“Welcome to the Raj Palace!” said our driver as we pulled up to the gate. I knew that we were staying at a palace but even so, Mark and I were both awestruck when we saw it. Like a little kid, I was thinking: It really IS a palace!
Entering, it was like we were stepping into a time gone by. Vanished were the crowded streets, motorcycles, honking, and confusion that were just a few meters away. Quiet green lawns, bubbling fountains, and smiling hotel staff were there to open doors, whisk away our bags, and sit us down for a welcome drink of chilled fresh juice while they attended to our needs.
The Raj Palace was Jaipur’s first haveli, or private mansion, built in 1727 by the prime minister of Raj, one of many descendants of a Rajput warrior and ruler of the state of Chaumoo. It was known as the Chaumoo Haveli, and was continually occupied as a residence of the royal family until 1997 when it was renovated by Princess Jeyendra Kumari, one of two sisters who are now the Raj’s only remaining descendants, and opened as the Raj Palace Heritage Hotel.
What is obvious is that Princess Jeyendra’s renovation was a labor of love, with no detail left unnoticed or unaddressed. Everything about the Raj Palace evokes a sense of history and tradition, pride and opulence, luxury and serenity. Her efforts have paid off in the many awards the Raj Palace has won.
Our hotel concierge led us through what seemed like an impossible maze of corridors and up a set of steps, emerging into a small second floor courtyard overlooking a larger inner courtyard down below, which in turn was flanked by the two large, grassy courtyards, all encased within the walls of the palace.
Our room, one of two opening into the little courtyard, was everything you would expect a guest room in a palace would be. A long, narrow hallway opened into a large room with a sitting area separated from the sleeping area by a row of columns, and a large bathroom off to one side. Our host said that yes, it was mostly intact as originally built, except that it had been refitted with the modern amenities of running water and electricity.
I noticed a little side room with a glass door. It was specially lit, and I looked inside. A little museum! “Yes,” our host said, “every room has its own museum.”
I couldn’t rest until we taken a walk around the palace. Coming from the UAE, where hotels are lavish but brand new, we could see how the Chaumoo Haveli has withstood the test of time. Nearly everything was in perfect condition.The walls were decorated with paintings of elephants, horses, flowers, and foliage, and columns and arches were delicately pinstriped. Wooden carvings, bronze sculptures, and bubbling fountains were around every corner, in every nook and cranny.
Sitting areas that could accommodate intimate or large groups were placed on marble verandas where cool breezes blew through. I could just picture the British aristocrats lounging on the plush sofas and chairs, smoking pipes and cigars and sipping tea or port.
Then we came upon the pool. Looking at the columns and statues, I was going to make a comment, but Mark said it first. “It’s like the Hearst Castle.” Yes, just a bit smaller and without the gold.
The Swapna Mahal Multicusine Restaurant is a European-style formal dining room with a double height ceiling from which hangs a collection of chandeliers including one of the largest in India. Would we be having dinner in the restaurant, we were asked? We had eaten on the train, and we didn’t want a big meal so we said no, maybe we’ll have a late snack instead. The staff looked disappointed, but we said we would be dining with them before we leave.
Instead, as is our pattern, it seems, we decided to check out the bar. Shikarbadi, the Hunting Bar, evokes the 19th-20th century period when Chaumoo Prince Thakur Sahib hosted British dignitaries on hunting expeditions, afterwards enjoying a barbecue of fresh game meat with a bottle or two of wine or liquor from the palace’s distillery, as they relived their exploits.
Just like us, after a sailboat race.
The next day was a rest day; that evening we had an elephant trek and dinner that I had booked online before the trip. We had breakfast, which was included with our room, in The Royal Lounge coffee shop, where Thakur Sahib once took his coffee breaks and held small meetings. There is a small collection of cups, signed by celebrities with titles such as “3rd Richest Man in France” and “Famous Tour Guide.” I found one we knew – Joe Walsh, “Eagles.” Still trying to picture it. Did he bring his chain saw?
Since our last night before leaving India wasn’t booked anywhere yet, we decided to spend it at the Raj Palace, and take a morning train to Delhi to make our afternoon flight. The hotel concierge extended our stay, assured us that we would have our driver for the evening and also the next day to tour, and said that he would look into our train options.
Mark needed mosquito repellant, which we had forgotten to bring, we needed to get some rupees at an ATM, and we also wanted to buy some beer and wine. No problem! All right outside the palace gate, across the street.
It was like stepping from the eye of the storm back into the maelstrom. Just crossing the street was an accomplishment – isn’t it funny, how one spouse always treats the other like a kindergartener who doesn’t know how to cross the street yet? And nothing is obvious. No ATM sign, no Pharmacy sign, no Liquor Store sign. You are searching for something that is hiding in plain sight.
