JODHPUR, India -- Mehrangarh Fort dominates the skyline of this walled, gated, desert city in Rajasthan, India. Five hundred years ago a hermit chose this imposing site for the fort, which commands the wide stretch of land below. Huge spikes were erected on massive barrier gates to counter the charges of elephants in ancient battles. Thick walls bear the scars of cannonballs pounded into them centuries ago. Above high turreted ramparts, vultures move in strong, slow flight. Near the fort stands the marble memorial to Jodhpur's maharajahs, and the fabled Umaid Bhawan Palace. Part of this immense sandstone palace is now a hotel, and part is the home of Gaj Singh, who still goes by the title of maharajah of Jodhpur.

Singh is president of the Heritage Hotels Association of India. He is owner of the group of Marudhar Hotels, which entered an alliance to make up WelcomHeritage. This consortium of palaces, forts, "havelis" and resorts offers visitors "a feeling of rich texture of the Indian social fabric, and an acquaintance with its fascinating, yet mystifying customs and traditions," he said.

The grand Umaid Bhawan Palace took 25 years and 3,000 men to build. It has 250 rooms and is often seen on the screen in movies set in India. When the old noble families of India lost their special privileges and privy purses, their sumptuous palaces suffered. Converting them into hotels, and making them available for other ventures, saved them.