It appears mirage-like, behind the dust-coloured hill. Umaid Bhawan, the fabled, fairytale palace, is the colour of the bleached sky on a hot summer day. It looms large over Jodhpur, the city of washed-out indigo.
Time has stood still in these 26 acres of Rajasthan. The black gates open. The drums roll and get louder till the foyer is reached. TripAdvisor recently named the hotel the world’s best. The plaque, an owl on a green background, hangs right in front of the main door. A shower of flowers, buglers, a staircase strewn with rose petals and a chilled glass of bubbly await. These larger-than-life touches set the tone for the rest of your visit.
In a state littered with mahals, maharajas and royalty steeped in nostalgia, Umaid Bhawan is the real McCoy. This is not the wedding-cake prettiness of Udaipur, all surrounded by lakes. This is a robust building in the east meets west tradition. Peacocks in the garden mirror the row of buff-coloured ones under the dome. The architect Henry Lanchester—who had a Delhi connection and a disagreement with Lutyens—crafted this larger-than-life residence with airy balconies, separate wings for the zenana and the men, courtyards, large staircases and magical spaces with crystal fountains, strewn with bougainvilleas.
The building of the palace was commissioned for salvation, rather than pomp. Maharaja Umaid Singh, grandfather of the current maharaja Gaj Singh II, built it to ensure that his people had employment during a drought.
The hotel is where the rich and the famous come to relax. For Nita Ambani's birthday, the hotel was lit from the outside with LED lights and transformed into a cake. Prince Charles was here. So were Madonna, Bill Gates and Mick Jagger.
Managed by the Taj Group, Umaid Bhawan blends spellbindingly spectacular architecture with the Marwar royal family's very unique brand of hospitality. The hotel's management has changed hands many times over the years. But, in the Taj Group, Umaid Bhawan has found the perfect marriage of brands.
“Our tagline is 'Luxury from a bygone era',” says Vincent Ramos, the general manager. “We have stuck to the style of 1940s and remained faithful to it. There are hundreds of hotels, but we are like an antique Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.”
A guest at Umaid Bhawan experiences what it feels like to be a king or a queen. Personal butlers to unpack, pack and even block out the sun with a shade, if you squint your eyes. “If you want to have a massage at midnight, it is possible,’’ says Ramos. “We will do everything to fulfil your dream. You want to have a dosa in the middle of the day, you will get it. The menu is only a guide. You can ask for anything and we will prepare it. Truffle omelette with caviar when you want.”
Ramos, who has been a chef, realises how central food is to the whole experience. “Bad food won’t be forgiven,” he says. Executive chef Sujoy Gupta's uncle was a chef, too, and the Kolkata boy fell in love with his white coat and culinary skills. “The trick is cooking at a certain degree. There are 64 rooms,” Gupta says. “But each guest has his own preference. Some people want home food, others want fine dining. Each order is customised and each guest is a king or queen for us.” Machher jhol is his favourite dish, but he has also added a fish dish from each region.
Ramos has actually pandered to rather strange requests. A guest wanted to do a dinner “in the middle of nowhere”. At night, the couple was driven out to the wilderness, where a barbecue was arranged. There was security, of course. “You could see the clear Rajasthan sky and hear the sound of your heartbeat,” says Ramos. The cost was Rs6,000 per head. Another guest wanted to paint an elephant. A businessman was all set to propose and asked for 2,000 roses. A creative guest wanted to design and block print his own shirt. “You can have a polo match. We arrange trips to the Bishnoi village. And, of course, there is the hunting lodge of the maharaja,” Ramos says.
Umaid Bhawan does not have the cookie cutter feel of most modern luxury properties. Even the upholstery is reordered to maintain the original style. The smallest suite is huge, in comparison with rooms in most other hotels. The views, paintings and even the chairs change from room to room. Perhaps, sticking firmly in this tradition are the Maharaja and Maharani suites. In the true spirit of a gentleman, the Maharani suite is the largest in the hotel. “Not everyone can stay here,” says Ramos. Jagger slept there, so did Madonna and Amitabh Bachchan.
