Inheriting a large piece of real estate can present challenges, especially if the property in question is a centuries-old palace with several hundred rooms.
Indian royal families ruled their provincial kingdoms for centuries, until independence in 1947 led to a gradual erosion of power and purse. Over the past two decades, several families have turned their historic homes into hotels to stave off redundancy. An estimated 170 palaces, castles and havelis (or stately homes) are registered with the Indian Heritage Hotels Association, many of them located in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan.
Many palaces in India continue to function as residences for their owners while operating as hotels, with younger family members pursuing various strategies to make their homes suitable for both themselves and their guests.
Padmaja Kumari Mewar, a 32-year-old Rajput princess, is an example of this younger generation of royalty. She divides her time between her married home, an apartment in Boston, and a 16th-century palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan. In the US, she says, she works “on business development and marketing strategies to find the right people to come and engage with Udaipur as a city”.
Those who live in heritage hotels say a realistic approach, such as maintaining the customary practice of separate private and public domains, helps to make palaces more liveable. Conventional palace architecture, with its large empty courtyards, long corridors, and a zenana – or dedicated women’s wing – reinforces this public-private distinction.
Design entrepreneur Raghavendra Rathore’s family home is Ajit Bhawan, a palace-turned-heritage hotel in Jodhpur, in Rajasthan. Rathore shares the palace with his brother’s family. They each have separate apartments, with common living and dining rooms where they eat together. It is a 100-year-old space, says Rathore, “kept outside the realm of the hotel”.
Selective modernisation of infrastructure is also critical. The Jaipur City Palace complex in Rajasthan is a sprawling assortment of buildings, spread across 11 acres. It houses a museum, a school, public courtyards that can be leased for weddings, and the family’s private residence in a separate block.
Diya Kumari, a 41-year-old princess of Jaipur, admits that palaces can be “white elephants” and that most now have to be made “user-friendly to generate revenue”. Her family’s living spaces, for example, have been air-conditioned, the bathrooms upgraded and flooring changed, all without disturbing the old-world charm of carpets, mirrored walls, frescoes and miniature paintings.
The palace museums of Jaipur and Udaipur are fitted with modern technology such as touchscreen monitors and audio guides. LED lighting, solar panels for water heating and water recycling mechanisms are also gaining currency among heritage property owners.
Shivina Singh, a descendant of Rajput nobility and an independent consultant for high-end brands, says that younger generations are adapting to modern times by jettisoning conventional opulence for a more pared-back aesthetic. Many are favouring a sleeker style by retaining a few grand elements, such as an inherited chandelier or trunk, alongside new technological gadgets.
The aesthetics of Indian heritage homes vary, ranging from traditional replicas to contemporary design schemes. A confluence of overseas and local design influence has always been a hallmark of Indian high-end interiors. As visitors to any Indian palace might observe, Indian maharajas were time-honoured customers of western luxury goods. Amin Jaffer, curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and author of Made for Maharajas: A Design Diary of Princely India, notes that “even before the establishment of the Raj in 1858, Indian palace interiors were regularly embellished with decorative articles from Europe”.
The crystal gallery in Udaipur’s Fateh Prakash Palace, billed as “the world’s single largest private collection of crystal under one private roof”, provides glittering evidence of Indian fascination for western craftsmanship. The customised collection of decorative objects and furniture was ordered in 1877 by Maharaja Sajjan Singh, the kingdom’s ruler at the time, from F&C Osler, a British company based in Birmingham.
“Luxury in Indian is heritage, tradition, provenance, and a confluence of Mughal, European and Indian design,” says Deepa Harris, senior vice-president of sales and marketing at Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces, a leading Indian hospitality brand. “The Indian sensibility of colour, embroidery, artisanship is unique and differentiated.”
The continuing appeal of high-end Indian interiors, particularly among an international audience, is underscored in the restoration of the Falaknuma Palace, a 19th-century baroque mansion in Hyderabad in southern India. The Taj group leased the property from its owners, descendants of the governing Nizam of Hyderabad.
It subsequently spent a decade on architectural and interior restoration to recreate original grandeur in painstaking detail, such as dyeing a set of yarn 300 times to achieve authentic colour. “One problem of turning the palace into a hotel was having a suitable number of guestrooms,” says Nick Poynton, the principal architect involved with the restoration project. Rooms were created using the existing fabric of the building, without disturbing its architecture.
For Abha Narain Lambah, a Mumbai-based conservation architect, the decision to update the interiors depends on the “building’s historicity, its condition, and whether the value of the building is intrinsically connected to its interiors”. When asked to restore a 96-year-old Portuguese villa in Goa into a boutique hotel, she realised that the building’s exterior had aged well. The interiors were a bare shell, making them perfectly suited for a “contemporary Mediterranean twist”, she says. Existing high ceilings and whitewashed surfaces were the ideal canvas for minimal, straight-lined furniture, and an “aqua material palette”, allowing interiors and exteriors to remain congruous.
Rajiv Saini, the architect responsible for the restoration of Udaipur’s Devi Garh palace-hotel, endorses marrying ancient craft techniques with clean designs to devise a new aesthetic. “Don’t look at limitations in a heritage building’s architecture as challenges that will prevent excellence in design,” he says.