Wednesday, 1 September 2004

To the Manor Born


The sun which services this part of the world has been up for a while now. Its customary vigour somewhat reined in by the odd black cloud, it is nevertheless doing its best to carry it out its duties and earn its daily rest and two weeks annual paid holiday. It shines with enthusiasm on the massive stately pile before us, nicely bringing out the highlights – domed turrets, little balconies, pigeons on the arched windows, some nice stained glass, a dignified, elderly car at the porch. It plays no favourites; it also illuminates the surroundings with equal enthusiasm. To enumerate: wide, sweeping drive, one; lawn, green, one; fountain, marble, one; horses chomping on said lawn, two; family retainers of assorted vintage going about their tasks, numerous; slim young man festooned with bulging bags full of photographic equipment pointing shiny camera with huge lens at the porch, one; scruffy long-haired chap in shorts with mouth agape, one.

The sun, having noted these last two, frowns, puzzled. This, it says to itself, was not in the contract. No one had said anything about having to light up strange visitors from Bombay. Huffed, it retreats behind a cloud, leaving no silver lining, and the slim young man swears under his breath. He’s going to have to wait for the next gap in the clouds to get his shot.

The disreputable-looking bloke ambles off in search of peers of the realm to discuss the weather with.

Somebody pinch me.

I’m in Blandings Castle. The stately pile in front of me is somewhat larger than VT station, I think, but its not a public building. It’s the home of a single family.
The animal snuffling its way through the shrubbery isn’t quite Empress class, but she’s undeniably porcine. And that slim, white-haired man who’s just walked slowly out of the front door, and is settling down in a chair is as close to my mind’s version of Lord Emsworth as dammit. At any moment now, a stray poet will saunter by, or perhaps a lissome lass, banished to the family manse to keep her away from some unsuitable young man. Or perhaps an Aunt will step through and shrivel me through her lorgnette as she surveys my wholly inappropriate attire.

But all is well. The elderly gentleman is wearing comfortable slippers, and a frayed jacket that proclaims that there’s no bossy female relative currently in residence to shoehorn him into formal regalia for public consumption.

Actually, this is better than Blandings. This is Ranjit Vilas, the home of the Maharajahs of Wankaner. The dignified gentleman who surveys his realm from the cool front porch is Pratap Sinh, who, but for 1947, I would be calling Your Highness, and genuflecting to as I approach. He is 97 years old, and a bit hard of hearing, so I decide not to inflict too much of my society on him.

Wankaner, which means “bend in the river,” is a small town that nestles around, well, a bend in the river Machchu, between the Kathiawad plains and the deserts of the Rann of Kutch. It was ruled by a Rajput royal family that moved here from Halwad to set up their own kingdom after a split in the family. They built their palace in the centre of the town.

Bane Sinhji, the twelfth Maharajah, died in 1881, when his heir, Amar Sinhji, was just three years old. Until he reached majority, a British Resident ruled in his name, from a Residency halfway up a hill overlooking the town. From the time Amar Sinhji came of age, a well educated, and much travelled young man, he left his stamp on his kingdom. He ruled for 49 years, and is remembered as great administrator and reformer. He loved blood sports, cars and planes, and had some decidedly individual ideas on architecture.

He decided to build a new palace on the Royal estate near the residency, where the family already had a palace. The foundations of Ranjit Vilas (named after the legendary cricketer, neighbouring royalty and a friend) were laid in 1907, the year of Pratap Sinhji’s birth, and took eighteen years to build. The first family occasion celebrated there was Pratap Sinhji’s wedding, in 1928.

Amar Sinhji designed the palace himself, and it is a dizzying mix of style and materials – a Venetian Gothic facade composed mainly of local sandstone, Gothic arches, Italianesque pillars, Dutch roof, Rajasthani domes, Mughal biradaris, Rajput jarokhas, European clock tower – but as far as I’m concerned, it works well as a whole. An Italian marble fountain stands in front of the palace, and inside, there’s more marble, from Italy, Belgium and India, Venetian blown glass chandeliers, and Belgian glass and French crystal and Burma teak, Persian and Indian rugs, twin marble staircases, Grecian urns, Venetian and Mughal mosaics, Roman pillars, stained glass windows, filigree ironwork, and, well, pretty much everything a jazz age Maharajah with global tastes could want.

The huge ground floor rooms – you could comfortable stack half-a-dozen city flats into the durbar hall – are lined with hunting trophies from around the world. A TV, a music system, and pedestal fans are the only mod cons in sight. The rest of the place is taken up with photographs and all manner of memorabilia. Not the family jewels, you understand, just stuff. Like a silver model of Wankaner House in Bombay (now the US Consulate), a pair of silver chairs, a Steinway, that kinda thing.

