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No-one has been able to count the number of forts and palaces in India. This living heritage goes back thousands of years and offers an opportunity of experiencing the heart of history in this fascinating part of the world.

The Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur

In 1912, the industrialist and philanthropist, Sir Ratan Tata, made a grant for undertaking an expedition that could yield relics worthy of being placed in a museum. Led by D. B. Spooner, the Archaeological Department unearthed coins, plaques, and pieces of terracotta around the eastern city of Patna, the fifth-fastest-growing city in India. Dating from circa 200 BCE, the greatest finds of the dig were the remains of a grand hall that had 80 pillars of black spotted sandstone with a lustrous shine. The mounds of these pillars were surrounded by ash and charcoal, indicating a wooden superstructure that had been destroyed in a fire.

This palace of the Maurya dynasty would have been at the heart of what minister and advisor, Kautilya – who was often likened to Machiavelli – called the ‘seven-limbed state’. Among other things, it had a fortified capital with a series of frontier posts, and was surrounded by not just one, but three moats filled with lotuses and crocodiles. By available accounts, this is what this powerful city was, surrounded by wooden palisades and towers: circle within circle – the state, the city, the fort, and then the palace.

Rambagh Palace, Jaipur

All through the tumult of India’s long and chequered history, both the fort and the palace evolved until they became a part of the iconographical symbols of the civilisation of India, and expressed the high watermarks of its traditional architectural capabilities.

A millennium later and miles from Patliputra, it was in Rajasthan that the Indian fort-palace came into its own, and today is instantly recognisable as much as a symbol of an age of chivalry and valour as for its ‘Indian heritage and luxury experience’. Amidst sands and rocky outcrops, Indian courtly practices were honed into a fine art; hospitality became the application of those manners.

After losing the cities of the north like Delhi and Ajmer, the Rajput clans – that were supposedly born out of a sacrificial fire held atop Mount Abu – concentrated in the area that is loosely named after them: Rajasthan. With strategic alliances cemented by marriage, several rulers of this tract retained a high level of independence even after the powerful Mughal Empire had swept across India. The arrival of the Mughals (and the preceding Sultans of Delhi) opened the doors for a fresh wave of architectural and decorative influences. Structures that had existed long before the arrival of these invaders from Samarkand were now given new elements, and palaces were deeply influenced by this building bonus; the arrival of the dome and true arch are cases in point. The result was almost like a free organic flow, and if many sites developed in an asymmetrical way – a suite with one design, other rooms with another – there was an underlying rhythm and a rare elegance that constantly refined itself.

Red Fort, Delhi

The palace now began growing in both size and function. Courtyards and halls arrived for public functions and receptions. Devices such as jharokhas (small enclosed balconies) and jalis (latticed screens) started giving the structures of Rajasthan their distinctive character. In this desert land, artificial lakes, step wells, and gardens with water channels were given a pride of place.

If the Mughals had influenced the architecture of those that lay around them, it was only to be expected that some of the finest would have stemmed from them. Of the numerous magnificent palaces and forts created by the dynasty of Timur (Tamerlane) – which took root in India after Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi, Sultan of Delhi in 1526 – both the Red Fort at Delhi and the fort at Agra are UNESCO-inscribed World Heritage sites.

Taj Lake Palace Hotel, Udaipur

For a first-time visitor, it will be useful to understand the categories of these innumerable structures. Some forts are national monuments, some are part of a wider urban setting, and some are privately owned; of those under private ownership, many have been converted into hotels. Many of the old palaces are with the original princely families or are under trusts; largely driven by the need to maintain the properties, most have at least a section that has been made into a hotel.

New Delhi is the gateway for most travellers to India with luxury (read: palaces) on their mind. Stepping out of the spanking-new airport terminal, you enter the frenetic pace of the city. It is hard to imagine that somewhere in the middle of this rush is an island of tranquillity – a place where you can reach out to a world that has stood still for centuries. Delhi’s Red Fort (so named as it is largely built of red sandstone, a favoured medium of the Mughal kings), may do little to dispel that impression; the place is constantly packed with visitors, but much of what the great builder, Emperor Shah Jahan, created is still there. By the time Shah Jahan (1628-58) came to the throne, the artistic traditions of the Mughals had become mature and refined. Simplicity of expression, the economic use of materials, and ordered spaces characterised the structures of the later Mughals. Ornamentation in the form of carvings was executed on stone in low relief; striking effects were produced with ornamental tiles and mirrors. Cocooned in outer walls, as an irregular octagon, this palace-fort is an amalgam of Indian, Timurid, and Persian styles.

Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur

The end of the Mughal Empire came with the arrival of the British, and now India was exposed to the vast experience of European architecture. While almost all buildings (many were nothing short of palaces, even if they were railway stations or post offices) built by the British resembled their cousins on the British Isles or on the Continent, this stylistic expression was adopted by many Indian princes in their palaces. Almost overnight a new idiom appeared. Gothic, Baroque, Tudor, Rococo, and later, Art Deco sidled up to Indo-Saracenic.

After 1947, with independence from British rule, the 565 independent princes acceded to either India or to Pakistan. In India’s new democracy, their exercise of traditional power came to an end. In 1970, the princely order was derecognised and ‘privy purses’ – governmental allowances – were withdrawn. In one fell swoop most of the privately owned grand palaces were reduced to white elephants.

