Travel: The princely pleasure domes: India's rulers indulged their fantasies and lavished their fortunes on their palaces. Tim McGirk enjoys the panoply of royal taste from watery Udaipur to lush Mysore

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THROUGHOUT the centuries, India has seen empires expand thousands of miles, across seas and up into the high Himalayan ranges, only to shrink back to little beyond the ruler's battered palace walls. Defeat by more powerful invading armies, court schemers and natural calamities may have caused the demise of India's kings and Mogul emperors, but their thousands of palaces remain as testimony to their strength and, often, their wild eccentricities. On the eve of India's nationhood in 1947, there were more than 565 maharajas, nawabs and rajas, who ruled one-third of the country. Some principalities, such as Hyderabad or Kashmir, were larger than France, but many extended no further than 20 miles.

What piqued my interest in Morvi, a principality near the Arabian Sea coast of Gujarat, was an old letter found by a friend of mine, Abimaniu, an antiquarian who holds firm to his warrior caste's penchant for outlandish facial hair. Abimaniu was trying to salvage some of Morvi's archives after a terrible flood in 1979 washed in and out of the palace's many Art Deco rooms. In a pile of soaked and muddy documents, he discovered a letter embossed with the viceroy's seal of Lord Willingdon.

It was a brief note, dated 1914, thanking the maharaja of Morvi for donating an Arab stallion to a charity raffle sponsored by the viceroy. The tone was sniffy, off-hand, as though the writer might not have been the viceroy of the India but a village vicar thanking one of his parishioners rather condescendingly for giving up a broken toaster.

The viceroy's note finished off with a sharp elbow in the ribs. The maharaja was asked: 'What would the other brother princes do to prove that India is the jewel in the empire's crown?' In other words, could the maharaja of Morvi apply the squeeze to the other maharajas to come up with some more race horses or a nice sparkling bauble?

It was a refreshing shock to find out that the British empire-builders, for all their Victorian cant about having a moral imperative to impose civilisation on the natives, were seduced by oriental opulence. Some of the crown's officers took bribes, extorted and pocketed what loot they could. After unearthing the letter, Abimaniu, curious, dug deeper into the details of the Willingdon vice-regency.

As it turned out, Lady Willingdon had an unashamed fondness for jewels. When visiting a principality with her husband, she would demand an invitation to the palace's zenana - the cloistered women's quarters - and inspected the jewellery adorning the assembly of princesses. 'It was understood that any piece that the lady admired was to be offered as a gift,' said Abimaniu, 'So pretty soon, when the lady came visiting, all the women in the zenana would wear only their second-rate gems.'

Although the British allowed autonomy to tame native rulers, a political agent was assigned to each state to keep watch over the maharaja or his Muslim equivalent, the nawab. Often, the political agent's job was to persuade the ruler to buy British. The maharajas and nawabs mimicked the lifestyles of European aristocrats with an exuberance that soon brought architects and sculptors and sellers of outlandishly expensive knick-knacks hustling out to India. Parisian jewellers convinced many a ruler to melt down his ancient treasures of gold, and re-cut their gems to be in vogue with the latest fashions.

Morvi's enterprising rulers opened a free port, which in the 19th century was so bustling and cosmopolitan that savvy merchants there could even quote the local exchange rate for Spanish silver reales, minted in Argentina. Using riches accumulated from his customs-free seaport, the maharaja, Lakhadran, in 1931 commissioned a new palace that was to be one of the finest Art Deco buildings in India. He spared no expense: green marble staircases and fountains everywhere, running under colonnades or spouting from giant sea shells to spill into a vast, Olympic-sized swimming pool.

In summer, it becomes stupefyingly hot in western Gujarat, and the palace, with its inner courts and water running, managed to stay relatively cool. This cooling system was not, pehaps, as novel as the one developed by the maharaja of Bharatpur further north in Rajasthan. His idea was to dump great blocks of ice into his swimming pool. A pretty servant girl sat on one of the floating ice-cakes, passing out delicacies to royalty lolling in the pool.

Morvi's and Jodhpur's maharajas were both admirers of Art Deco, and the two rulers, in building their 1930s palaces, vied to outdazzle each other. Both palaces have murals designed by a Polish artist, Norblin, though Morvi's are probably finer. In the central hall, near the ceiling, the Pole has painted a sun god in his horse-drawn chariot. In the palace bar, he painted a mural of bubbly dancing girls.

