Raj 'n' Rolls: Explore India like a Maharaja

A bed in a palace and a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce: Rory Ross meets Rajasthan's modern-day maharajas and learns how to live like a royal prince in India
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The Independent Travel

The neo-art-deco beds at the Umaid Palace in Jodhpur were still warm from the visit of the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall earlier this year when "my" spanking new Rolls-Royce Phantom crunched up the driveway, scattering flights of peacocks like an explosion in a soft furnishings shop. Winged, domed and one of the newest and largest palaces in the world, Umaid - built between 1929 and 1943 - evokes St Paul's Cathedral, St Peter's and the White House, rendered in orange-pink sandstone. "A classic piece of nondescript ostentation" is James Cameron's description in An Indian Summer. Film buffs will recognise it from Kim (1984) and One Night with The King (2005), both shot here and both starring Peter O'Toole.

Umaid is the seat of His Highness the Maharaja of Jodhpur, one of the former Indian princes whose status and wealth succumbed to a combination of the Raj, Independence, democracy and Gandhi-inspired socialism. But now, with the Indian economy roaring ahead at 8 per cent a year and money-making back on the agenda, his ilk is returning to favour as role models to newly minted mercantile princes. The Maharajas, meanwhile, are rummaging through their attics to see what assets they've clung on to, and wondering how to make them ring.

First up: their magnificent portfolios of palaces, hunting lodges and forts, which are now being transformed from dusty museums to gleaming hotels where guests can taste the Maharaja lifestyle. Jodhpur was ahead of the curve here. He converted half his palace into a hotel back in the 1970s; he still inhabits the other half.

The so-called Maharaja Lifestyle is the common ground where old and new élites - princes and plutocrats - get to meet. It is a lifestyle measured out in property portfolios, wardrobes, polo ponies, artworks, jewellery and boys' toys. But perhaps the most powerful symbol of the late-era real-life Maharaja lifestyle was the Rolls-Royce.

The Indian princes and Rolls-Royce have a lot of history between them. In the interbellum period, when maharajas were bywords for wealth and self-indulgence, the "Maharaja market" accounted for one-fifth of Rolls-Royce's pre-Second World War output - some 4,000 cars in total, of which 160 still exist in India today. It seems that the princes, their military and political wings clipped by the British, channelled their mutual rivalry into lifestyle purchases. Fleets of luxury cars were a measure of princely one-upmanship, like Middle Eastern princes and jet fighters now.

Today, Mumbai has more millionaires than London, all hungry for luxury goods, including cars. So Rolls-Royce is once again making friends while hoping that history will repeat itself. To this end, the company shipped over a new Phantom, a 5.9-metre, 2.5-ton, 250kmh beast, to show off to two of its most loyal fans, the Maharajas of Jodhpur and Udaipur. As the Maharaja of Jodhpur was not yet ready to greet us in person, we took in the city and its crowning Mehrangarh Fort (1459). Normally, the Rolls-Royce Phantom has a parting-of-the-waves effect on traffic. It carves through flocks of sheep, slices through herds of goats and gently noses aside cows, pedestrians and rickshaws.

But the festering alleys of downtown Jodhpur is no place for a Rolls-Royce Phantom, especially with tracks and gun removed. So I got out and walked. I immediately became engulfed in a kaleidoscope of tinselled rickshaws, cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, wobbling cyclists, pedestrians, camels and cows, all 1mph short of the biggest road accident in history. I got an intimation of the delicately choreographed method to this maelstrom when a cyclist had to jam on his "brakes" to avoid hitting me: "WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING YOU BLOODY MAN?!" he bellowed.

That evening, while I drank in the gloaming on the terrace of Umaid while admiring the barbered and sprinkled palace lawns, and reflected that life as a Maharaja definitely has its moments, a group of six people appeared stage-right, and, painfully slowly, walked across the gardens. At the centre was a young man in a baseball cap. He walked with a curious high-stepping gait, as if trying to mount an invisible staircase. Behind him, one of the group pushed an empty wheelchair. The man in the baseball cap was Yuvraj of Jodhpur, Shivraj Singh, 31, the Crown Prince. Last year, his pony trod on his head in a polo accident. The Prince is slowly recovering from a three-month coma. It was a reminder that the Maharaja Lifestyle has its risks.

The following morning, His Highness finally received us: Gaj Singhji II, 57, cut a well-fed, well-groomed figure. He seemed reticent and semi-lost in a personal vortex of small talk, servants and minor ceremonial moments, his life since he was four, when his father died in a plane crash. He had thoughtfully wheeled out one of his museum-piece Rollers, a 1934 Phantom I drophead convertible in turquoise with coachwork by Windovers of London and disappearing running boards - a model specially developed for the 1930s Maharaja market.

