India of perfumed gardens and sumptuous luxury lives on in maharajahs' palaces turned hotels

November 10, 1991|By Daniella Sigman

The romance of old India. That was what lured us to the subcontinent. We wanted to play maharajah and to experience the storybook India of old -- the India of perfumed gardens, melodious sitars, elephants with howdahs and sumptuous luxury.

We decided to concentrate our search in Rajasthan, the rugged and colorful desert region located in India's northwest, where three former maharajahs' palaces have been turned into hotels. They were all easily accessible by air from New Delhi. If the romance of old India was to be found anywhere, we thought, it would be here in these historic residences.

The Lake Palace, built on a small island in Lake Pichola a quarter-mile offshore from the city of Udaipur, was our first stop. As we stepped from our taxi after the 12-mile ride from the local airport, a uniformed guard at the boat house was already calling for the palace launch on his portable two-way radio. From the shore, the palace was an improbable sight, floating like a giant, dazzling white, 85-room houseboat.

Originally a complex of Mogul-style marble pavilions, the Lake Palace was built in 1746 by Jagat Singh II of Udaipur as a summer retreat where he could enjoy the lake breezes with the ladies of his harem. Extensively remodeled before it was opened the public in 1963, the Palace Hotel boasts modern facilities and new wings.

A long, ornate brass key opened the massive door to our bed-sitting room in one of the old wings of the palace. Two arched and jasmine-draped windows looked across the lake to the barren Aravali hills beyond. Waiting for us on a mango-wood table was a complimentary basket of lusciously sweet mangoes and a silver knife. Exploring the room, we found that it was equipped with all the modern amenities -- air conditioning, a marble tiled bathroom, a television set and a small refrigerator.

That evening, as we strolled hand in hand through the enclosed gardens of the palace on our way to dinner, the profusely flowering quis qua nis indica shrubs scented the warm night air. We passed low hedges sculptured whimsically into elephants and birds. At the head of a lily pond we discovered an exquisite white marble shrine to Genesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of prosperity, peace and long life.

In the dining room overlooking the gardens, Vijay Cherian, the Lake Palace's attentive food and beverage manager, greeted us with a warm smile, pressing his hands flat together in the traditional Hindu welcome. Fresh flowers, cut glass and silver cutlery graced our table. Two musicians, sitting cross-legged on a platform, played a sitar and a tabla while we sampled authentic Rajasthani dishes: gosht soyata, richly flavored lamb chunks first cooked over wood in a clay tandoor oven, then simmered slowly with sweet corn, and baingan achari, a luscious eggplant dish flavored with fennel and black onion seeds.

Our next stop was the lovely Rambagh Palace. Crossing a large, tree-shaded park and passing through towering double doors of brass, we entered the palace. Located on the outskirts of the pink city of Jaipur, this Mogul-style, golden-stuccoed palace was begun in 1835. Originally a hunting lodge for Maharajah Sawai Ram Singh II, it grew in size under his successors, becoming in 1925 a royal residence, and in 1958 a hotel.

During our visit to the Rambagh, we stayed in the Sangemermer Suite, one of the original guest rooms of the old royal residence. High-ceilinged and spacious, the suite was elegantly decorated with vintage white art deco furniture. Despite the air-conditioning, television set and refrigerator, we felt giddily transported back to the royal India of the 1930s.

The most spectacular part of the suite, curiously enough, was the two-room, art deco bathroom -- even larger than the large bed-sitting room.

"You have the biggest bathroom in the palace," grinned Nagendra Singh, a front-office trainee, as he obligingly gave us an impromptu palace tour.

Perhaps the most regal room at the Rambagh is the Suvarna Mahal Dining Room, originally the royal banquet hall, with its painted ceiling, gold wallpaper and huge chandeliers. In the evenings, while a Goan pianist played "As Time Goes By" and Lara's theme from "Dr. HD," a small army of waiters in the palace livery of white tunics, striped sashes, yellow trousers and towering turbans waited for our order. The paneer makhan masala (delicate cottage cheese simmered in a tomato and butter sauce) was excellent. So was kadhai chole (a mildly spiced chickpea and potato stew) and ras gulla (a desert consisting of a pistachio-filled pastry ball served in rose water syrup).

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