In a country that spans 3,000 km east to west and north to south, and with a rich history stretching back 5,000 years and more, it is no surprise that India has more than its fair share of castles, forts and palaces adorned with artefacts fit for a king. Many of these structures have seen generations of kings, often from the same bloodline, grace its throne and rule an empire.
Now, thanks to a few select hotel groups and boutiques that have dedicated themselves to preserving history, you too can live like a king, even if it is only for a few nights and for a princely sum.
Arguably the most romantic hotel in the world, the Taj Lake Palace shot to fame as a filming location for the 1983 James Bond hit Octopussy, but the history of the palace stretches back a further 250 years. Jag Niwas, as it was originally called, was the summer retreat of Maharana Jagat Singh II. Completed in 1746, the white-marbled palace sits serenely in the middle of Lake Pichola. With 83 rooms and suites, the palace’s location in the exotic city of Udaipur, often christened the ‘Venice of the East’, coupled with its seemingly dream-like floating state on a picturesque lake are what dreams and many a fairytale are made.
In the ‘Pink City’ of Jaipur, renowned for its royal palaces, one palace stands out above all others. The Raj Palace Hotel is the royal city’s most ornate structure, which should come as no surprise – the palace was built in 1727, the first ‘haveli’ in Jaipur, the descendants of whom reside in the palace. While its exterior structure is relatively plain, its interiors are lavish – relics of the past such as hand-woven Oriental rugs, crystal chandeliers and rich fabrics from halcyon days of the empire still grace the hotel’s furnishings. Walls, ceilings impressive arches and corridors are decked in delicate hand-crafted gems, affording a sense of the richness of the once glorious empire. The Raj Palace has gained recent attention for its Presidential Suite, a 16,000 square feet, four-floor apartment, once used by the Maharajah, which at US$45,000 per night, ranks as one of the most expensive in the world.
Catherine Palace meets Chateau de Versailles in this reconstruction of European splendour, one of the very few palaces around India to not draw upon Indo-Saracenic or Mughal influences. Built in 1884, the palace is lathered with Italian marble throughout, complementing the blend of Renaissance and Baroque architecture. With an expansive common dining hall seating up to 101 persons, the palace redefines opulence – a statement backed up by the fact that Sir Viqar Ul Umra, the Prime Minister of Hyderabad, who had commissioned the palace, had to borrow money to complete the original construction. The Nizam of Hyderabad, a former monarch, eventually financed the construction before moving in to the stately home. After decades of not being open for public viewing, The Taj Hotel Group took 10 years to renovate the structure before opening its doors in 2010, adding yet another jewel in its palatial crown of regal hotels.
While not strictly a palace or a fort, Wildflower Hall earns its place in this list by virtue of being perched 8,250 feet above sea level in the Himalayas. In a setting reminiscent of the much-storied Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, with panoramic views of the majestic mountains in sight, it’s arguable that Wildflower Hall holds the most jaw-dropping views, putting it in company with the palaces of yesteryear. Opened in the early 20th century and formerly the residence of Lord Kitchener, the resort has been renovated to evoke a colonial charm with hues of mahogany floors and cream-beige linen. Primarily used by the British as a summer-retreat to escape the simmering heat of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, Wildflower Hall is ideally positioned to witness the change of seasons and colour tones from green, to auburn, to snow white, in the nearby 22-acre woods.
Without a doubt the bargain on this list, Neemrana Fort Palace’s hospitality standard may not quite stand up to the luxurious criteria (or prices!) of the Taj or the Oberoi groups. However, housed in a 15th century fort on a hilltop with sweeping views of the city of Neemrana and the valley immediately below make this the oldest structure on this list. Much of the fort’s exterior is kept intact from its long history and not unnecessarily embellished merely to attract travellers. A few of the structures within the fort are also of its original state, including some four-poster beds from the 18 th century. But don’t expect a vast array of luxuries and amenities, or sometimes even the ‘basics’; the hotel group (with its taglines of ‘We don’t let history be a bygone!’ and ‘The non-hotel hotels’) aims to maintain the original nature of the fort – the rooms do not even have television (a plus-point if you ask us)! If nothing else, the fort acts as a fantastic stopping point during your ‘Golden Triangle’ trip, situated conveniently on the Delhi-Jaipur highway.