We drove in convoy into the Rajasthani desert, heading towards the fortress town of Jaisalmer, some 250 kilometres away. His Highness took the wheel of the new Phantom and sped off with lordly mastery. Bob Rupani, author of Driving Holidays in India, joined me in a jeep. The new, space-age, fast-forward India is discovering that there is more to cars than emphysemic black Ambassadors. Motoring holidays undertaken in desirable foreign marques are now the rage. "The first rule of driving in India," Rupani said, "is expect the unexpected. Don't rely on other drivers to do anything sensible. Every driver is out to kill you."

The Maharaja was by now a dust cloud on the horizon. His Highness has form behind the wheel. After coming down from Oxford, he set off in a second-hand Citroën Safari from London to Jodhpur. When he reached Tehran, his mother telegrammed to say "Hurry up", because his divine inheritance was about to vanish: in 1975, the Indian government abolished the Privy Purses which had guaranteed the princes an income. The abolition removed the vestiges of the princes' political power, reducing them to sentimental ornaments.

Even at the height of the Raj, only two-thirds of India was directly British-controlled. More than a million square kilometres were semi-autonomous states ruled by some 200 princes who went by various honorifics. At Independence (1947), these princes held sway over some 100 million Indians, armies, law courts, police, Customs, postage and currency. The Nizam of Hyderabad ruled a kingdom the size of France. When the princes surrendered their royal status in 1949, half of them accepted compensation for their merger with the Union of India; the rest opted for Privy Purses and the retention of various privileges, including the right to carry red State number plates on their cars. By 1975, these privileges were consigned to history. Or were they? The idea that mere politicians, however democratically elected, could wipe out hundreds of years of princely dynastic rule and prestige in India is laughable. Even today, in their former kingdoms, the Maharajas are still hailed as royal.

Stopping in the desert, I joined the Maharaja in the Phantom. The atmosphere inside was in exquisite contrast to the furnace outside. Songbird by Eva Cassidy, His Highness's favourite CD, contended with the purr of conditioned air and HH's steady obligato on the horn. The ride was a* * psycho-neural thrill. The Phantom wafts, but with power. With computer-controlled suspension, hydraulic brake system, traction control, Servotronic power steering, fly-by-wire throttle and climate control, driving her is like an out-of-body experience.

His Highness was deftly cravatted and dressed in a kurta (knee-length shirt), churidars (tight leggings) and slippers, his "most casual" look. Sartorial aplomb runs in the family. "We had a strong cavalry tradition here," said HH, twiddling a thoughtful steering-wheel, speaking in the voice of Eton and Oxford. We stopped for lunch at Fort Pokaran, 172 kilometres north-west of Jodhpur, which belongs to a cousin of the Maharaja. As we drew up, a volley of firecrackers was detonated, garlands were looped over heads, rose petals sprinkled from above and red dye marked on foreheads.

"I get that wherever I go," shrugged His Highness. "It used to be a 17-gun salute, but they don't run to guns these days."

On to Jaisalmer, 112km east of Pokaran, near the Pakistani border. I mounted steps to the highest point of Jaisalmer, and in one slow pan, took in the entire city and the scorched plains of the Thar Desert beyond. Night was falling by the time we drove back to Jodhpur. If driving in India is an agreeable gamble, then driving at night is Russian roulette. Rupani advises hiring a local driver.

The following day, we said goodbye to the Maharaja, and set off for Udaipur 200km to the south-east, along the main Rajasthan-Gujarat highway. After an hour, we reached the town of Sadri. Although the main roads in this part of Rajasthan are superb, thanks to the military build-up near the Pakistani border, be prepared for any type of surface, potholes, rocks, mud, sand, no tarmac and often no road. At one point, we were diverted along a dry river bed. Handling characteristics on riverbeds are an important consideration when buying or hiring wheels in India. I'm happy to report that the Phantom cruised along unperturbed. Even dead sheep on the road hardly registered more than a bump.

You see many bizarre sights on Indian roads: an elephant galumphing along a motorway; camels hauling water tankers; and cows snoozing in the middle of highways. En route to Kumbhalgarh - a 36-km fortified wall 64km north of Udaipur completed in 1465 - we overtook a Mahindra jeep built to carry five people. When the jeep drew up at Kumbhalgarh, I counted 23 men, women and children getting out.

Udaipur, the setting of the Bond film Octopussy (1983), is built around Lake Pichola with its famous Lake Palace hotel, a five-star Alcatraz which occupies an entire island. The Lake Palace is one of a 14-strong portfolio of hotels that belong to the Maharana of Udaipur. The Maharana, his wife HH Maharani Raj Vijayraj Kumari of Kutch, and their daughter the Princess Padmaja Kumari invited us for drinks on their third-storey lake-view terrace. Among its appointments, I counted a swimming pool, a fully matured arboretum, fountains, marble tiling, an army of liveried servants loitering watchfully, and enough chairs, sofas and carpets handsomely to furnish a substantial sitting room.

