Across the landing from the Hookah Lounge is the Darbar Hall, a large ballroom with the richest of tapestries, gold-gilded ceilings, an elevated platform with a heavy-looking throne and panelled hardwood floors. Just beyond the Darbar Hall, however, is perhaps the greatest attraction of Falaknuma – a dining table capable of seating 101 guests on carved rosewood chairs.

Back on the lower level, I peruse through the library, populated by hundreds, if not thousands of leather-bound tomes documenting the history of kingdoms, dynasties, religions and what not; beyond that lay the rooms and suites, the plushest of which is the two-storeyed Nizam suite with its own private pool.

The Nizam suite is a two-storeyed villa with a personal swimming pool.

The more I walked about Falaknuma, the more enchanted I was with its diversity of influences and richness of materials. I played croquet in the lawns, sipped tea whilst looking over the city, finished my novel in a cosy leather armchair and thought about the last few days while throwing grain to peacock (yes, there were peacocks).

Luxury, I concluded, was a necessity that began where necessity ended. It was a drug, and I was addicted. I dreaded the next morning, because I would have to go back to my now-inadequate two-bedroom in Mumbai instead of palaces, to football instead of croquet, to sneakers in place of brogues and to ordinary in place of royalty. Luxury could be a frame of mind, but only if you were already in that state of being.

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