I don’t think you can go to India for the first time without at least one friend telling you that you’ll fall in love and never want to go anywhere else again, while another tells you that you’ll hate it. Every visitor experiences a different India, from the Goa where my uni friends’ Environmental Science professor went every reading week to dance on the beach, to the Kolkata that my writer friend who grew up there in one breath called a human hell on earth and compared favourably to London’s Victoria Station. Nothing if not aware of my limitations, which are many and explain why it took me until the age of 40 to visit India, I elected to stick to one tiny corner of the subcontinent, spending ten days in some of Jaipur’s fancier hotels. You have to start somewhere.
the notion of the luxury hotel in India raises issues of (Western) traveller privilege
A note: more so than in almost any other place on our increasingly economically polarised planet, the notion of the luxury hotel in India raises issues of (Western) traveller privilege. While the disparity between the literally palatial comfort of the hotels I visited and the way of life of the people in – and on – the surrounding streets was often discomfitingly visible, I saw too that hotels like these are giving employment to vast numbers of local people. While I was initially amused to see that there was one member of staff at the Rambagh Palace whose sole job seemed to be to wave white flags to deter pigeons from landing in the hotel’s immaculately manicured ornamental gardens, that job – that salary – wouldn’t otherwise exist. Which assuages the guilt a little.
Rambagh Palace, based in a corner of Jaipur’s Central Park, is a fairytale fantasia of cream-coloured minarets and towers with details picked out in burgundy red. Out in the grounds, peacocks stroll and yowl; one especially camera-friendly specimen hopped obligingly onto a sign pointing the way to the hotel spa, spruced its tailfeathers around the carved word “Beauty” and turned its head this way and that to show off its best angles. At other times two or three dashed in procession past the turquoise and yellow swimming pool, scaring any pigeons that had dared to cluster poolside to sip from the heated water and startling me to boot. An already fairytale setting was made more storybook one evening by a procession of elephants and camels being led past the front terrace to witness a lively wedding party where dancers with headdresses lit on fire were among the first entertainments. I managed to resist the temptation to add myself to the end of the procession – attending an Indian wedding (or, more specifically, the accompanying banquet) remains high on my bucket list.
No wedding feast for me, but dinner at the formal Suvarna Mahal dining room is an event in itself. The room is huge, with double-height ceilings featuring painted frescoes, Italian chandeliers, and huge mirrors that swell the space still further, and outsized vases bursting with flowers. The number of diners was bolstered by the inordinate amount of video calls going on at other tables. If someone FaceTimed me to inform me of the deliciousness of the lamp chop they were waving in front of the screen and that I couldn’t taste for myself, I’d hang up sharpish. On the other hand, these are chops that are almost worth phoning a friend about: smoky, succulent, with a pang of heat and the intense savoury char from the grill. To my unseemly delight, the staff mistakenly duplicated my order for my companion, who doesn’t eat lamb. More for me! Despite the grandeur of the room, service was decidedly unchilly and pleasantly relaxed, though not overfamiliar.
By contrast, dinner at the Sujan Rajmahal Palace (pictured top) – a sumptuous colonnaded property at the very epicentre of Jaipur – was intimidatingly austere. The dining room, despite its deep turquoise walls and a red-and-gold ceiling so far overhead that even the two gargantuan chandeliers look like distant satellites, has the air of a country house where someone has recently died and everyone is trying to be terribly quiet and respectful (I coughed once and it took what seemed like minutes for the echoes to die away). The meal, an extravagant series of thali platters comprising literally dozens of small dishes across three courses, felt somehow mismatched to this grandeur. Cultural conditioning is hard to overcome, and the modular, casual, everyone-pitching-in style of Indian banqueting still feels to me more suited to an informal or convivial setting than a grand dining room.
The Sujan is big on wallpaper. In each of its thirteen rooms, and throughout its public spaces – including its polo-themed bar and the “51 Shades of Pink” room where breakfast is taken – is a different arrestingly decorative wallpaper, from a witty umbrella motif outside the suites to a supremely beautiful design of phoenixes resurrected on teal blue in one of the corridors. (“51 Shades of Pink” speaks, or shrieks, for itself.) I’ve never taken so many pictures of walls.
To fend off potentially stifling heat, rooms and suites tend to be big on amenities but small on windows. My room at the Sujan – mint-green walls covered in painted trellises and flowering plants – was huge and luxurious but had no natural light at all, making it a bit bunker-like. At Samode Haveli, my final stop, a row of small square windows set high up on the double-height wall, above a fake minstrel gallery, allowed the merest glimmer of external light.
The Samode Haveli is not just one palace but three, pulled together to make a maze of a place, some parts reminiscent of a Moroccan riad, others a Victorian schoolhouse – with terms like “first floor” meaning something different in each substructure. This is an apt setting for events during the Jaipur Literary Festival: a place as easy to get lost in as a good book.
After negotiating my way to Samode Haveli’s roof terrace (take the elevator up a level, then go down to flights of stairs, then up in another lift…) I emerged onto a rooftop overlooking Jaipur’s teeming, dusty city streets, its backyards in which rangy cows were tethered. I looked out to the next tall building along and was surprised to see its rooftop occupied by several goats who stared back at me with rectangular eyes and seemingly matching bemusement. Around sunset, in what seems a citywide hobby enjoyed by young and old, a series of black kites are loosed into the sky, flecking a sky that doesn’t darken so much as slowly fade to a dustbowl grey-brown while the sun dwindles and turns ruby-red. All of a sudden it really did feel like nowhere else on earth, and at last I felt like I knew what all the fuss was about. C
Rambagh Palace, Bhawani Singh Rd, Rambagh, Jaipur, Rajasthan 302005, India
+91 141 238 5700; tajhotels.com
Samode Haveli, Jorawar Singh Gate, Gangapole Road Near, Gangapole, Jaipur, Rajasthan 302002, India
+91 141 263 2407; samode.com
SUJAN Rajmahal Palace, Sardar Patel Marg, Shivaji Nagar, Jaipur, Rajasthan 302001, India
+91 11 4617 2700; thesujanlife.com