How to Travel Like a Raja

In the early 18th century, an ambitious nobleman, Rawat Lal Singh, stabbed his friend in the neck on orders of the local king. The king's reward for removing a rival was a fief here in the southwest corner of the state of Rajasthan, where the nobleman built a fort perched on a cliff above a river filled with crocodiles.
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For centuries, the fort proved impregnable. Only in recent months have the gates swung open to a new era of invaders: tourists.
In September, two brothers who are descendants of the murderous nobleman began accepting guests in five restored rooms of the Bhainsrorgarh Fort. The 25-acre property is the latest example of how India's noble families are turning towering antiquities into boutique hotels.

Rajasthan's Department of Tourism estimates that 130 forts and palaces have been converted into so-called heritage hotels during the past decade or so. Many are owned by families, like the Singhs, who lost their powers to govern and tax their fiefs after India's independence in 1947 but held onto much of their property and the historical landmarks on them. In some cases, the crumbling castles reflect crumbling family fortunes -- and the hospitality business is a way to rejuvenate both.

The Indian government has nudged along the trend. In the early 1990s, it lifted a ban on India's erstwhile nobles transforming historic homes into commercial properties, according to Daleep Singh Rathore, assistant director in Rajasthan's Department of Tourism.

More recently, the government has extended loans to families hoping to open hotels in palaces and forts. The cash infusions have saved scores of forts and palaces that were falling apart, while helping to meet surging demand for high-end hotels among tourists and business travelers. While Mr. Rathore doesn't have details on how many have done so, he says there has been a substantial increase in recent years.
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Indeed, Rajasthan's heritage properties are drawing more tourists who want to break from the well-trodden Taj Mahal path. In 2006, Rajasthan ranked fourth among India's states and municipalities in total foreign visitors, nearly doubling to 1.2 million from 2003.

Big hotel groups have long seen the potential for business. One of the first was Neemrana Hotels, founded by a Frenchman, Francis Wacziarg. In 1986, Neemrana Hotels converted a 15th-century fort between New Delhi and Jaipur and opened it as a hotel, called the Neemrama Fort-Palace. Neemrana Hotels has since restored several other tottering properties, including one in the nearby village of Kesroli, called the Hill Fort Kesroli.

The Tata Group's Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces operates three palaces in Rajasthan, including the Taj Lake Palace, aptly named because it's on an island in the middle of Udaipur's Lake Pichola. India's wealthy Poddar family, which has been involved in several heritage projects, took more than a decade to restore the Devi Garh Palace outside of Udaipur.

To tap into the tourist flows, Hilton International and India's Oberoi Hotels & Resorts are among those that have built properties near Rajasthan's forts and palaces.

Like the Singhs, many royal families are inclined to hold onto their former fiefs rather than sell to a hotel group. As Hemendra Singh was growing up, he estimates his family rejected 100 or so written offers to sell or lease the Bhainsrorgarh Fort.
[Neemrana Fort-Palace Hotel]
Neemrana Fort-Palace Hotel

By venturing into the hotel business without established backers, though, Hemendra Singh and his brother Rajveer confront big challenges. Funding and staff training are merely two.

The fundamental challenge is how to turn a military fortress into a comfortable hotel. The fort -- which once housed hundreds of soldiers and included stables for 250 horses and three elephants -- was able to repulse the mightiest of attacks. The fort also had its own grainary and two separate wings in the main building for men and women. Yet it has stood up less well to Rajasthan's harsh desert climate and decades of neglect. Cracks have opened in now-abandoned rooms. Honey bees have taken over one of them.
Still, the two brothers -- with assistance from their wives and a dozen staff hired from the local village -- have managed to cater to high-end tourists. They charge about $365 a night for a room, all-you-can-eat royal cuisine included. Indoor plumbing, installed last year, has helped. So have touches like stained-glass windows in some of the spacious rooms. The main draw is sitting, dining and strolling around a fort hundreds of years old and hundreds of feet above the placid Chambal River, home to a crocodile sanctuary.

"This is my dream -- to put Bhainsrorgarh on the world map," says 35-year old Hemendra Singh. He grew up in the fort and is now marketing it from New Delhi, where he lives in a less palatial third-floor apartment. The brothers aim to open another 15 rooms in the fort in the next five years.
[ the Taj Lake Palace on Lake Pichola]
The Taj Lake Palace on Lake Pichola

Constraining the flow of tourists is the time it takes to reach Bhainsrorgarh. From India's capital, New Delhi, it's an 11-hour road journey or an overnight train to nearby Kota city.

An hour from Kota, after winding through narrow village lanes, the elder of the Singh brothers, 41-year old Rajveer, greets guests at Bhainsrorgarh Fort Hotel. He offers cool glasses of guava juice and wreaths of marigolds. Guests are escorted to rooms past mounted antelope heads, grainy photos of slain tigers and ancestor paintings.
The artwork features the family's notorious Rawat Lal Singh, whom the 19th-century British explorer and historian Lt. Col. James Tod called "a beacon in the annals of crime." In his three-volume history of Rajasthan, Lt. Col. Tod describes how the Singhs' forefather murdered the king's uncle, Nathji Maharaja. As one of his best friends, he was able to slip into the well-guarded chambers at midnight to slit the man's throat as he was bent in prayer.

According to the author, the last words the Maharaja uttered were: "What brings you here?"

The King of Udaipur elevated the Rawat Lal Singh family to the top tier of Rajasthani nobles, able to rule vast swaths of land, and granted it Bhainsrorgarh.
[Trident Hilton Jaipur near the Amber Fort]
Trident Hilton Jaipur near the Amber Fort

Work on Bhainsrorgarh Fort began in 1742, clearly with the worry of revenge in mind. The fort's short doorways force visitors to stoop when entering rooms, so sword-wielding hosts might more easily slice off the heads of unwanted guests.

Bhainsrorgarh's current host, Rajveer Singh, claims no hard feelings remain between the two families. Digging out his ancestor's 16th-century gold-plated dagger, fingering a blade still razor sharp, Mr. Singh says, "because of this dagger, we have this property."

But if the family still has the fort, being a royal isn't what it used to be. Instead of being waited upon, Mr. Singh spends his days hustling up and down stairs serving dishes that he and his wife help cook. The royal cuisine includes blackened chicken, mutton with gravy, freshly plucked okra and sweet shredded carrots for dessert.

Mr. Singh has also done away with the traditional attire of Rajasthani nobles -- colorful turbans and pointy shoes -- for jeans, leather loafers and a ranch-style canvas jacket. The wardrobe is more suitable to the Jeep drives he takes with guests through desert scrub brush to nearby villages.