Courtney Whitaker steps inside the magical world of the Maharajas and discovers an illustrious dynasty embracing a thoroughly modern outlook
Zebu cows bask in the centre of one of Jaipur's busiest streets. Indifferent to the chaos, they dominate the narrow berm and appear apathetic as hasty tuk-tuks threaten to dethrone them. Cheeky rhesus macaques jostle for position among colourful turbans and freshly tie-dyed saris drying on shop rooftops.
On the sidewalks near the pink, honeycombed Hawa Mahal palace, street vendors hawk their wares; glittering jewellery, silk scarves, handmade leather shoes. Others stir boiling pots of coloured liquid and dunk swathes of fabric into the brew. Spicy seekh kebabs and steaming chunks of paneer sizzle on hot plates, and rows and rows of joyous orange marigolds ("herbs of the sun") spill on to the road, freshly picked and ready to be made into garlands.
There is a Hindu festival in Jaipur today, and chaos abounds. It has taken half an hour to move half a kilometre in our car, but the overall mood is a happy one; the traffic jam is a celebratory cacophony of honking horns. Forget arriving anywhere on time: Time moves at its own pace in the Pink City.
We are in Jaipur, Rajasthan, to dine with the King.
At just 21, His Highness Maharaja Sawai Padmanabh Singh (known as "Pacho" by friends and family) is not your typical monarch. He is entrusted with a 300-year-old legacy, but is forging his own modern traditions, as well as carefully preserving those of his ancestors.
Singh became Maharaja in 2011 at the tender age of 12, informally taking the title from his grandfather Bhawani Singh, along with all the responsibility that comes with it. He is passionate about philanthropy, education, women's rights and about promoting the beauty and history of his home state. The fashionable King can also add "model" to his list of accomplishments, after having taken to the catwalk for Dolce & Gabbana in Milan, gracing the cover of GQ Magazine, and amassing quite the following on Instagram.
He also continues to foster his family's love of polo and is an accomplished player.
"Oh, you're from New Zealand?" he says excitedly, as we shake hands. "Do you play polo there? I'd love to visit." Assuring him that we do indeed play polo in New Zealand (though I'm not sure Clevedon can compare to the fanfare of Jaipur's polo grounds), I am struck by how warm and casual his demeanour is. He is well-spoken, extremely dapper, and genuinely interested in our discussion. He debunks any hint of the royal aloofness I was afraid of within seconds.
We are here to celebrate another departure from tradition for Jaipur's royal family at tonight's gala dinner. In fact, a first for any royal family, because a once-private residence is to be opened to the public, listed on Airbnb for rent, and all for a cause very close to the heart of the Maharaja and that of his mother, the exquisite Princess Diya Kumari.
The luxurious Gudliya Suite, a series of beautifully restored rooms, once hosted honoured guests of the royal family; Princess Diana and Prince Charles, Jackie Kennedy, and Oprah all stayed here. And now this super-exclusive space, in the Chandra Mahal complex of the palace, is to be accessible to anyone savvy enough to book it. "For three centuries, my home has been waiting," says the Maharaja. "There are halls that glitter with the glory of the past; rooms that have yet to be discovered. And each corner has a story to tell."
Proceeds from the suite's Airbnb bookings will be channelled into the Princess Diya Kumari Foundation, a non-profit organisation designed to help underprivileged women. The foundation's noble intention is to teach these women skills, provide support, and guide them towards a happier future.
When we visit the foundation, housed in one of the powder-blue outer buildings on the palace grounds, women are busy adding gold detail to saris and crafting toy elephants. Monkeys swing from the trees outside. A baby monkey falls from the top branch and only just manages to catch himself inches from the ground, hanging upside down nonchalantly for a few minutes. Another climbs over the railing of one of the mezzanine levels inside the building and tries to join in the activities.
Some of the women – currently there are around 150 - have been with the foundation for several years, and they explain the friendships and support they receive here has been invaluable. Many have come from tragic backgrounds and view this sisterhood as family. Executive Director and Trustee Shivina Kumari explains that since its inception, the foundation has seen the household wealth of its attendees increase by around 42 per cent thanks to new skills and education.
I purchase some beautiful hand-stitched coasters; one of the many items these artisans make and sell. Other items include jewellery, clothing, and household goods. A visit to the foundation can be booked as a Social Impact Experience on Airbnb's website. By opening up the palace to benefit the foundation, says Princess Diya, "we hope to change many, many more lives".