Another phase passed and then, gingerly, some properties took the first steps of opening their doors to guests. The fort of Neemrana on the Delhi-Jaipur highway was pulled back from the brink of collapse. The immense Umaid Bhawan Palace at Jodhpur (which was one of the last of the grand palaces to be built in India), the Lake Palace in Udaipur, and the Rambagh and the Samode Palace at Jaipur were early starters. Most underwent some sort of structural modification – especially in the provision of amenities. In some, sand and debris were removed from the rooms by the truck load; spiders, bats, and stray dogs were made to move on. The world that had created these forts and palaces may have gone, but an avatar and a window to a bygone way of life with unsurpassed luxury and privilege was passed on to the hospitality industry.

Royal Suite, Rambagh Palace, Jaipur

Today, there are a few hundred ‘heritage properties’ across India, with the greatest concentration in and around Rajasthan. The Heritage Hotel Association of India accepts the classification of ‘heritage’ if the structure is over 60 years old. There are further divisions: Grand Heritage, Classic Heritage, and Heritage. Apart from the forts and palaces that form the spine of India’s ‘heritage hotels’, there are hunting lodges, luxurious camps, mansions in the hills, and bungalows in tea gardens. Prices vary between US$50 for a standard room in a lesser palace, to well over US$1,000 a night.

Many properties are stand-alone ones managed by the families that own them; others are part of small groups. Larger corporate houses with several places under their wing are the Taj Group, WelcomHeritage, the HRH Group, Neemrana, and Oberoi. Most of the larger forts and palaces have all the add-ons of upmarket leisure properties – lavish menus that include traditional fare, putting-greens or golf courses, gyms, outdoor activities, swimming pools, and spas. Depending on their locations, some offer boat rides and others have safaris by jeep, or on camel-back, horse-back, or elephant-back; some have added to their list of attractions a ride on a bullock cart, that ubiquitous transport of rural India. Local music, magic and puppet shows, and campfires with the backdrop of battle-worn ramparts add to a magical experience.

A fresh dimension has been added with ‘neo-heritage’ – here, using largely traditional materials and traditional craftsmen working in the traditional way but with fresh designs, luxury resorts have been created, loosely modelled on the lines of the old palaces and forts. The Oberoi group has built the Rajvilas and the Udaivilas in Rajasthan, and the Amarvilas in Agra. With extensive use of rammed earth, Mihir Garh, built in 2009, draws on the age-old architecture of western Rajasthan, and reuses traditional materials and designs to suit the requirements of a luxury retreat. If some places are where the past meets the present, there are others such as the just-built Devi Ratn at Jaipur, where the future goes in search of the past. The idiom has been altered to develop post-modern spaces; it is the contemporary that interprets tradition while high-tech weaves its way down the centuries.

Jai Mahal Palace, Jaipur

In south India, the forts that have been converted into resorts are fewer. Most, such as the fort of Golconda that lay close to the world’s oldest diamond mines, are monuments. But as far as palaces go, they could give some of the northern ones a run for their money.

Take the case of Hyderabad, whose ruler, the Nizam – Osman Ali Pasha – was at the top of the Table of Princely Precedence. He merited a 21-gun salute, and in the early 20th century, he was reputed to be the richest man on earth. Of the 11 major palaces in Hyderabad, the Chowmahalla, or ‘complex of four palaces’, was the seat of the Asaf Jahi dynasty, and was believed to have been modelled on the Shah’s palace in Tehran.

While the Chowmahalla Palace is being restored in phases, with sections already opened to the public, perhaps the most noteworthy recent restoration and adaptive reuse of space has taken place in the other fabled palace of Hyderabad, the Falaknuma, which opened as a luxury hotel in November 2010. The Falaknuma palace, or ‘Mirror of the Sky’, was the residence of Nizam Mehboob Ali Khan, and was built almost entirely of white Italian marble. Guests of the Nizam included King Edward VIII of Britain and the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II. Of the many treasures the Falaknuma still holds is what is considered to be the largest dining table in the world; it can seat 101 people. The palace also has a fabulous library, which is a replica of the one at Windsor Castle, and holds one of the finest collections of the Holy Qur’an in India.

These timeworn battlements and palaces with magnificence, or at least character, are scattered all over the country. The ‘rajmahal’, the quarters of the ruler, could be a couple of pokey rooms in a dilapidated keep that had not worn its years well (not all the princes were wealthy and influential), or it could be a vast labyrinth of rooms in an explosion of grandeur – and where the sheer size of the building dwarfed many of the more famous palaces of Europe of the same era. Stories are told of rulers’ children who raced through state halls and corridors on bicycles dodging Louis XIV furniture and gilded statues. Anecdotes abound; extravagance could be taken as sophistication. At the Jaivilas Palace in Gwalior, when two chandeliers with a combined weight of six tonnes were to be installed, a ramp was built so that elephants could pound the roof to test its bearing capacity.

It is almost impossible to make a defining statement that encompasses this immense range of properties. If one offers authenticity, another offers fantasy; if one holds the heart of history – even if the tale grows with each telling – another weaves a fairytale over a cocktail. Most have distinctive architectural elements and furnishings, and many are packed with treasures and curios. If anything, it is the element of individuality that stands out. These are places where you have to have an idea of what to expect. Standing on a tiger-skin rug under an array of mounted antlers, portraits, and weaponry, one guest checked out of one such property within hours of arrival after informing his travel agent that he had asked for a hotel room and not a bed in a museum gallery.

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