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30th Nov 2016 4:09 pm

Siddhant Ghalla takes a break from his regular life to explore the luxury quotient of India’s palaces, by road.

There’s a famous saying that goes, “Luxury is not a state of being, it is a frame of mind.” At first read, it comes across as supremely profound, informing those of us who do not sleep on sheets made of silk that we too can live a life of so-called ‘luxury’, if only we condition our minds to think that our life, as it is, is luxurious. But then, mull the thought over in your head the way you would roll a button between your fingers, and you realise that the saying is nothing but a cop-out.

Because luxury is, very well, a state of being. It is about large mansions set amidst sprawling gardens, or living in a 5-star hotel every time you go on vacation, or eating at a restaurant that provides you with three forks and three spoons and three glasses. Luxury is about silk and gold, about exquisite views and comfortable cars, about croquet and polo, and most importantly, about tangible comfort in every sense of the phrase.

But simply ranting against that saying was not enough. We needed to prove, to ourselves and others, that true luxury exists beyond the confines of your mind. So we decided to go out there and experience it for ourselves. And a thought emerged in my mind: What better way to experience luxury than through the life of the royalty of India, and what better way to experience the life than the royalty of India than by living in their palaces!

The Indian royalty, as I am sure folk stories and mainstream movies have told you, represent the epitome of luxury. And having decided that I was to experience their life, I set about the business of doing so in just the way the maharajas in the past would have: in luxury, but by road.

My chariot of choice was the new Hyundai Elantra. I am personally a fan of Hyundais, the Elantra was brand new and waiting to be put through the long-distance test, and from a brief, earlier stint in it, I was won over by how comfortable it was.

The first stop: Pink City

To choose the first location of my luxury-exploration drive, I played a small word-association game – I thought ‘palaces’, and the first location that popped into my head, unsurprisingly, was Rajastathan. The grand palaces of Rajasthan occupy a prominent place in India’s cultural and travel scene. While there are hundreds of palaces, small and big, scattered all over the desert state, an elite bunch of them, most of which are currently 5-star hotels, have consistently made headlines.

The Crystal Suite at the Jai Mahal Palace boasts Rajput-style furniture and artwork.

The first palace we visited was the Jai Mahal Palace, a large Indo-Mughal building set amidst scenic Mughal gardens. It is currently a Taj hotel located in the midst of Jaipur’s hustle and bustle, but somehow still, completely isolated from it.

Jai Mahal Palace, in its 270-year history, has served as the residence of three prime ministers of the princely state of Jaipur. Currently a 100-room, its luxury quotient is obvious from the moment you enter the marble-floored lobby. As you make your way through the cool hallways, your eyes are drawn to the intricate latticework and ornate furnishings that adorn the walls.

The six suites of the Jai Mahal Palace are all unique, and we got an opportunity to meander within the Crystal Suite. Named so on account of the large crystal chandelier in the bedroom, the four-room suite was fitted with fine Rajput furniture, murals, tapestries and artwork. The study tables were particularly fine, with their wooden bases and marble tops.

The charm of the Jai Mahal Palace, in my opinion, is best experienced when you walk about its open spaces, such as the life-sized chess board with intricately designed pieces and the Marble Arch cafe, with its nearly 300-year-old marble pillars and open-air dining. There is a distinct tranquillity to being served tea from a silver teapot as you look upon a setting sun that is bathing the green lawns in front of you in a pastel orange. Moments like these are rare in our quotidian lives.

Love is in the air

We drove out of the Pink City in our bright blue Elantra, positively riled up about our waiting adventures. Jai Mahal was splendid, and it was just the beginning! Our next destination was Udaipur, the lake city. It was a good 400km away, but Rajasthan is known for its straight, flat roads, so I was actually looking forward to the journey.

As the sun rose to its peak in the sky, Rajasthan’s trademark heat made an appearance. The temperature gauge in the Elantra told us it was a simmering 35 degrees outside, but sitting in the comfortable backseat, with cool wind being blown my way through the rear AC blower, it was easy to forget that. As the unchanging scenery rolled by, kilometre after kilometre, I started dozing off. When I woke next, we were making our way through crowded streets as wide as the car itself. We had arrived.

The Lake Palace in Udaipur was built as a ‘pleasure palace’ and later served as a means to beat the summer heat.

Udaipur is a romantic city; the love in the air is palpable, be it in its crowded old city or along the banks of Lake Pichola. There is something about this city that just makes you woozy with warmth. But nowhere is the romanticism as obvious as in the Taj Lake Palace.

As the name suggests, it is located in a lake. But here’s the kicker – you can’t access it by a bridge – the palace is an island unto itself, and to get to it, Taj whisks you over the blue waters of the lake in a boat. As you make your way towards it, it strikes you as serene. The serenity could be on account of its white walls, or its isolation from the crowded city, but it’s there, in abundance.

Unlike what you would expect of a palace, the Lake Palace is not very large; a forgivable compromise considering it had to be built on a jagged rock in the middle of a lake. And it is this compactness that makes it so special – unlike the aloofness of leviathan palaces, there is a cosiness to it. Step in, and you immediately feel at home.

