As Indian states go, Gujarat has a long way to go before becoming tourist friendly. It may be the homeland of many a global Indian (the Patel clan comes from there), but it’s lacking in some of the things that draw tourists, namely the Taj Mahal and alcohol.
Nevertheless, as Gujarat borders on Maharashtra, we decided to pay a weekend visit. Mind you, we didn’t go to the cities like Ahmedabad (home to Gandhi’s erstwhile ashram) or even to Surat. Instead, we flew into Rajkot and drove an hour to the village of Wankaner, a dusty, but bustling village and home to the Wankaner Palace.
Like most former Raj palaces, Wankaner has tried to position itself as a heritage hotel. A friend of ours had stayed there sometime back (“I’m personal friends with the Raj,” she said), so we figured we’d book. The idea sounded quirky enough, and we were under the impression that we’d be staying in the Ranjit Villas – in a real Maharaja’s palace! When we arrived, however, we found we were the only guests at the Motiwadi Royal Oasis, the summer residence of the Wankaners, just 2km away. As we would also discover, no one (other than, perhaps, close personal friends) is allowed to stay in the actual palace – the former Maharaja, Raj, and their family still live there – and no one even stays at the Royal Residency, as parts of it are still under renovation as a result of damage from the Bhuj earthquake.
A deal struck after Indian independence required that all Raj royals keep only one home and sell the rest. As the story goes, the Wankaner family had two residences – the Palace and also a mansion in Bombay. As the family had to sell one residence, they decided to go with the one that would likely earn the most money. Even in the 1950s, no one saw the market value of buying real estate in rural Gujarat as opposed to metropolitan Bombay. So, the family sold the Bombay home. It now houses the U.S. Consulate. Talk about getting out before the boom.
To have others tell it or write it, the place sounds pretty dreamy (to be fair, the latter link is a really good piece of writing). The grounds were lovely, with peacocks, water buffalo, and small boars occasionally strutting by. The Raj (Mr. Digvijay Sinh), our guide and host, was gracious, if a bit eccentric. But, as a hotel, Wankaner had its problems. Mostly, it was the fault of the management, who haven’t quite figured out the essentials of running a hotel. I’ll leave it at that.
The palace itself was more than bizarre, something akin to a Salvador Dali painting meets the Addams Famiy home with a little bit of Indiana Jones thrown in. As the only paying guests for the weekend, the Raj invited us to lunch with the family and a formal tour of the main estate grounds, including the royal garage and the stables that housed native-bred Kathiawadi horses.
The interior of the Wankaner family home contained even more animals, including the taxidermied heads or bodies of rhinos (from Kenya), elk and Kodiak bears (from Alaska), and a few breeds of large Indian wildcats, now extinct. Throw rugs of real leopard skin sat atop a faded Persian rug, the square footage of which must have equalled the size of a DC studio apartment. There were black-and-white photos of the Maharaja (or his father) with various world dignitaries and random decorations, like an art-deco billiard set and vintage, empty champagne bottles. The side room included the actual carriage in which the Maharaja’s wife rode to her wedding (one can actually imagine the spectacle: an extravagantly dressed future rani leading a parade of wedding guests). I would liked to have gotten lost in there for a little while to take inventory.
Oh…there was also a television. Right where you would expect it, near the corner of the room. The now 98-year-old Maharaja was watching a cricket match before lunch and kept blasting the volume, even after his son tried to lower the volume while we chatted.
Shortly thereafter, we retired to the banquet room, which was lined with even more animal heads – 17 small tiger heads, in fact. The Maharaja sat at the head of the table and remarked abruptly, after the soup, that “people go to zoos to watch the animals feeding; here is the only place in the world where the animals watch you feeding!” Sensing an awkward moment, his son Digvijay, an environment minister in the Indian government in the 1980s, piped up that “up until 10 years ago, we were very proud of these trophies; now we are ashamed.”
Digvijay somewhat redeemed his trophy-hunting past with a visit to the horse stables. Kathiawadi horses, the traditional breed of the Rajput, have pointed, touching ears and concave snouts. They are quite elegant. And the four that we saw were no different, though they could have had a bit more room to gallop about. Beyond the stable area was a large, winding garden area that led to a emptied tank (i.e., erstwhile inground pool) where the young Raj and his siblings would cool off in the summer.
An additional place for the young Wankaner children to chill out was the ornamental stepwell, located on the grounds of the Royal Oasis “hotel.” The art deco building that houses the well is tucked away behind greenery, locked, but open to guests who request to see it. Inside, are three or four levels of marble circling a large, still, green, slightly translucent pool at the bottom. The portals that overlook the water are carved in that stylized Indian/Oriental way; one central niche contains a statue of Vishnu (I think that’s who). The well is an unbelievable find – despite evidence of its current rodentia inhabitants – and the management told us that they are working to convert the well into a restaurant. Frankly, I don’t see it happening.
Don’t get me wrong – the Wankaner Palace was a sight to see. Who knows how much longer one will be able to visit a Rajput home where the original residents still reside. But, as a heritage hotel, it is less than regal.