The Maharani suite's dining room seats eight. The décor is very Art Deco, dark red with flashes of silver. Decorated in shades of pink, from salmon to ashes of rose, it is luxurious bordering on hedonistic. It has its own spa and there are four bathing options, including a sunken rose pink vintage marble tub and a Jacuzzi overlooking the magnificent garden. A guest flew across continents to soak in that tub and look out. Unfortunately, the maharaja was occupying the quarters then. The guest may not have had his dream view, but he did not go back disappointed.
The suite kitchenette is done in beautiful salmon pink marble, with a double-door fridge and every caffeine fix that you could ever crave. Each evening the housekeeping quietly comes in to turn down the bed, clear the mess and draw a bath. Filled with bubbles and a generous helping of rose, straight out of the Lux ad. As the sun retires for the evening, candles are lit, the drapes are drawn. And, yes, eight lakh rupees a night.
The staff at Umaid Bhawan are trained to “be there, but not be there”. Alka, who doubles as butler for women travellers, was recently at the beck and call of the Kuwaiti royal family; they did not want any men around. Her job is to be around the guest, omnipresent but invisible. “I even go out shopping with them,” she smiles. And, if you don’t like stepping out into the heat and dust, you can call the royal perfumer, the bangle-maker who supplies the blue bloods of Rajasthan and the tailor who wowed Sachin Tendulkar. The price, of course, is reasonable. “You cannot cheat a guest,” says Ramos.
At the heart of this timeless world is the royal family, which occupies part of the palace, outside the public eye. Legend has it that Bachchan wanted to meet the maharaja, but was gently discouraged. No one gets to meet bapji just like that.
The smallest room, the size of a modest flat in Mumbai, comes for Rs60,000 a night. There is a rocking horse at the end of room. Above the bed is a picture of the maharaja as a young boy. As with everything in the hotel, the bedroom set, too, has a story coated with royal dust. Lakshmi Mittal wanted to buy it, for a six-figure price. He was refused, as it was bapji’s. Money can buy you a night at Umaid Bhawan or more, but it cannot buy you everything.
“The fact is that it is our home,” Gaj Singh smiles, as he sits in his study with sky-blue floors. “It is old tradition. Our staff has been taught to be there, but not be there. It is not about being overbearing. You don’t have to be intrusive.” So, does a guest's experience in Umaid Bhawan actually resemble the life of a prince? “It is hard work,” he says. “I woke up early when I was young, now I lie in a bit.”
In the arid Jodhpur landscape, Umaid Bhawan with its fringe of green, and its majestic dome, is an oasis. The grass—soft and springy and evergreen—is from Kenya. In the centre is a pure white marble baradari that almost floats in the sea of green. Baradaris are traditional square pavilions with 12 doors, three on each side.
“My father brought [the baradari] over from Bal Samand [Palace],” says the princess Shivranjani who admits to needing glasses, loves Judi Dench and is quick to whip out her phone to show pictures of the new pony, originally called Pony. “It just completes the garden doesn’t it? It was always meant for entertainment,” she points out. The palace has changed a lot while she was growing up. “Pillars was a name that my father gave to the restaurant and it stuck,” she smiles.
Pillars is where breakfast is served. Named so for its tall columns, it offers a view of the Meharangarh Fort in the distance. Sip champagne, watch peacocks prance and bring the morning in with live music—flute or santoor. Or swim in the pool; the hotel has two. A picnic basket, complimentary, will appear by your side. It has water, a minty drink, things to munch on, and watermelon on ice. It also has the eagle statuette. “If you want privacy you put it out,” smiles Ramos.
So what’s the secret of being the best? “The success of a hotel is when you understand the body language of your guest. There are times when you want to engage and there are times you want to be left alone,” he says. This guest profiling almost is the secret that Umaid Bhawan staff guard zealously. And, it works. An example is Bhopal, one of the oldest servers. “I can judge what you want and what you’re feeling,” Bhopal says confidently, as he pours a cup of Darjeeling, just the right strength.