Some among the maharaja's courtiers complained that His Majesty had perhaps become too Westernised. They did not mind the bar, the gymnasium and billiards room, or the maharaja's long sojourns in England where he acquired and raced horses. What irked the courtiers was the ruler's failure to honour old princely customs. Every palace had its charans, its bards. Not only would they compose new songs at the maharaja's whim but the minstrels could also recite from memory every ballad that had been composed of every battle victory, every love affair of past rulers of the dynasty. In this century, however, many rulers grew bored with these traditional songs and craved Western music. I imagine that many minstrels were sacked when their maharajahs returned from Europe with new gramophones that played screechy polkas and dance hall tunes.

It had also been a tradition for the bard to receive a small plot of land from the maharaja, but when one bard applied to Morvi for his gift, he was refused. Enraged, the bard put a curse on the house. He predicted that a catacylsm would be visited on the dynasty after the death of its last male heir. Many people believe that it was because of this malediction that floods swept through the former principality in 1979 (the one in which Abimaniu found Lord Willingdon's letter). Not long before, the last male scion of Morvi had died in the US, allegedly from a drug overdose.

The inhabitants of this ex-principality on the Saurashtra peninsula have recently been visited by another tragedy: many of the maharaja's former subjects went to work in the diamond- cutting shops of nearby Surat, which was hit by the recent plague epidemic. Some have tried fleeing but were blocked from entering their own villages by relatives armed with clubs who feared they would bring the scourge with them.

Mysore palace, in the southern state of Karnataka, also shows the effects of too many European shopping binges. The Wodeyar rulers of Mysore had a reputation for being Sanskrit scholars and among the fairest administrators in all India. They were also keen enthusiasts of Western classical music and helped fund the setting up of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. But the Wodeyars all had a spectacular sense of kitsch.

Few European tradesman, craftsmen or taxidermists who turned up at the palace entrance, the huge Jaya Martanda Gate more than 65ft high, were ever refused entry, no matter how extravagantly vulgar their wares. The Mysore maharajas bought a glass chandelier, 15ft tall and just as wide. And, as if that wasn't dazzling enough, they decided to illuminate the palace's vast facade with 50,000 light bulbs. They also bought Victorian tiles and stained glass by the acre. More than 20 of Mysore's 600 rooms were stuffed with the heads and skins of tigers, panthers, elephants and other species that the maharajas had bagged. The Mysore palace style is Indo-Saracenic, but it seems as though the pure Saracenic or Islamic lines, once planted in steamy southern India, began growing in riotous, luxuriant ways: domes and towers sprout madly everywhere, and granite columns bulge and flower at the top into lotus petals. Gold leaf and mirrors, some gigantic, others jewel-sized, seem to be trowelled on to every available surface. On entering the palace, a visitor is confronted with a ceremonial staircase that goes up to a string of state rooms, each grander than the last, with domes painted blue and starred like the night sky. In the throne room, the Wodeyars held court under a solid gold umbrella with a bird holding a garland of emeralds in its beak.

Blinded by the opulence, I found myself wondering: how did these maharajas get all their money and where is it now? It was a question the Indian tax collector was also asking. After independence, the princely states were swallowed up. Their lands became the government's, and so did their treasures (though some astute princes managed to spirit their jewels and their money outside India). When Indira Gandhi took power in the 1970s, she abolished the last few privileges of the old aristocratic rulers. They became ordinary citizens, stripped of all but their crumbling palaces.

The man who would have been Mysore's maharaja, Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wodeyar, belongs to a right-wing Hindu party. Many cynics believe he entered politics simply to improve his chances of winning a labyrinthine legal dispute to regain his estimated pounds 125m. He has converted several of his summer and hunting palaces around Mysore to grand hotels, where he charges dollars 99 for a royal meal served by his old, costumed family retainers. His father was the last ruler of Mysore. Mr Wodeyar prefers foreigners to Indians as his paying guests. 'They are the ones who really enjoy it and don't bitch about it and make nasty comments like our people do.'

South from Mysore, over a range of tall, green hills, is the Padmanabhapuram palace built in Kerala by the Travancore maharajas.

