Peek Inside Raj Mahal Palace

20 April 2015Travel+Leisure

Jaisal Singh and I were installed over whiskies in the jasmine-scented Polo Bar of the Suján Rajmahal Palace (doubles from $500), the newest palace hotel in the Indian city of Jaipur, when a pink-turbaned attendant glided over to tell him that the maharajah, the city’s young king, was about to arrive for dinner with friends. Jaisal, whose hospitality group Suján manages the hotel, gracefully excused himself, returning moments later with a slight young man in mud-soiled polo whites: the maharajah, 16-year-old Padmanabh Singh. Aside from his impeccable manners (and the glass of champagne dangling from his fingers), he might have been any high school kid returning home after a game.

Though India officially abolished its aristocracy after independence in 1947, there is still an honorary royal family in Jaipur, the capital of the northwestern state of Rajasthan. And as any visitor to this former princely state will tell you, palace hotels are no rarity here—in fact, they can seem almost ubiquitous. There are several in Jaipur: some formerly owned by the royal family, others by wealthy merchants. But Rajmahal Palace, notably, is the only one that remains a family residence. “The royal standard still flies here,” Jaisal said. The princess, who’s involved in local politics, keeps an office on the grounds, while the queen mother’s resplendent 1960s Thunderbird sits parked in front of the hotel. The family’s personal art collection hangs on the walls and the Maharajah’s Apartment—if unbooked—remains open to the young king, should he decide to drop in. When I visited, Jaisal was preparing for the princess’s birthday party at the hotel, two days later.

For decades after independence, the royal family used this rose-tinted Art Deco house for just a few months each year, leaving most rooms to gather dust. Then, two years ago, the queen mother hired society interior designer and family friend Adil Ahmad to revamp the palace, which he described as being “almost derelict” by the time he came on board. “That’s one reason I accepted the project,” Ahmad told me. “It was a blank canvas to do whatever I wanted with.” Anyone expecting the air of faded grandeur that can sometimes define Indian palace hotels will be disappointed: Ahmad has banished any hint of shabbiness.

Inspired by Rajasthan’s tradition of lavish surface decoration, the designer borrowed patterns and motifs from the City Palace—the architectural showcase of Jaipur’s Old City—to design custom-made wallpapers for the hotel’s public spaces, as well for its 14 rooms and suites. A rich botanical print envelops the Durbar Hall, a chandelier-lit jewel box decked out in fuchsia, cobalt, gold, and jade. Cusped arches in 51 shades of pink crowd the walls of the sunlit breakfast room, where meals are served on intricate china designed specially for Rajmahal. The guest rooms, each one unique, have the air of a country manor: grand in scale, but strewn with objects that instill a sense of personality, like a handpicked posy or an old family portrait. “I was commissioned to restore and renovate a home,” Ahmad said. “Sitting here, you feel like you could be a guest of the family.”

The charismatic Jaisal, a well-known figure on the New Delhi social scene and himself the descendant of a prominent Indian family, was a natural choice to manage Rajmahal. And indeed, he and his wife, Anjali—the creative force behind Suján and a gifted painter, with an MFA from Central St. Martin’s in London—are a big part of what makes a stay here memorable. They oversee everything from bookings to lightbulbs, and the place exudes a particularly glamorous kind of hospitality. “There isn’t a job that’s too big or too small,” Anjali said. “We live what we do.”

Taking on an existing property was new for the couple; they typically develop their projects from scratch. In 2000 Jaisal set up India’s first luxury tented camp, Sher Bagh, on the edge of Rajasthan’s Ranthambhore National Park. His parents, well-known conservationists and filmmakers, were some of the first people to document the park’s tiger population in the 1970s, and Jaisal grew up thinking of Ranthambhore as home. When he opened Sher Bagh at the age of 20, Jaisal said, “I wasn’t planning to get into the hotel business.” But he and his idea caught the imagination of the travel world—and a tiger-camp boom swept India. Today, in addition to his work with Suján, he serves as a vice president of the Relais & Châteaux hotel group. Jetting between Rajasthan, R&C headquarters in France, and potential member properties, he has, at 35, become something of an arbiter of luxury travel in Asia.

In 2008, Jaisal and Anjali dreamed up the Serai—an award-winning 21-tent camp set on 100 aquifer-fed acres of desert outside Rajasthan’s ancient fort city of Jaisalmer. Then came Jawai, a 10-tent camp in an untouched part of Rajasthan, mid-way between Jodhpur and Udaipur. Only after setting up did they realize the fantastic density of the local wildlife, particularly leopards, which guests can spot during game drives. Each guest at Jawai is also asked to pay a nominal daily fee to help fund local development, a reflection of Suján’s investment in conservation and local economies. The company hosts clinics for farmers living around the Serai, while the staff at Sher Bagh helps state wardens patrol the borders of Ranthambhore.

This progressive attitude, combined with a respect for tradition, is Rajmahal’s defining characteristic and why, in a land of palace hotels, it feels utterly refreshing.

“You cannot re-create the past. It just feels like pastiche,” Ahmad told me. “But to re-create this style of living—that’s where the past comes in.”

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