What’s the first thing which comes to mind when we are talking about an Indian palace? In all probability, the royal residences of Rajasthan — their robust sandstone walls, latticed windows and vibrant frescoes. But, unknown to most, to the south of this state lies another stretch of land with scores of erstwhile princely states. In 2013, a royal congregation at Laxmi Vilas Palace (once reputed to be the largest private residence in the world) drew members from 81 former principalities that lie within the boundaries of this region! I’m talking about Gujarat, a state that makes only an occasional appearance in tourist itineraries, despite its sheer wealth of attractions.
The palaces of Gujarat feel more “authentic” than the ones in Rajasthan, which are geared towards the mass market of mainstream international tourism. On the flipside, they are not as well-maintained or easily accessible. While the royals of Rajasthan quickly turned to tourism after the Indian government withdrew their privy purses in 1971, the ones in Gujarat were slower to follow. The first princely state to do so was that of Wankaner, a small town located along a bend (wanka) of the ner (river) Machhu, 50 km north of Rajkot.
In the beginning of the 20th century, the royals of Wankaner constructed two palaces — the elaborate and quirky Ranjit Vilas Palace and the smaller Royal Oasis Palace, which served as a guesthouse for visiting Europeans. The latter has a couple of unusual accoutrements that you are unlikely to find elsewhere in India — an indoor art deco swimming pool, which seems to have been transplanted from a Roaring Twenties period film, and a private vav (step well). The three-storeyed well is built of stone and inlaid with statues. Unlike most other vavs in Gujarat that have succumbed to the ravages of garbage and silt, the water here is uncannily clear. While vavs were primarily meant for water harvesting, they also provided a respite from the heat. I can imagine European guests lounging in its arcaded balconies for hours on summer afternoons. At the bottom of the staircase, I bend down to drink, but stop when I discover a turtle that has made a commodious home for itself.
The swimming pool is housed in a high-ceilinged building and ringed with colonnades. Large casement windows and a clerestory around the pool make it bright and cheery. There is a diving platform on one end and, on the other, a statue of a woman about to dive, frozen mid-motion.
While the Royal Oasis, built in the style of colonial bungalows, is stunning, it pales in comparison to the outlandish magnificence of the Ranjit Vilas Palace. The latter’s location — atop the thickly forested Gadhio Hill — and architecture — a dazzling mix of Indo-Saracenic, Venetian Gothic and Baroque features — come together to create a mesmerising visual spectacle that few royal residences in India can match up to.
At the palace entrance, I meet Yogini Kumari, a member of the Sirohi royal family who married the scion of Wankaner, Kesri Sinh, in 2012. She tells me that the family does not live in Ranjit Vilas anymore and has moved into an annexe, as the building suffered extensive damage during the 2001 Gujarat earthquake.
The European-style clock tower crowning the building tumbled down and is still undergoing repair. When I ask what sets the palace apart from others, she mentions that it has the largest collection of hunting trophies in India — about 85 of them — a fact she is rather apologetic about. There are more species of cats and deer on the wall than I can recognise, including a moose that the royals bagged on a hunt in Alaska! The skins and busts of tigers and bears with beady eyes and ferocious canines give the palace an eerie air — straight out of a horror movie.
The caretaker takes me on a tour of the palace. We begin at the large hall, whose walls are studded with trophies and imposing portraits. It is furnished with sofas, wooden chairs, tables and display cabinets. Chandeliers and ornate lamps supplement the illumination from the large windows. In addition to the hall, the ground floor has rooms for meetings and luncheons, while the first floor has the private quarters — bedrooms, lounges and study rooms. The diversity of decor — Burma teak, Persian rugs, Mirzapur carpets, Murano chandeliers and Italian marble — complements the eclectic architecture of the exteriors.
A double staircase leads to the first floor. A door, emblazoned with the crest of the Wankaner State (whose motto is “In God is my Trust”), opens onto a sprawling balcony. From there, I can see the expanse of the palace grounds, which has many other buildings — the former British Residency, some (relatively) modest bungalows, a shed which serves as the garage for the family’s collection of vintage cars and horse-drawn carriages, and, a stable for Kathiawadi horses.
We then head to the study. The bookshelves here give an insight into the family’s literary proclivities — there are hundreds of volumes on cars and wildlife. The Vogue Book of Blondes by Kathy Phillips rubs jackets with International Environmental Law by Bo Johnson and The Memoirs of Roger Vadim. In one corner, there are stacks of National Geographic magazines beneath beautiful stained-glass windows. On the desks are neatly arranged sheaves of paper, stationery and photos — family and personal portraits, imperial ceremonies, horse races and hunts.
The extensive memorabilia, stocked bookshelves and organised desks make it seem as if the royals continue to live there. This is what makes Ranjit Vilas so unique. Most palace-turned-museums are repositories of cordoned-off exhibits, left to ossify under layers of dust. Ranjit Vilas seems relatively more “lived in”. There’s dust and decrepitude. But there’s also the traces of ostentation from a bygone era.