Spirits, beer and wine were served with almost theatrical deference. Car and cricket prattle mingled with the polite tintinnabulation of splashing fountains. My attention drifted out towards Lake Pichola. Beyond the lake in the velvet night, perched on a distant mountain top, the floodlit Monsoon Palace, the Maharana's former rainy-season retreat, appeared to hang from the moon which hovered above it. No film director or novelist would dare invent such a preposterously romantic fairy-tale setting.

The Maharana descends from the longest established dynasty in the world, going back 1,400 years. "In fact, we go back to the Sun," said HH, a stocky, jovial, hail-fellow-well-met cove of 62. "You'll see the Sun everywhere, on the family crest."

Among His Highness's projects, the development of solar power ranks high on his agenda. HH would like to convert Udaipur into India's first solar-powered city. He has developed a fleet of solar-powered rickshaws, motorcycles, a scooter and a boat. One solar rickshaw, the Rocket, completed the 330km drive from Gajner to Jaisalmer in just one day at an average speed of 40kmh. The following morning, HH and the Princess gravely inspected the Phantom. "I think it is absolutely beautiful," gasped the Princess. "It comes to life when you actually see it."

We drove in convoy to HH's playground at Shikarbadi, where the Maharana has a cricket ground, equestrian centre, hotel and a private airport whose runway doubles as a polo ground. Here, the pride of the Maharana's 24-strong vintage and classic car collection dating from the 1920s was on display: a 1930 Ford A, a 20hp Phantom II, a 1946 MG TC, and - HH's favourite - a black 1934 Phantom II that was the crook's car in Octopussy. HH put the new Phantom through its paces. "If I could afford it, I'd buy one," he said afterwards. He then put his finger on the mutually shifting roles of the old political élite versus the rising commercial/financial one: "A lot of Maharajas are into politics these days," he said. "It would not look good to be seen driving a brand new Rolls-Royce. We Maharajas like to think of ourselves as role models to be emulated by ordinary people. It is our industrialists who prefer to see themselves as ancient Maharajas of the modern era, with their horses, jets and lifestyle."

The Maharana seems to be enjoying the best of both worlds: he has the trappings, title and influence. Nowadays, he is increasingly swapping wheels for wings. He owns a Microlight, a Beech King Air C90 and a Cessna. A few years ago, HH embarked on a flight from Udaipur to Oshkosh in the US. "We got as far as Bangkok when a typhoon damaged one of the planes."

Back in Udaipur, we inspected HH's car collection, which is open to the public. Several "rides" had been ingeniously "pimped". A 1930-31 25hp Rolls-Royce was converted into a cricket team carrier. A 24hp Rolls-Royce from the 1920s had been converted into a hunting vehicle: with muffled engines, Rolls-Royces were ideally suited to stalking tigers. On the road home, we speculated how, were the Maharana of Udaipur to buy a new Rolls-Royce, he might pimp his ride to bring it in line with contemporary Indian society.

"Fit a Pakistani truck klaxon."

"And neon lights."

"And tinsel."

"And a giant sign at the back saying HORN PLEASE!"

"And a haystack on the roof."

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Mumbai is served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), BMI (0871 224 0224; www.flybmi.co.uk), Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) and Jet Airways (020-8970 1500; www.jetairways.com), all from Heathrow. Jet Airways flies from Mumbai to Udaipur and Jodhpur. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Mumbai, in economy class, is £15.20. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects. Indus Tours (020-8901 7637; www.industours.co.uk) offers eight-day tailor-made packages from £1,875 per person. This includes return flights from Heathrow to Mumbai and accommodation at each of the hotels mentioned below, including breakfast.

STAYING THERE

Taj Lands End, Band Stand, Bandra West, Mumbai (00 91 22 6668 1234). Doubles start at US$446 (£262), including breakfast and airport transfers. Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur, Rajasthan (00 91 29 1251 0101). Doubles start at US$237 (£139), room only. Taj Lake Palace, Pichola Lake, Udaipur (00 91 29 4252 8800). Doubles start at US$374 (£220), room only. All hotels can be booked through: 0800 282 699; www.tajhotels.com.

FURTHER INFORMATION

British passport holders require a visa to visit India, which cost £30. Apply in person or by post to one of the following: the High Commission of India, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA (020-7836 8484); the Consulate-General of India, 20 Augustus Street, Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham B18 6JL (0121 212 2782); or the Consulate-General of India, 17 Rutland Square, Edinburgh EH1 2BB (0131 229 2144). Application forms can be downloaded from www.hcilondon.net.

Driving Holidays in India by Bob Rupani is published by Rupani Media and distributed by Media Star (e-mail: ravi@mediastar.co.in, fax: 00 91 22 2283 9619) India Tourism: 020-7437 3677; www.incredibleindia.org.

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