The Lake Palace was originally constructed as a ‘pleasure palace’ by Maharana Jagat Singh II in 1746 to frolic around with the ladies, and was later used as a summer palace by the royal family of Udaipur. Temperatures in the middle of the lake are about 4°C lower than on the mainland, and when you are living the luxury life, having an entire palace to beat the summer heat – makes sense.

The sense of serenity projected by the exterior of the Lake Palace carries on inside. One of the defining features of this palace is the lily pond, which used to ◊ ∆ be the queen’s personal recreational area. Called so on account of its lily-like shape, this pond inspires mental calm and peace like few other places. Every evening, a flautist sits in an alcove above the pond and plays soulful music, which, on account of the acoustics of the building, can be heard distinctly in every open area of the palace.

While calm and comfort is one aspect of luxury, opulence is another, equally important one. And the Lake Palace scores well on that front too. Its beautifully ornamented bar serves a wine that was specifically crafted for this hotel and the Neel Kamal restaurant serves food on Versace plates.

The Lake Palace is a magical place in the truest sense of the phrase. Its air is crowded with many elements – love, wonder, opulence, tranquillity. It is so special that it has even starred in the 1983 Bond film, Octopussy. We left the Lake Palace when the sun was about to set, and as the boat chugged away to the mainland, the sight of the white palace being turned into the colour of burning embers by the last rays of the sun made a profound impression on me. Luxury, I mused, has to be a state of being.

Time for the Blues

When you think of royalty touring India by road, you would imagine them cooped up in a sumptuous backseat, reading a book or pondering upon life or napping, while a chauffeur did all the driving work. While that is not a misplaced picture to have, fact of the matter is that the maharajas and princes of yore were automobile enthusiasts who loved driving, given that the car was a great driver’s car. Keeping that in mind, I moved to behind the wheel of the Elantra for our 260km drive to Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s blue city, because the Jodhpur-Udaipur stretch, I have been told, is rather brilliant for driving.

Our bright blue Elantra added a dash of colour to the otherwise drab and unchanging landscape of Rajasthan.

The 2.0-litre petrol engine under the hood is distinctly responsive, with a vast reserve on power available on tap. We were confronted with scenic mountain twisties and flat straights, and I drove on both with a grin plastered on my face. Whenever I needed a surge of power, all I had to do was twitch my right foot and the Elantra would eagerly lunge forward, like a cat on the prowl.

I could feel the anticipation bubbling in my stomach as the map on the touchscreen infotainment system showed the ETA for Umaid Bhavan Palace as just 15 minutes away. This palace hotel, after all, holds the title of the world’s best hotel, and that is no small title to live up to.

As we pull into the palace grounds, we are greeted by a truly breathtaking, visually arresting and viscerally intimidating structure. There is something about it, perhaps the shade of the stone used, or the perfect symmetry, or the immaculate angles, that make you think, “This is perfect.”

The Umaid Bhavan Palace is a relatively new palace, with construction completed only in 1943. It took 15 years to build, and unlike most palaces that were built simply to reflect the affluence and opulence of their owners, this palace was actually built to provide employment to thousands of people during times of famine.

I step out of the Elantra, and my senses are inundated by the sights and sounds of something that I am later informed was a royal Rajput welcome. As I climb the red-carpeted stairs, rose petals are strewn under my feet, trumpets are blared, drums beaten and a canopy held-up over my head by four swords.

As I walk into the front lobby, I am greeted by immaculately preserved tiger and leopard trophies. Walking further, I find myself standing in a large, circular atrium topped by a massive dome and supported by sculpted pillars, beyond which is a sprawling garden frequented by peacocks and squirrels.

Umaid Bhavan Palace featured an air-conditioning system when it was built all the way back in 1943 – concealed ducts placed throughout the building circulated air cooled by large blocks of ice and controlled by strategically placed knobs. Beats building a palace within a lake in terms of practicality, if not flamboyance.

The courteous Taj management walked us through the history of the palace, but the highlight came when they opened the Maharani suite to us.

It really does not get more ‘palatial’ than this.

This is the largest and most expensive room in the hotel. Made up of five individual rooms – dining room, living room, bedroom, spa and dressing/wash room –  the Maharani suite is bigger than most apartments you would find in an Indian metro. Decorated in the art deco style, it is fitted with the best of furniture and materials and offers breathtaking views of Jodhpur from the balcony. It is so opulent that I can barely imagine living like this on a daily basis.

Umaid Bhavan Palace is one of the finest examples of luxury. You will be hard-pressed to find a single square-inch in the entire palace that does not make you feel special. As I walked through its marble-floored and chittar-walled hallways, I could not help but straighten my spine, puff my chest and strut with an air of sophistication. Luxury, I now concluded, is more than just comfort or a state of being; it is the brimming over of richness, of the feeling that you are above everything.

The next morning, as the first rays of the sun fell on the dome of the Umaid Bhavan Palace, we loaded are bags into the Elantra’s boot and drove out of Jodhpur. It was time to leave Rajasthan’s gems behind and make our way to a different part of India, where different palaces awaited us.

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