The 4X4 SUV was cruising at breakneck speed on the Delhi-Agra highway. My smartphone battery was still at 70% even after three days of use. I was relishing the sights and sounds of the fascinating Rajasthan. But all this happened because of my digital detoxification drive. Without thinking much I packed my bags and left for an impromptu road-trip. Rajasthan, the land of Maharajas, where you see the colourful melange of massive forts, stunning palaces, delectable cuisines and royal hospitality was my companion in my quest to travel, see and write about unique experiences. The trip turned out to be gold for my wanderlust. I had the luxury to be with the Maharaja of the Jungle for hours in Ranthambore. The Chand Baori at Abhaneri village left me awestruck with its architectural wonder. But there was more to the trip than only the above two.
I was flipping through the pages of history in my mind when I noticed my friend had taken a left on the East of Jaipur-Agra highway. Did he forget his way? But how could a local forget his own backyard.
What I didn’t know was that my friend had secretly planned a Royal Holiday for me. Bewildered but in awe, we passed through the crowded narrow lanes of Kanota, crossing the impregnable castle gate to finally park at the edge of a perfectly manicured lawn. As soon as I got down, the manager of the Castle greeted me with Khamaghani and a big smile. This was the beginning of the conversation that led to some startling discoveries on how travel and tourism saved Rajasthan and the Royals. So come on board to unravel the mystery.
FIRST IMPRESSION OF THE CASTLE KANOTA, RAJASTHAN
Luxury is always subtle and timeless. Castle Kanota, built in 1872, is a testament of this fact. On the left side, stood the Haveli where the current scion of Kanota, Thakur Man Singh, stays with his family. On the right side, lay the family temple and the museum. In between them were the sprawling lawns where peacocks, roosters, geese, hens and dogs were having a gala time. Camels, horses and ponies were waiting to be ridden. I was checked into an elegant suite next to the Durbar hall. It was spacious and tastefully designed, devoid of modern day distractions like TV or phone. The walls of the room were painted with delicate frescoes. The room was palatial and royal. The period furniture across the property gave it a unique character.
STARTING WITH THE BASICS
Being a believer of, “pahle pet puja phir kaam duja” I gave priority to lunch over other things. Food didn’t disappoint for two reasons – firstly in Rajasthan it’s impossible to find a bad meal and secondly I was the guest of the Royal Family of Kanota, which is world famous for its hospitality and passion for cooking. In fact Thakur Man Singh is an accomplished cook himself. The service was a bit slow but the food was fingerliciously tasty. Everything was freshly cooked with distinct aromas and striking presentation. Nothing precooked, everything made to order.
After a hearty lunch, I decided to explore the Castle. The Manager of the property was more than happy to be my guide. I started with the majestic Durbar Hall, which was the setting of the Viceroy Club in the Hollywood flick The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It was the grandest room in the castle, decked with portraits, antique furniture, priceless artifacts, books collected over generations and a huge hand-swung pankah.
The earthy lighting was creating a romantic atmosphere. A thought crossed my mind. Could my great grandparents imagine that one day the Royals of Rajasthan would serve their grandchildren? Probably not. Unfortunately they were not born in the era of globalization.
LEARNING THE HISTORY OF THE ROYAL FAMILY OF KANOTA, RAJASTHAN
Next I moved to the Castle Library known as Pothi Khana. It had gold work, unique collection of over 10,000 rare books, manuscripts, miniatures, 16th century armory and a museum that chronicled the life and times of the most famous scion of Kanota, Maj-General Amar Singh. He served in both the British and Indian Armies. He was a multi-talented man – a brave soldier, an adept administrator, a renowned chef and a sturdy sportsman.
But he is most acclaimed for his diary. A diary which he wrote for 44 years from 1898 to 1942, without missing a single day, except for one day when he met with an accident and was not in a condition to write. His diary running into 89 volumes with 800 pages per volume is claimed to be the longest diary ever written by somebody. It is a prized possession, which provides an insight into the lives of the Royal Families of Rajasthan.
I read few pages from his diary to know what kind of a person he was. He seemed to be an intellectual and quite different from other Royals. Unlike others he was neither a philander nor polygamous. He was only married to Thakurani Rasal Kanwar. He believed in intellectual development and therefore forced his wife to study and explore things beyond chaar diwari. Things he used are still intact in his museum, where he often spent nights writing his diary. He was the man of 21st Century who paved the way for future generations. The benefits of his foresightedness can be seen in the thriving hospitality business of the Kanotas.
BEHIND THE SCENE REALITY OF KANOTA ROYALTY, RAJASTHAN
They say walls have ears and shoes have tongues. The ears and tongues for me were the housekeepers. So here’s behind the scene story from the horse’s mouth.
Thakur Man Singh has two kids – daughter Padmini Singh married to Karni Singh of Amarkot in Pakistan and son Pratap Singh, a professional golf player. The royal family owns three heritage properties – Castle Kanota at Kanota village (25 staff), Narayan Nivas at Jaipur (250 staff) and Raj Mahal at Tonk.
These properties provide unforgettable experience of the princely Rajput and Rajasthani culture. But luxury comes with a huge price tag. I was intrigued to know how these white elephants are maintained in an era where even maintaining a 2BHK is difficult. So here is the secret. The old money earns the new money. Man Singh owns 200 commercial shops in Jaipur, 250 in Kanota and hundreds of commercial and residential properties in other parts of Rajasthan. All these properties are prime properties and fetch millions in rent per month. But that’s not his main source of income. His main source of income comes from his Heritage Hotels.
HOW TOURISM SAVED THE ROYALTY OF RAJASTHAN
The picture wasn’t as rosy at it looks now. Necessity is the mother of invention. In 1990’s, foreign tourists got smitten by the exotic Rajasthan. The tourists were craving for the legendary Rajputana hospitality but the government run hotels were only offering “red-tape facilities”. There was a huge expectation mismatch. Then the Eureka moment happened to the Tourism Ministry of India. The idea of “heritage hotel” scheme was born. Under it, the owners of old forts, palaces, castles, aristocratic homes and havelis were encouraged to renovate and convert them into heritage hotels. This was a win-win situation. The Government of India found a new way to earn dollars and the financially constrained Royals got a new lease of life. Suddenly, the erstwhile Royals transformed into hoteliers. Traditional graciousness got transformed into paid-for hospitality.
The scheme not only revived the heritage properties but the entire economy of Rajasthan. Many employment avenues were created. Local art and craft flourished. Folk dances, music and handicrafts saw a revival. The commercial success of heritage hotels gave their Royal owners greater financial security.
After heritage properties, heritage food is now the carrot to attract tourists to Rajasthan. Thakurs are now digging up ancient royal recipes to serve their guests. The Kanota Royal Family uses their ancestral recipes to sell special royal thallies (set meals) and heritage drinks like Chandrahas at their heritage hotels Narain Niwas and Castle Kanota.
This was the story of how Tourism saved the Royalty of Rajasthan.
So are you inspired enough to experience the Royalty at Castle Kanota?