Luxury Explorer Review

5-Star Hotel Review

Umaid Bhawan Palace

India

An opulent Art Deco meets Rajput-style palace overlooking the 'Blue City' of Jodhpur

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Umaid Bhawan Palace
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Umaid Bhawan Palace

Location

The Blue City of Jodhpur

Travel Information

Jodhpur airport - 5km
Railway station - 5km

Top Tips

The palace has many exquisite areas for a private romantic meal, which can be prearranged

5-Star X-Factors

Part of the palace is still a royal residence while another section houses a museum displaying antiques from Jodhpur's royal past

Another world

In the words of Rudyard Kipling, "Providence created the maharajas to offer mankind a spectacle." If there is one building that embodies Kipling's sentiment, it would be Umaid Bhawan Palace. Commissioned by Maharaja Umaid Singh, it was the largest private residence in the world when it was completed in 1943. The colossal sandstone edifice, with its 105-foot dome, looms over the 'Blue City' of Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Its interior contains 347 rooms, a million square feet of marble and flamboyant art deco detailing.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, India's maharajas exuded great wealth and power. Although Britain controlled around three-fifths of the country, the 565 'princely states' such as Jodhpur were each directly ruled by a maharaja. Most of the maharajas retained their riches after Indian independence, but in 1971 President Indira Gandhi suddenly stripped them of their princely privileges. Not only were their privy purses abolished, they now had to pay tax on their properties. Faced with multi-million dollar bills, most maharajas were forced to sell their vast palaces, along with their ancestors' priceless heirlooms.

Thankfully, there was at least one maharaja who was savvy enough to hold on to the treasures that he inherited. The grandson of Umaid Singh, Gaj Singh II, teamed up with a luxury hotel group to transform part of Umaid Bhawan Palace into a resplendent hotel where guests can live like a maharaja. Gaj Singh was able to safeguard a slice of India's heritage; he retained the original art deco furniture, elevators and murals, as well as the royal lodgings (his family still occupies a private wing of the building). The hotel section is now under the management of the highly regarded Taj Hotel Group, with its 64 guest rooms and suites featuring all mod cons.

Grand approach

We caught our first glimpse of Umaid Bhawan Palace while exploring Mehrangarh Fort, the former residence of Jodhpur's royal family. Founded in 1459, this formidable but delicate bastion seems to have grown organically from a huge rocky outcrop. The fort's battlements offer a stunning vantage point over the spectacular and unique cityscape: a dense carpet of tiny, blue-washed houses punctuated by the brooding mass of Umaid Bhawan Palace.

From this distance, the palace's pointed dome and tapering towers resemble Angkor Wat, Cambodia's 12th century Hindu temple. Yet, as we approached the palace in our taxi, it seemed to metamorphose into a grandiose British civic building before our eyes. This could have something to do with the fact that the architect, Henry Lanchester, also designed Cardiff City Hall and Hackney Town Hall.

Luckily we were not greeted by cockney council workers, but by two turban-clad doormen with luxurious handle-bar moustaches. They took our bags and guided us through the sea of glistening marble floors to the centrepiece of the 26-acre complex: the palpitation-inducing rotunda.

Dripping with detail

Standing inside the space is like walking around Manhattan; you're compelled to look upwards. Meaty slabs of sandstone are embellished with geometric deco details and myriad carvings of winged beasts, weapons and Roman orders. It all culminates in an elegant, Renaissance-style dome with a finish as smooth as icing sugar. Before I'd managed to permanently damage my neck, three attendants appeared with refreshing glasses of fruit juice and proceeded to decorate us with orange-flower wreaths and bindis.

After this stately welcome to the palace, an effortlessly helpful concierge, Shalej, escorted us to our suite which overlooked a manicured, fountain-lined courtyard. Our Historical Suite oozed art deco with its jagged-patterned rug, dark wood fittings and lashings of chrome, marble and exposed sandstone walls. The bed was appropriately enormous, given the scale of the building, and ridiculously comfy. A stylised painting of the palace hung above it, augmented by portraits of past and present maharajas. Aside from the massive flat-screen television, the suite's decidedly retro feel was consistent with the palace's glamorous interwar aesthetic.

The grand tour

I returned to the concierge desk to meet Shalej for a guided tour of the palace. He was exceptionally knowledgeable and informed me of the audacious construction process, which took 14 years and required 5,000 men. No cement was used it's all held together by a system of interlocking stones that were individually chiselled by hand.

Shalej showed me around the huge Maharaja Suite, complete with its own bar and original art deco murals by the Polish artist Stefan Norblin. We passed the refined Risala restaurant, the aptly-named Zodiac swimming pool and the formerly gruesome Trophy Bar, which used to contain stuffed bears and stools made out of elephants' feet.

Soothing surroundings

While the building itself exudes raw masculine power, the palace's tranquil gardens are a welcome injection of feminine softness. The focal point of the garden is the baradari, a beautifully carved marble podium surrounded by unfathomably lush grass, tidy shrubs and vine-covered trellises. During my amble, the only sound I heard was the evocative call of the resident peacocks.

It was now time for a drink by the outdoor swimming pool the best spot to watch the sun set behind Mehrangarh Fort. Captivated by the palace grounds, we decided to dine at Pillars, an alfresco restaurant on the main terrace. I tucked into lamb safed maan, a succulent cardamom and almond-flavoured curry, while a consummate sitar player serenaded us with exotic melodies. The crescendo of the evening was provided by an unexpected firework display. Our charming waiter informed us that the show was intended for a private banquet that was taking place in the baradari.

It is this kind of fairytale extravagance that makes Umaid Bhawan a magnet for celebrities and royalty. As well as attracting the likes of Madonna and Prince Charles, the palace has hosted lavish weddings for Hollywood and Bollywood stars. Remarkably, there is no hint of stuffiness. Yet the palace's greatest triumph is its authenticity Maharaja Umaid Singh's original vision of deco indulgence has been meticulously preserved. Things may have changed since the days of the British Raj, but Umaid Bhawan Palace remains a citadel of princely opulence.
 

Oliver Ephgrave



Luxury Explorer
Luxury Explorer