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The Royal Era
Gujarat The king no longer plays god. Gone are the days of power and paramountcy and so have the brocades of princely splendour. Transgressions of the feudal days have been written of, but still the lure, love and legacy of the royal old days continues to hold its charm. India has a record of the largest number (562) of princely states till 1947. Like beehives they were clustered throughout India, varying in size from a mighty holding like that of Nizam’s Hyderabad down to territories with less than a square mile with “His Highness’ commanding a population of 100 souls generating an annual revenue as low as Rs. 20!
The Construction of Royal Palaces
The rulers had one common passion of erecting lofty palaces to perpetuate the glory and tall claims to their exalted highnesses. Most of the palatial buildings in India are a medley of architectural forms ranging from regional variations to European outbursts.
Nawab of Murshidabad, for instance, was interested in extraordinarily deep foundations for his Hazarduari. It went so deep that His Highness fainted from suffocation. Major Charles Mount, the architect of Laxmi Vilas Palace, Baroda took his own life when he realized that his creation on completion would collapse due to the consortium of architectural designs.
Driving through Western India, one is impressed by the numerous palaces, havelis and darbargarhs that capriciously pop past the windows of your car as you follow the sea coast or the highway turns and twists of Gujarat. Some of the great mansions have been transformed into present day heritage hotels while others have been partly opened to tourists with a greater fraction of the palace being retained as the living quarters by the royals.
The Kathiawar peninsula or Saurashtra that translates to the land of hundred kingdoms offers plenty of Old World charm to dabble with. An ideal take off point is Utelia Palace at the northern tip of the peninsula.
7kms from the historic site of Lothal, this non-descript palace, rather a haveli is capped with imposing domes that stands imperiously above the surrounding village. The palace is open to tourists and 14 double bedrooms have tastefully done interiors amidst airy courtyards that offer great views of the surrounding countryside. The dining hall, in keeping with the rest of the palace, is equally impressive under the illuminated chandeliers and the run of portraits around the wall. Besides Lothal, one can consider exploring the Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary and Velavadar National Park, which was once the private reserve of the Maharaja of Bhavnagar. The park is famous for its Black buck and the endangered Grey wolfs. The palace offers riding horses jeeps, tents and other facilities for those seeking adventure.
123kms south of Utelia brings us to Bhavnagar - a port city of the Gohil Rajputs who migrated from Marwar in the 12th century. The centre of attraction here is the Nilambagh Palace converted into a hotel by the Welcome Group. Lavishly furnished throughout, the hotel has 26 double rooms including 2 suits, which are imbued with royal regalia that go side by side with five star luxuries.
The colonnaded swimming pool is worth a look for its marble play. Few other royal properties like the Beach Bungalow and the Bhav Vilas Palace are being developed as additional tourist attractions with sporting facilities like rowing, swimming, tennis, etc. The spiritual Shatrunjaya hill is usually covered conveniently from Nilambagh.
Attractions Around Place
Katpur, remains of Janjmer fortress at Shiyal Island, etc.
An easy drive along the coast can bring us to Ahmedpur Mandvi, famous for the unspoilt Samudra Beach Resort. A slice of palatial heritage and architectural paragons lies on the coastal stretch of Porbandar- Chorwad - Veraval in a row. Close to the sea in the fishing port of Veraval famous for the Somnath temple. Here one can pause to condole the forlorn palace of the Junagarh nawabs, desolate and deserted on the sea front. However, their more majestic run of imagination produced the summer palace at Chorwad - the Palace Beach Resort. Built in 1928 it reflects the colonial set up with huge, high ceiling suites, elegant corridors exposed to the sea breeze. A further drive to Porbandar, the birthplace of Gandhiji offers us a stunning view of the Hazur Palace facing the sea.
Other Attractions At Bhavnagar
The other option from Bhavnagar is to drive into the heart of Kathiawar in order to explore Jasdan and Gondal, the most lively of all princely principalities in Gujarat. The Jadeja Rajputs who trace their origin to Lord Krishna, returned to Gujarat in the 16th century after wandering in the wilderness of Sindh. Soon they established Gondal as their capital and their prosperity trickled down till Independence.
The British government rewarded the able administration by raising Gondal from the rank of second class to that of a first class state in Kathiawar.
The prosperity of the place can be imagined from the fact that people here were exempt from taxes and duties of any kind as the state generated enough revenue on its own.
Close to the living quarters of the descendants of the Maharaja, is the Huzoor Palace that houses the royal vintage collection of classic cars that counts to 31 with three more expected which includes the fastest Corvette and the Rolls Royce. The collection includes Cadillac, Mercedes, New Engine, Jaguar, Daimler and Packard to name a few.
Horse drawn carriages are being restored for sightseeing tours, which will be an option against the vintage car tours being conducted these days.
The Riverside Palace constructed in 1875 for the crown prince is an attractive all white building now converted into a hotel with 11 double bedrooms with modern attachments and furnishings. Orchard Palace - an annexe to the Huzoor Palace in another option with three spacious rooms and four small well furnished accommodations.