The Gudliya Suite's guests will be assigned a personal butler on check-in at the palace and have their own private swimming pool within this very chic space. Many of the original features of the old building have been carefully preserved, including original fresco work in the Chandra Mahal veranda, and original wall art and photographs in the suite itself. A four-poster bed, monogrammed linen, and plush velvet couches are just a few of the features that have been included in the accommodation. Bathing is an event in the red, dome-ceilinged bathroom with sumptuous cushioned day beds tucked into each corner around a central tub.
But while visitors to the palace can watch peacocks wander the palace lawns as they sip tea on the king's private veranda, they will also be able to explore the wonders of Jaipur, which was this year given Unesco World Heritage status.
The Pink City was established in 1727, by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, who moved his court here and built the extensive City Palace around the same time. The 16th century Amer Fort, once the residence of the Rajput Maharajas, is crafted of red sandstone and marble and overlooks the city and Maota Lake from its perch on the Aravali Hill.
We visit the Fort in small four-wheel drives, braving the heat and the traffic to reach the summit. We pass men guiding camels laden with goods wrapped in cloth, colourfully painted elephants with people riding in baskets on top, and roadside vendors selling bright, sequinned parasols. It is an arduous journey to the top with only one narrow road to get there, but reaching the fort is worth the effort.
The age of the structure is palpable as you enter through the large ramparts and up the worn sandstone paths. The detail is intricate and the bejewelled ceilings tell a story of opulence; of power. In the outdoor courtyards, the view of city is breathtaking and remarkably clear. From inside, latticed windows offer views down into the valley and dappled light into dark, gilded rooms. It's easy to get lost in this maze of structures - when we mislay members of our tour group we head towards the carpark, where people are scooping piles of seeds, cooked with rice and spices from heady pyramids into bowls, and spooning the mixture into their mouths using their hands.
On the way back from the fort we pass the majestic Jal Mahal (Water Palace), sitting in the middle of Man Sagar Lake. It is a feat of architecture and another of Maharaja Jai Singh II's projects. Completely symmetrical, its reflection in the water is so perfect it is almost a continuation of the building itself. Die-hard James Bond fans flock here: the palace was featured in the movie Octopussy, and, though you cannot visit, it is still incredibly photogenic – appearing to hover on the water - from across the lake.
At the City Palace, it's almost time for dinner.
Our welcome at the Tripolia Gate is in true royal style. A woman in a gold-threaded scarf sprinkles fragrant rose petals from one of the Gate's towers as we take to the red carpet. We are serenaded by festive-sounding instruments, fire-breathers, men twirling large decorative parasols, beautifully made-up women in jewel-coloured saris dancing seamlessly with fire lamps atop their heads, gold bangles jingling.
We pass intricate orange-and-purple flower motifs which have been painstakingly laid out on the cobblestones and the two famous silver water urns, Gangajalis, which sit in the entrance to the pretty pink Hall of Private Audience. They are much taller than me and have even made the Guiness Book of World Records. We pass the palace's sophisticated Baradari Restaurant where the previous evening we had feasted on spicy Laal Maas (lamb curry), chicken tikka, and rose and pistachio icecream.
Thousands of tealight candles line the massive football-field-length pond, which dissects the King's private veranda and the palace gates, and guards stand watch at each pillar, dressed in smart gold-piped uniforms and blood-red turbans.
The Maharaja and the Princess make their entrance to rapturous applause. It's time to celebrate the royal family's brave new venture; to acknowledge the bold move they are making to share their world with the public, and change the lives of many women.
White tablecloths and bright pink roses adorn tables in the King's courtyard in anticipation of the traditional Rajasthani meal we will be enjoying: eight small bowls served on a thali (silver platter). Among them will be dishes made using the traditional spices of the area: Turmeric, red chilies and coriander.
This is an extraordinary celebration.
But then, this is Jaipur in a nutshell: a riot of colour, music, flavour, tradition. Our host explains the grandeur of the ceremony is typical of Rajasthan and symbolises "a thousand welcomes". And I can list a thousand reasons why you should visit.
Singapore Airlines flies Auckland to New Delhi via Singapore.
The Gudliya Suite, City Palace. Airbnb
The Gudliya Suite is US$1000 p/night Until January 1; US$8000 p/night thereafter. Proceeds will go towards the PDK Foundation.
Baradari Restaurant, Jaleb Chowk, Near Gate No 2, City Palace. Royaljaipur.in
Amer Fort, open 9.30am to 5pm. Entry around $10
Hawa Mahal, open 9am-4.30pm, entry $1. Hawa-mahal.com
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