The geographical distance between the two palaces may not be great, but the difference in style is startling. Not only is Padmanabhapuram 200 years older, but it is built almost entirely of wood. It has long, sweeping gabled roofs to shield the palace from the monsoon rains that tilt in for eight months of the year, and it is surrounded by a moat of sand which acts as a barrier against the armies of red ants and termites. Using teak and strong dark timber from the rain forests, Padmanabhapuram is like a cross between an old sailing vessel and an elaborate puzzle-box. It is a palace of shadows and calm pools of light, where the royals and their retainers all walked barefoot across polished black lacquer floors made of crushed seashells, coconuts and plant extracts. .

The puzzle-box effect is enhanced by the maze of corridors, colonnades and interlocking courts. After seeing the audience hall, with its gracefully chiselled wooden screens, I came to think of shadow and light as building materials as crucial to the architect as the wood beams and masonry. The maharajas lived in a private court, with small translucent windows of mica. Through shutters, they spied on their courtiers without being seen. The king slept above his treasury room, over his pile of gold. Nearby is another room with an empty bed, reserved for the Hindu god Padmanabha, should the patron deity of the Travancores decide to drop in.

Even Padmanabhapuram is not without its concessions to the taste of the frequent British, Portuguese and French visitors, who found it decidedly uncivilised to plod around barefoot and sit cross-legged on a woven grass mat. For them, the maharajas built the Indra Vilasam, a Western-style residence which looks out over a tropical garden and a stone-stepped reservoir full of fat, lazy fish.

One palace in Rajasthan, where even Lady Willingdon could not peek into, was in Udaipur. The Mewars, who claim to be the oldest dynasty of Hindu kings, begun building the fortified City Palace in the 16th century and were extremely aloof with strangers. After all, the Mewars trace their ancestry back to divine origin, to the sun itself. Even several Mogul emperors were turned away from its gates, as politely as possible, for they were dangerous people to annoy.

During the British Raj, the maharana, as the Mewar rulers were styled, could not afford to snub the new rulers: once when a banquet was laid on for a viceroy's daughter, the maharana pleaded indisposition and dined alone, unsullied by a memsahib's presence, in another part of this sprawling palace. Unlike most other Rajasthani cities which are built from red sandstone, Udaipur is gleaming white, perched on the banks of the man-made Lake Pichola.

Water is rare in the arid, dun-coloured hills of Rajasthan, and Udaipur's City Palace seems almost to bend thirstily over the lake. There are carved stone elephants with their trunks dipped into the water, taking an eternal drink. Often, the Mewar royalty would hold dinner parties on the lake, aboard boats large enough to accommodate not only the guests and trays of wild boar but also musicians, servants and dancing girls as well. Their revelry was only disturbed by the thousands of large bats which whoosh across the lake after sunset, enjoying their own feast of prince-fed mosquitoes.

Attending to a sun-king had its own tricky etiquette. Among the ministers and subservient chieftains, an elaborate hierarchy was encoded by means of ankle bracelets. A minister or warlord with the most anklets was entitled to approach the maharana directly and even to arrive late for a royal summons, while his lessers were forced to grovel and slink backwards after an audience with the maharana.

Today, the maharana's family still occupy the old zenana, which is entered through a doorway that was built small enough to be easily defended against the raiding parties of rival kings and emperors. The rooms bear wonderful names, such as the Palace of the Clouds and the Hall of Colours. One of the Mewar family's favourite festivals has always been Holi, which began as a good-natured occasion when everyone drank a marijuana concoction called bhang and doused each other with coloured powder. Most Indians use bagfuls of powder, but the Mewars splashed in a marble pool filled with it. Nowadays in northern India it is inadvisable to travel on Holi; mischief-makers, high on bhang and cheap liquor, often run amok in a frenzy of sanctioned madness, tossing battery acid at cars and molesting women.

Unlike Udaipur's City Palace, which is a bit of an architectural jumble, with virtually every maharana adding on a wing or two, the three palaces at Orchha remain intact, just as their architects had planned. Constructed on a rocky hill, high above the Betwa river in Madhya Pradesh state, Orchha is probably the best example of a 16th-century Indo-Sarcenic citadel palace. The Bundela kings who ruled there were devout Hindus, and oriented their gate, throne room and bedrooms according to acomplex Indian belief in lines of shakti, similar

to ley lines. The first builder-king of Orchha, Rudra Pratap, was such a devout Hindu that he even got himself killed trying to save a cow, a sacred animal, from a tiger.

