In 1957, Rambagh Palace was the first of the royal residences in Rajasthan to become a hotel. By the 50s, in the tradition of stately homes the world over, the Maharaja of Jaipur's 47-acre estate had become too expensive to run, but the transformation remains visionary—in 2009 Conde Nast voted it the best hotel in the world.
It’s not hard to see why. Exhausted guests arrive to find baths full of rose petals and bubbles. The Rambagh seems to effortlessly have the sense of a refuge and idyll that luxury hotels the world over try so hard to conjure. For all the opulence, its natural beauty and the little touches are what make it magical. Nestled on the pillow of the vast beds, an apt quote from Cervantes reads: ‘God bless the inventor of sleep, the clock that covers all men’s thoughts.’
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Once divided between purdah and the men’s part of the palace, all of the spectacular rooms now look onto the central courtyard, with its rose gardens, and over the surrounding wooded ones. On the the horizon is the fortress that that the Maharaja once gave his new bride, Princess Gayatri Devi, simply because she liked the look of it.
The Rambagh today is still full of the quirks and kooks of its colorful history. Originally the palace was a number of "pleasure pavilions" used by the royal family’s women to escape the city, and then, for all the grandeur, a hunting lodge. The Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II was the first to make it his private residence. He had lived their since 1922, when aged 11, his family decided that he should live away from the intrigue in their city palace. Almost a 100 years on, with peacocks and elegant skinny legged black bucks languidly picking their way across the lawns, that sense of a world away from the world, (however much of a delusion that is) hardly seems to have abated.
Educated in wet, cold England, Ram Singh II or "Jai" as he was known, imagined making the palace his home, and, it was here, that his most famous princess, Gayatri Devi, came to live. Painted by Annigoni, she was regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world. The original architect in the 1830s was Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob, who was a British army officer and state engineer for Rajasthan. The scalloped verandas and cupolas which create the effect of the kind of castle a child imagines, were the innovations of Jai. He got the desired effect: "There was always a feeling of magic in the air at Rambagh" the Princess wrote in her memoirs. (Touchingly the Princess lived at Lilypond, her property on the estate, after Jai's death in 1978, until her own last year.)
The "fairy tale" couple entertained opulently . Today the Palace still has their polo field... where there is still polo and even elephant polo. Their social circle included Mountbatten, the Queen and Prince Philip (then in their 20s), and the Kennedys. Jackie Kennedy’s visit was reciprocated in 1962, when the Princess recalled that the boyishness of JFK made it "difficult at times to remember that he was the President of the United States."
The art deco indoor swimming pool is hidden discreetly away in the gardens, with deep blue tiles and huge white and silver stars on the vast high ceiling over you as you swim. It has to be one of the prettiest pools in the world and you only have to walk down the steps into the water to feel like one of the bathing beauties of the 20s when it was built. More recently, the hotel has added a completely spoiling (and holistic spa) and a heated pool outside.
The tradition of lavish hospitality continues—guests breakfast on the lawns and dinner can be served in a tent in the gardens or even in the "steam train," which like a folly, has pulled up, out of history, forever and into the gardens of the palace. These days the refuge of rock stars (the Rolling Stones, Sting), royalty, and even love birds Russell Brand and Katy Perry, the palace is a real source of pride in Jaipur.
If ever there were a place to make someone feel (guiltily) like Adela—the naive (anti-) heroine of E M Forster’s A Passage to India who bleats constantly about wanting to find "‘the real India"—if one of those real Indias is the jet set, opulent days of the Maharaja of Jaipur, the Rambagh Palace is undoubtedly altogether in a league of its own.