Our personal guide and companion is Amar Sinhji’s eldest son, the fascinating Yuvraj Digvijay Sinh. Among his other titles is Doctor (he has a PhD), former MLA and MP, former Union Minister, and Convenor of the Gujarat chapter of the Heritage Hotels Association.

That’s right, hotels.

We’re guests of the family, but paying guests. The family, we learn, was among the first in India to adapt to the economic realities of life in Free India. “Europe and India,” says Dr Sinh (word counts demand I use his shortest title), “are the only parts of the world where one can be a guest in former stately homes that still house the titled families who built them. And only in India can you stay in magnificent historical and architectural wonders belonging to former royalty.”

Right now, they’re open for business, but not at full throttle. The damage from the Gujarat earthquake was extensive, and the recovery has been expensive and painfully slow. The palace, where the clock tower dome caved in and the walls have huge cracks, is still being restored. The Sinhs have operated Wankaner Heritage Hotels independently thus far, one of the very few former royals not to have tied up with a major hospitality chain. But that’s changing.

The former Residency, in the palace grounds, has twelve rooms named for various family friends – other Indian rajahs, a viceroy or two, the famous jeweller, Cartier, and Karamchand Gandhi (the Mahatma’s father), who once served as Diwan of Wankaner. The family has tied up with Welcomgroup Heritage to run it. Though it will only reopen formally in 2005, it is currently taking limited numbers of visitors. By appointment, naturally.

Some distance from the palace stands Royal Oasis, formerly Purna Chandra Bhuvan, which they will now operate in partnership with the Ahmedabad-based Gopi Group, who also run the Balaram Palace, Palanpur. Due to reopen for its first group of visitors in a week or so, it is being pruned, polished and manicured. While the Residency has no major surprises in terms of decor – the brass bedsteads, planters chairs, carved tables, massive doors, tin bathtubs on clawed legs are are practically de rigueur in a home of this vintage – the Oasis is, well, different.

It stands in the only large grove I have so far set eyes on in Saurashtra (“flatter than Kansas, this place” said one website). As the Yuvraj drives us through his orchards, he tells us that this property was the family retreat, and a guest house when large celebrations meant more guests than palace and Residency could handle. The exteriors touch a familiar chord with any Bombay resident – large, solid, and Art Deco, but not aggressively so. Indoors, the plot thickens. The furniture is either restored from that period or painstakingly replicated. Art Deco plaster friezes line doorways, and curves and angles are everywhere. The theme peaks in two VIP rooms, which feature authentic furniture from Paris, and elaborately mirrored and neoned bathrooms that even, now, unlit, and covered with dust and workmen’s hand-prints, are just plain awesome. The main building also features a walled garden, and an Art Deco swimming pool, complete with statue of young woman poised to dive into the pool. Dr Sinh walks us over to “the only step well built in the twentieth century.” Fed by underground streams, its carved sandstone corridors, stairs and rooms descend three stories into the ground. The monsoon has been bad so far this year, but once the well fills up, the natural water pressure sends a fountain as high as the bas-relief Shiv image that adorns one wall. Now, though the well is dry, the underground rooms are cool and shaded, even if the air is scented with bat guano.

Back at the palace, the Yuvraj shows us the family garage, which houses a 1921 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, a Buick from a few years later, a couple of Fords from the Forties, a World War II Willys jeep, aside from a few more modern cars. “My father lives for cars,” he says, “but I live for horses.” We stroll over to his loves, the beautiful Kathiawadi horses he was instrumental in getting recognised as a distinct breed internationally, one of four from India. He gentles a mare and her foal into posing for Abhijit, getting them to perk up their ears so that the tips touch each other in a way that is unique to the breed. A stallion whinnies loudly, pawing the ground. I step back nervously. The stable boy informs me proudly that the stallion stamped a King Cobra to death a little while ago. And his son was apparently a chip off the old block, having just that day snuffed a snake himself. This he tells me after I’ve spent an evening thrashing through the undergrowth on the hillside, in shorts and sandals. Shudder.

We eat our meals with the Maharajah and the Yuvraj, in a dining room lined with tiger heads, served by bearers who could give any hotel a lesson or two in promptness and anticipation. Chair-backs, crockery, glasses, all carry the Wankaner coat of arms. Plates are swept away after each course, and the table settings are European. But, in eminently practical fashion, disposable mineral water bottles fill our glasses, and next to the little antique table doodads sits a bottle of ketchup. Dr Sinh keeps the conversation flowing at all times, moving easily from family to national history, from politics to the environment to anything Abhijit or I care to talk about. He is well-informed, has strong opinions, and states them convincingly. Small wonder he was elected four times – twice to the Gujarat Assembly, twice to Parliament. Conservation is another passion. “More Trees, Less Children” was his election slogan, and he helped set up the Department of the Environment, and was its first Minister. “God willing” he says, “we will never have to sell any of our land.” He wants to maintain the family acreage – it sprawls over several hills and down to the river on one side – as a game reserve, and has so far succeeded in keeping the property encroacher-free and wild. Hence the snakes, and the peacocks we hear calling every now and then.

