When they say ‘live life king size’, they were obviously thinking ‘Rajasthan’. In this western state in India, ruled for centuries by the Rajputs, magnificent palaces and sprawling forts are scattered like jewels across the desert landscape. Among these grand monuments is Umaid Bhawan, home to the Jodhpur royal family.
Built between 1928 and 1943, Umaid Bhawan is the last in a long line of palaces built by the rulers of India’s princely states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period, Indian maharajas and rajas were on a frenzied building spree, with a royal residence being built in almost every princely state. This fad followed one of the most defining moments in the country’s history – the Revolt of 1857, which is when India was handed over by the East India Company to the British Crown.
After taking over the reins, the Crown abandoned the policy of annexing Indian princely states. The perceived insult and absolute loss of power and income was one of the factors that had precipitated the Revolt. Thus, the Crown modelled its relationship with Indian royals on the British aristocratic system. The princes were given a British education and schooled in European aesthetics, ideologies and beliefs.
This spilt over into all aspects of the princes’ lives – their attire, lifestyle and the places they called home. While, earlier, they lived mostly in heavily protected forts in the midst of their people, post-1857 saw the construction of elaborate palaces influenced by British estate houses. Looking at the grandeur of the palaces, built after 1857 it is hard not to wonder whether they were symbolic – a way to cover up the lack of any real power the Raja actually enjoyed, as the Crown took over.
The ‘grand’ palaces built during this era marked a clear break from the past, in style too. They rose from the middle of vast manicured lawns as a symbol of wealth and power but they also distanced the rulers from the rank and file. An amalgamation of Indian and European aesthetics and architectural styles, the exteriors of these regal edifices were made by local craftsman. The interiors were even more splendid, boasting the most exquisite objets d’art from around the world, along with the exquisite jewels and fabrics that the royals owned.
Join us on a tour of Umaid Bhawan, the last grand palace ever built in India.
Named after the maharaja who built it, Umaid Bhawan is the grandest of 20th century Rajput palaces and is set amid 26 acres of verdant lawns at Chittar Hill in Jodhpur. The palace, built from golden-yellow sandstone, looks across to Mehrangarh Fort and the city of Jodhpur.
Ironically, this larger-than-life symbol of opulence was actually an act of charity. Just before its construction began, the erstwhile princely state of Jodhpur was in the grip of famine, and Umaid Singh needed to find a way to help his people. The benevolent maharaja thus embarked on the ambitious project of building the palace to provide employment to his famine-stricken people.
The foundation stone was laid in 1928 and the palace was completed in 1943, just four years before Independence. Umaid Singh commissioned noted British architect Henry Vaughan Lanchester to design his royal home, which was built in a blend of Art Deco and Indo-Saracenic architectural styles.
Indo-Saracenic was the most popular style of building at the turn of the century. It was a British reinterpretation of Rajput and Mughal aesthetics, and sported elaborate motifs and carvings and domes. In 1925, at the height of the Jazz Age, the world was introduced to Art Deco, an architectural style defined by neat curves and attractive lines. Exuding modernity as well as vintage features, it is timeless and classical, and quickly caught the world’s fancy. When the two come together, we get a unique blend of Western and Oriental aesthetics and styles in the Umaid Bhawan palace.
The palace has 347 rooms which have been decorated in classic Art Deco furniture. The furnishings for the palace had been ordered from England. However, the ship transporting them was torpedoed in a German attack in 1942 and the maharaja commissioned Polish refugee Stefan Norblin to design the rooms afresh.
An artist and designer, not only did Norblin design the rooms, their layout and furnishings, but also painted many murals inside the palace. Interestingly, he painted distinctly martial scenes in the Mardana rooms and feminine scenes in the Zenana rooms.
Complimenting the Art Deco furnishings and scattered across the palace are delicate antiquities, objets d’art and trophies collected by the royal family on shikars or hunting expeditions, including massive elephant tusks, deer and the big cats.
The palace also has a subterranean swimming pool called the Zodiac Pool. It is a distinctly Art Deco, circular pool with its bottom covered in a tile mosaic depicting the signs of the zodiac. The walls and ceilings are covered with tiles painted in gold.
Umaid Bhawan bears a striking resemblance to another great palace built during the same period. This one, though, wasn’t built by a prince but by the mighty Raj itself – the Viceroy House or our Rashtrapati Bhavan, in Delhi. Look at them closely and you will see why each palace, with its golden sandstone facades and grand domes, can be mistaken for the other.
Umaid Bhawan was finally completed in 1943 and, unfortunately, Umaid Singh lived and revelled in his grand creation for only four years as he passed away in 1947. His passing was followed by the ill-timed death of his son Hanwant Singh, who died in a plane crash in 1952 at the age of 28. He was succeeded to the throne by Gaj Singh, affectionately known as ‘Baapji’, who still resides here.
Many of the grand palaces in India have either crumbled into obscurity or are being used for purposes that do not suit their design but Gaj Singh has converted parts of his royal homestead into a hotel and a museum while maintaining the rest as the family residence. It is a tough balancing act between financial prudence, private use and public good.
Just five years after Umaid Bhawan Palace was completed, India became independent from the British rule in 1947. In the following two years, thanks to the efforts of Sardar Patel and VP Menon, all the princely states were merged into the Indian Union. The princely grandeur would soon become a thing of the past. The then ruling Maharaja of Jodhpur, Maharaja Hanuwant Singh even offered to sell Umaid Bhawan palace to the Rajasthan government for Rs 18 lakhs, to convert it into the University of Rajasthan, a deal which did not go through.
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