We went to two ATMs – the first one didn’t work – and found the other two stores. Meanwhile, we got caught up in life on the street. Right next to the ATM, there was a vendor making Oosacha Ras, or sugar cane juice, a popular drink made with fresh pressed sugar cane, and sometimes lemon, mint, or ginger, and ice. As much as I would have liked to try it, I didn’t dare. I didn’t want to get “Delhi Belly,” or, in this case, maybe we would call it “Jaipur Diaper.”
Just as we were recrossing the street, heading back to the hotel with our beer and wine stash, we noticed a procession of elephants heading up the road toward us. Elephants are very important to India. According to the History section of the Raj Palace Heritage Hotel website:
“Parades of elephants, horses and other animals were further expressions of the king’s cosmic potency. Elephants and horses, perhaps more than any other animals in India. Only kings were permitted to own elephants, and only kings could import horses and other exotic beasts. Lions and mythical beasts were particularly popular; so too were peacocks, As they were used as symbolic to be used to demonstrate command and power even over them.”
We watched as the elephants passed by us and into the Pink City through Jorawer Singh Gate. The Pink City is Jaipur’s old city, built in 1727 at the same time the Raj Palace was built just outside the gate. India’s first planned city, existing villages were incorporated within its walls. In 1876, the city was painted pink, the color of hospitality, as a symbol of welcome to Britain’s Prince of Wales and future King Edward. Today the preservation of the pink color is mandatory. Jaipur has since outgrown the walls. Villages have grown outside the walls to create a jumble of humanity and rubbish.
Normally, we would have wanted to take a long walk and take in the local color, but this was India. India was not like any other place either of us ever been. You just don’t stroll around; if you are in the street – and there are no sidewalks – you are constantly jostled, honked at, and beseeched by beggars and vendors. We knew, by now, that the best thing for us was to ride in the comfort and security of a car, with a reliable tour guide.
Besides, the Raj Palace was a destination in and of itself. We went back to the hotel and kicked back, enjoying the view from our room and a swim in the pool, saving our energy for the elephant trek later.
What do you wear when you are going elephant trekking, with a posh dinner to follow? I was reminded of the Sex and the City 2 movie, when the women are going on a desert safari, and they say “We don’t have anything to wear!” I decided to wear one of my new kurti tops with my cropped hiking pants for the elephant ride, and stuffed a long white muslin skirt into my bag to pull on afterwards. It worked out perfectly!
Our driver met us at the hotel gate, and of course it was the same one who had picked us up at the train station. He knew exactly where we were going – even though it eventually became an unpaved track over hill and dale, with the nice new Honda CRV drifting in the sand. No problem!
The Der Amer elephant camp is owned and operated by a local Rajput family, and again we had the sense that we were in the realm of kings. Situated in the hills behind the massive Amer Fort, which we were to visit the next day, the camp is surrounded by a wilderness reserve scattered with hamlets inhabited by local villagers.
Our elephant, Lakshmi, was at the gate waiting for us, and the bananas we fed her. Inside the gate was a wide expanse of green lawn, the elephant polo field, and crossing the lawn we were seated and served cold beer while we waited for the sun to go lower and the air to cool. All for the benefit of Lakshmi, of course, but we guests didn’t mind.
We were the only guests that evening for the trek. When we were ready we were seated on Lakshmi, our mahout climbed onto her neck, and away we went. Slowly, lumbering, away, past tiny villages with people were farming and regal peacocks preening.
Peaceful and scenic is how I would describe it, in that order. Mark kept remarking that he had thought India would be more lush and tropical, but the western portion of Rajasthan is in the Thar Desert, and so the closer we traveled to the desert, the drier it got. Lakshmi was making snuffling sounds that made our mahout laugh, and when I asked if she was happy, he said “Yes!” He was happy, as well.
Just like in Thailand, the mahout got off, took our camera and took pictures of us. I don’t like heights, but I deal with it a little bit better than Mark.
Then, as I hoped he would, he told me to move onto Lakshmi’s neck, while he took more pictures.
At dusk, we approached a temple with torches lit, where we needed to hush in reverence. People live in inside of this compound; I knew because I spotted their satellite dish.
Just beyond that, we stopped at a platform where we were served red wine. This is an example of the “personalized service” that Der Amer provides. Usually just beer is included, but Mark had asked if wine would be available so they provided it, at an extra charge.
As we approached the back gate of the camp with our glasses of wine in hand, we could hear flute music coming from a flowery little cottage, where we could see the musician playing.
By this time, a little family had arrived for dinner, so we weren’t the only guests any more. The two little girls came to meet Lakshmi, and climbed aboard for a sit. The were from England, but the Mummy’s parents are in India, and they were take a holiday to show the girls their roots. The girls were young, but seemed to be getting along and adapting to travel well.
While I quickly changed into my skirt I couldn’t help noticing that, even though we seemed to be out in the middle of nowhere, the restroom was as beautiful as any hotel. We had dinner, a buffet of classic Indian dishes, all delicious, in the outdoor pavilion. It was a really lovely evening, and of course our driver was there to take us home when we were ready to say goodbye.
Next: Jaipur, Day 2: Four sites and a crazy rickshaw ride.