On our last day, he takes us to the oldest buildings, the ones the family lived in while Ranjit Vilas was being built, which later became the Zenana. His wife is developing a novel concept: Zenana tourism, targeted at older western women who want to see life in the days of Purdah first-hand. Staffed exclusively by women, it will be the authentic experience, he says.

Saving the best for last, we trudge up and down staircases, to the cellar family museum, where steel safe-doors protect thrones, a collection of weapons ranging from ceremonial swords to pig-sticking spears to blunderbusses and oiled and polished shotguns, robes and raiment, a howdah, a massive elephant caparison whose fabric, I suspect, contains a small fortune in precious metals, and, in one corner, an old pair of wooden skis.

The museum, unfortunately, isn’t open to every guest, but the public rooms in the palace are. He plans to have every guest over to have a meal with the family at least once during their stay.

Work, and not a spot of embarrassment with a cow creamer, demands we cut short our idyll with the kings. If this were Blandings, it would have been practically noblesse oblige to tootle off to the city in a two-seater, or at the very least, sneak off in disgrace before dawn, by the first available milk train. But Dr Sinh sees us to one of his cars, and we are chauffeured to Wankaner station in comfort.

Abhijit is silent. He has, a few months ago, pledged large sums of money to the bank in return for a suburban apartment. Till we arrived here, he was pretty chuffed to be a house owner. Me, I’m quiet too. The King’s ransom I pay in rent and deposits probably wouldn’t keep the Yuvraj’s horses in hay for a month.

Ah well. There’s still this. I will never again envy friends in less real estate-challenged metros their larger loos. The residence we just left has bathrooms big enough to shove their whole bally houses into, balconies and all.

The information.
Getting There
Wankaner is accessible directly by rail. Wankaner station is a short drive from the palace. From Mumbai, Saurashtra Mail (Rs1,165, 2A) and Saurashtra Janata Express (Rs1154, 2A)
By road, it is 50km north of Rajkot, 220km from Ahmedabad.
By air, connected to Mumbai via Indian Airlines (Rs1775, 21 day Apex Fare).
Where to Stay
Royal Residency:
Twelve rooms available. Rs 1850 per person, American Plan. Booking at the palace (+91 2828 220000, fax: +91 2828 220002). Rates may be revised in early 2005, when the agreement with Welcomgroup Heritage becomes operational.
Royal Oasis:
Indian nationals: 2 Royal Suites (the flamboyantly art deco VIP rooms) Rs 3500 per day per room; 6 Silver Rooms (main building) Rs 2500 per day per room; 6 Bronze rooms (annexe) Rs 2200 per day per room.
Foreign nationals: Rs 2300 per day, per person, twin sharing; Rs 2800 per day single occupancy; American Plan.
Booking via the palace, or through the Gopi Group.
What to see and do
Wankaner town holds no charms – it is any small town in India. But whatever your main interest, the area has much to offer you, usually just a day-trip away, because of Wankaner’s central location.
Palaces and forts? Saurashtra has them like Delhi has politicians. And Portuguese-flavoured Dui, Porbander, Gandhi’s birthplace, even pre-historic excavations at Lothal are all within reach.
For the religious-minded, the temples of Somnath, Dwarka, Shetrunjaya, Girnar and Bhadreshwar beckon.
Wildlife enthusiasts can visit the Gir Forest, the last refuge of the Asiatic Lion aside from other wildlife, the Rann of Kutch, the last place you can see Asiatic Wild Asses, and the largest flamingo breeding ground in the world, Velavadar Blackbuck national park, Nalsarovar’s migratory bird sanctuary or Jamnagar’s Marine National Park.
Even the adventure sports fan will soon be catered to: the salt flats of the Rann are to host the first land-sailing operation in India, probably by year-end.

Published (in much-edited form) in Outlook Traveller, August 2004.



Anonymous said...

Peter you are bloody talented - I love your traveller piece. I swear I wish I could write as well. You're brilliant, and I remain, sir, your number one fan.

zigzackly said...

Beach, bring out the bubbly. No, not that one the good stuff. We have nice mail!
Thank you, kind madam/sir.

Anonymous said...

p2, as if it wasn't bad enuff hearing it from you, i made the mistake of reading thru the whole thing! you're envious people in lesser metros with...i envy you, getting to do this trip and worse, getting paid for that!!!
btw this blogger thingy is forcing me to sign in as an annonymous fan!!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter! I have just returned from this very same place--and it was like being there all over again! Much the same experiences as you had--with the eccentric Maharaja...I went to do a review (am a travel writer for
indu balachandran, chennai