Nevertheless, the Bundelas thrived by becoming the obedient vassals and hired assassins of the Mogul emperors. They became adept at choosing the correct side in the Moguls' gruesome battles of succession. This survival strategy worked well until the Hindu rulers fell foul of the next emperor, Shah Jahan, when they murdered a chieftain under Mogul protection. Vengance was swift. The Mogul city of Agra, where Shah Jahan was to build the Taj Mahal, was too close to Orchha for the emperor to ignore this disobedience. The imperial army swarmed Orchha and pillaged the citadel. Battered and bankrupt, the rulers retreated from Orchha and abandoned the fortified palaces to jungle monkeys, creeping vines and eagles. Today, it is still in ruins, magnificent even in disrepair.

The pictures used here come from 'The Royal Palaces of India' by George Michell and Antonio Martinelli, Thames and Hudson, pounds 29.95.

PALACE HOTELS

MANY of the former maharajas' palaces now operate as hotels. The most popular ones are at Jaipur, Udaipur and Jodhpur but there are more than 40 others. Prices vary according to their star rating: a double room in a one-star is 500Rs ( pounds 10) and in a five-star 2,600Rs ( pounds 52) per night. Here are some of the most popular palace hotels.

Jodhpur, Rajasthan: Umaid Bhawan Palace (five-star). This is one of the largest and grandest palatial residences in the world, where the present Maharaja of Jodhpur still resides in his private wing. Tel: 010 91 (0)291 22316/22516/22366.

Jaipur, Rajasthan: Rambagh Palace (five- star deluxe). Built in 1835 and converted in the 1920s into a palace for the use of Prince Man Singh. Tel: 010 91 (0)141 75141.

Jaipur, Rajasthan: Jai Mahal Palace (five- star). Near Jaipur, this palace blends the art of Rajasthan and architecture of Mogul

Delhi. Tel: 010 91 (0)141 68381.

Udaipur, Rajasthan: Laxmi Vilas Palace (four-star). Overlooking the Fatehsagar Lake, this palace was built as the royal guest house for the Maharaja Bhupal Singh. Tel: 010 91 (0)294 244113/25536.

Udaipur, Rajasthan: Lake Palace (five-star deluxe). Prince Jagat Singh built his palace on the Lake Pichola for no other purpose than royal pleasure. Tel: 010 91 (0)294 23241.

Bhavnagar, Gujarat: Nilambag Palace. A solid residence built of the best materials available and by some of the best craftsmen in the region. Tel: 010 91 (0)278 24340/24422.

Khimsar, Rajasthan: Royal Castle. This medieval castle displays an array of architecture from its 550-year history. The latest wing, which houses the hotel, was built during the 1920s. Tel: 010 91 (0)1582 28.

Kolhapur , Maharashtra: Shalini Palace. A good example of Indo-Saracenic architecture, the palace sits next to the serene Rankal lake surrounded by 6 1/2 landscaped acres. Tel: 010 91 (0)231 20401.

Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh: Usha Kiran Palace (one-star). A mixture of Mogul and British Imperial architecture, this palace was built shortly before the turn of the century and maintains 27 royal suites. Tel: 010 91 (0)751 23453/22049.

Srinagar, Kashmir: The Oberoi Palace. Built by Hari Singh, in the style of a millionaires' country club, it was rechristened The Oberoi Palace when converted to a hotel. The palace boasts spectacular views of the famous Dal Lake. Tel: 010 91 (0)194 71241/71242/75651/75652.

Mysore, Kanartaka: Lalitha Mahal (five- star). The Lalitha is one of the former ruling family's secondary palaces in the city. Italian renaissance in style, it has an amazing grand marble stairway. Tel: 010 91 (0)821 26316/27650/27771.

For details of the other palace hotels, contact the Government of India Tourist Office, 7 Cork Street, London W1X 1PB (071-437 3677), which can provide a fact-finder.

(Photograph omitted)

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