Gondal- A Medicinal Hub
Lakhota PalaceGondal is home to Bhuvaneswari temple, which also manages an Ayurvedic pharmacy manufacturing over 350 medicines. The founder of this pharmacy, Acharya Shri Charantirth Maharaj was the royal physician and he honoured Gandhiji with the title of Mahatama. Bhuavneswari Ashwapalak is a unique stud farm responsible for the growth and upkeep of Kathiawadi and Marwari breed of horses, besides the Gir cows which have won numerous prizes in various cattle shows. A further stretch leads us the textile town of Jetpur (30kms) - India’s largest block printing centre, while Buddhist caves and Ashokan edicts are added attractions for those given to history.
Perched on a hill is the Hingolgadh Castle, almost a part of the natural scenery in the neighbouring Jasdan state. This eleventh century castle incorporates seven double and four single bedrooms which offer perfect photo frames across the window. For the more inquisitive, trekking into the Hingolgadh Wildlife Sanctuary will be all the more rewarding.
Wankaner Palace, north of Gondal via Rajkot is another pleasant surprise amidst the barren hills that must have been flattened to make way for the stupendous edifice. The marble fountain in front of the palace extends the majestic aura that reverberates with the symphony of birdcalls. The three storeyed palace topped with a clock tower was completed in twenty years under the personal guidance and supervision of the Maharao who had his own say and selections in the spread of architectural forms, which is an amalgamation of different cultures and styles, both Indian and European. Most of the arches are filled in with colourful stained glass windows, which helps to filter in the soft light.
Royal Oasis Guest House, about 2kms from the main palace, on the banks of the river amidst an orchard is a pleasant place to wile away your time in solitude. A better option however is the Residency Guest House, attached to the Palace. Staying here is as close to royalty as one can get. Besides scenic walks and horse rides one can spend his time in the royal swimming pool or study the palace’s private museum which is a unique collection of antique of sorts from weapons to vintage cars.
The Darbangadh Waghaji Palace
Few hours of drive from Wankaner brings to us the headquarters of the Rann of Kutch, Bhuj via Morvi which, was once a small princely state with two palaces of interest. The Darbangadh Waghaji Palace dates back to 1880 while the later addition was the New Palace containing some interesting art deco features.
The palaces in Bhuj are more European than Indian. Aina Mahal, the palace of the erstwhile Maharao of Bhuj has partly been converted to a museum rich in exhibits of the royal paraphernalia. Adjacent to Aina Mahal is the Paragt Mahal, which is closed to visitors except for the Durbar Hall. Sixty kilometers from Bhuj is Mandvi where the Vijay Vilas Palace of the Maharao is running out of water, making it all the more difficult to convert it into a hotel.
Bhuj has a lot of offer to the tourist. Here we find the oldest Museum of Gujarat, which was the private museum of the Maharao until Independence, when it was opened to the public. Divided into eleven sections, the Museum helps in understanding the lands and life of Kutch. The most prized display is the Airawat, the celestial seven trunked elephant of Indra carved in wood. The Chatedis (the royal cenotaphs) in the middle of the maidan are equally interesting pieces of architecture with fine carvings on most of them. A number of colourful handicrafts like the famous glass embroidery, Roghan art, bells, leather products are to be found in and around Bhuj.
Dasda --English Guest House
On the eastern outskirts of Kutch is Dasda famous for English Guest House which has been salvaged from an old fort and blended to the adjoining English guest house of 1940s. As the name suggests, accommodation is based on English cottages with additional deluxe tents. Dasada is an ideal place to explore the fauna of Gujarat like the wild ass, Indian gazelle and Indian foxes, besides birds like flamingos and pelicans.
The northern periphery of Gujarat offers two interesting heritage resorts of Balaram and Poshina.
The Waghela Rajputs have considerably improved the Poshinagadh fortification that dates back to the fifteenth century.
The well-renovated Darbargarh (Royal Castle) rooms offer scenic attractions of the Aravalli hills.
A stay at Poshina makes an interesting trip to the tribal pockets of Bhils and Garasia community.
Balaram Palace owes its origin to the Jalori nawabs, which ruled for generations since the 14th century. The palace dates back to 1930 when the 20th Jalori Nawab developed a passion for buildings and hence the growth of constructions like Zorwar City Palace, King George Club, Kriti Sthamba and the like. The renovation of Balaram Palace has been highly acclaimed for its creative openings in the lavish layout of the lawns and gardens in the traditional patterns of the nawabs. The rooms are equally replete with deluxe facilities.
Laxmi Vilas Palace
Beyond the circuit lies Laxmi Vilas Palace of Baroda, the Maratha stronghold of the Gaekwads.
The portico and the darbar hall are the two most impressive elements in the grand complex, which is a potpourri of various architectural styles. Three rooms in the palace and five rooms in the adjoining Motibagh Guest House are open to tourists who want to get a whiff of the royal old days.