May 2022 | 701 words | 3-minute read
A shower of rose petals and an escort of royal guards under a grand traditional umbrella welcome you as you step off the boat and into the centuries-old Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur. And in the blink of an eye, you are transported back to another time, another place, another style of living.
This shimmering white palace, which sometimes seems to rise like a mirage from the serene waters of Lake Pichola, was born as a pleasure palace in the 18th century.
Even in a country that is no stranger to royal opulence and pleasure palaces — such as shikargahs (hunting resorts), countryside and seasonal retreats built by the royals to get away from their formal palaces and courts — this one stands out.
The story goes that when a young Maharana Jagat Singh requested his father, Maharana Sangram Singh II, if he could reside in Jag Mandir, a pleasure palace that already existed in Lake Pichola, he was denied permission. The Maharana is said to have even told the young prince that if he was so keen on an island palace, he would have to build one for himself. Maharana Jagat Singh proceeded to do just that. On May 4, 1743, the foundation stone of a brand-new palace was laid on 4 acres of an island in the same lake amid the Aravalli hills. The building was completed in 1746 and named Jag Niwas. It has remained in the Udaipur royal family since then.
Putting the Taj in the palace
As the country began to change post-Independence, the way we preserve history also began to evolve. In 1963, Jag Niwas became the first palace to turn into a luxury hotel. In 1971, when the family — custodians of the 1,500-year-old House of Mewar — decided to hand over the management of this marquee palace hotel, they entrusted it to the Indian Hotels Company Ltd (IHCL) through a 50-year lease.
It was sensitively restored, returning its stained-glass windows, antique jhoolas (swings), bevelled glass doors, ornamented niches studded with semi-precious stones, brocade panelling, ivory-inlaid furniture, original marble floors, chandeliers of Waterford crystal, column-lined courtyards, pillared terraces, fountains, and gardens to its glory. No detail was too small to spare. The palace, which now had 65 luxurious rooms and 18 grand suites, was renamed the Taj Lake Palace.
Marking the 50th year of managing this iconic palace, The Taj Magazine wrote, “The marriage of a centuries old royal heritage property and an industry leader with decades of professional experience and expertise such as the IHCL is built on constant monitoring… electricity, Wi-Fi, sanitation, fresh water, everything is underground. … Divers are employed to regularly inspect the rocky outcrop on which the palace was built. Seepage is the biggest challenge as is keeping the gleaming tikriwork that requires daily maintenance to retain its jewel-bright colours and lustre.”
While silent hands keep the Taj Lake Palace pristine and running with a unique blend of the old and new, IHCL ensures that historians keep alive the riveting stories and anecdotes of the kings and princes who lived and caroused at this palace. As a result, the Taj Lake Palace has not only acquired an iconic status over the decades but has also become a template for conserving palaces as hotels.
From maharanas to nizams
In 1972, just a year after welcoming the Taj Lake Palace into its portfolio, IHCL was chosen as the management partner for the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur — once the residence of Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II and his queen, Maharani Gayatri Devi. In 1986, came the charge of the Jai Mahal Palace in Jaipur, followed by the Usha Kiran Palace of the Scindias of Gwalior (2002), Umaid Bhawan Palace of Jodhpur (2005), the Nadesar Palace of the Royal House of Benaras (2009), the Nizam’s Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad (2010), the House of Mewar’s Fateh Prakash Palace in Udaipur (2020), and the Gorbandh Palace in Jaisalmer (2021).
The relationship with Taj Lake Palace was also extended in 2021, adding another chapter to IHCL’s continued commitment to preserving, restoring, and showcasing the country’s heritage through its celebrated and forgotten palaces.