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.
Singh comes from an ancient lineage of desert warrior princes. His forebears did not hand down ferocity to him, but he did inherit ability, leadership qualities and expectation of success. Gentle and courteous, he demonstrates business enterprise and public spirit.
His 15th century ancestor Rao Jodha of Marwar founded and gave his name to Jodhpur. Jodha’s son, Rao Bika, founded another desert town and called it Bikaner. A 19th century ancestor of Singh gave the name of Jodhpur to riding breeches. That maharajah for his own comfort designed riding breeches that he wore to a Queen Victoria ceremony. The design caught on and his name stayed with the breeches, which are still in popular use.
A more recent ancestor, Maharajah Umaid Singh, built Umaid Bhawan Palace, which was said to be one of the largest-ever private residences in the world.
Heir to an illustrious name and to a princely state, Gaj Singh today copes with contemporary realities. In doing so, he regards himself as scion to a wider area than only Jodhpur. “I want to help showcase the state of Rajasthan,” he said. “We need to preserve and better project our rich treasure trove of centuries of culture.”
Rajasthan, land of the long-ago Rajput warrior clans, has a romantic history of “love, valor and chivalry.” The Thar Desert is a barren, sandy countryside of scrub and cactus where camels carry people, pull carts and vie in races. It is a harsh environment where, nonetheless, rural people produce ivory, silver and glass wares, pieces in sandalwood, stone, brass and terra-cotta, and fabrics, prints and embroideries, weavings and carpets.
For their fun, desert people stage festivals of exuberant dancing, folk music and song. They are part of what Singh calls “the fascination and mystique of India, accumulated over thousands of years of civilization, that people have read and heard about.”
The romance of the desert retreats before the advance of drought, which leaves the dead body of a camel, a donkey or a sheep by the wayside, and threatens the lives of the people.
As well as burning sands, however, Rajasthan has shimmering lake palaces and national parks that are sanctuaries for birds and animals. Umaid Singh built a hunting lodge not far from Jodhpur, Sardar Samand Palace, which overlooks a large lake that teems with birds. A new resort, The Ramgarh, is a short drive from the pink city of Jaipur. It is sufficiently well watered to maintain a polo ground, where horses are kept in peak condition.
Singh knows “the downside” of much he has to contend with in his work of showcasing Rajasthan. But he emphasizes that travel gives value to time spent on earth. “Rajasthan has history, traditions, forts, palaces, fairs and festivals, arts, crafts and music, romance and adventure. It is the repository of everything a traveler to India has dreamed of.”