Sipping tea with the royals in Rajasthan

On the road Despite his lofty-sounding title, in fact the most valuable thing Rao Digvijay Singh Patan has inherited is his attractive property.

Digvijay Singh opened his home to guests in 1991.
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When I e-mailed the Hotel Madhuban in Jaipur, India's "Pink City", I specified one precondition: that I must able to have tea with the heritage house's owner, Rao Digvijay Singh Patan. Famous in these parts, his Rajput lineage dates back to the emperor who ruled Delhi in the 13th century. No problem, replied the reservations manager - none other than the Rao himself. He even quashed formality and begged me to please call him "Dickie".

After a long wait on arrival at the airport at 3am, on account of a disorganised swine-flu screening where coughing passengers from around the world were corralled back to belly - an excellent method of spreading an epidemic, I think - I was fetched by the hotel's driver. An attendant at the guesthouse led me around the side of the building, through a doorway where a canine was slobbering in his sleep and up three flights of stairs. Inside my room I slunk onto the bed and fell asleep anticipating being summoned to the king's court the following day.

I awoke in the afternoon and observed my quarters, filled with replica antique furniture and a pair of modernist paintings of Ganesh above a headboard fitted with painted ceramic tiles. The hotel's rooms did not seem as grandly attired as those in some of the other guesthouses in Jaipur, but I had received a good price of US$27 (Dh98) per night - a 20 per cent seasonal discount on a double room usually costing $33 (Dh122).

At the front desk - a little wooden box office in the garden - I made an appointment to meet Dickie and then rushed beyond the hotel's bougainvillea-draped outer walls to see Rajasthan's rose-tinted capital. At the Sawai Man Singh Museum, the former residence of the Maharaja himself, I found a collection of items that epitomised one royal excess after another, from cases displaying courtly jamas embroidered with gold to a weapons room in which the doorway was overhung with a welcome sign spelled out in knife blades and spearheads.

In an outdoor courtyard, beneath a shelter of elaborately carved red masonry, stood two 1.5m-high gleaming urns, the world's largest pieces of crafted silver. The Maharaja would fill them with water from the Ganges and bring them on his journeys. After seeing the museum and the hillside complex north of the city, which includes the elegant Amber Palace and the scarily imposing Jaigarh Fort, I came to understand the extent to which these kingdoms were based on constant warfare to secure vassals' tribute and fund lavish displays of wealth. The Rajputs - who belong to the warrior caste - were not philosopher kings. They were fierce, shrewd and vain.

The outing had been an interesting prelude to meeting Dickie. I arrived after dark and found him perched in the little stand where his employee sat earlier. He greeted me cheerily and said he would call my room when someone came to relieve him. Moments later I entered the guesthouse's elaborately furnished salon with walls trimmed in watercolour haras designs resembling the psychedelic explosions of twisting colours found in black-light posters. The guesthouse, he said, was probably built in the 1930s by his grandfather as a second residence in Jaipur, though his family actually ruled over the nearby city of Patan. Indeed, Dickie was born in one of the rooms where guests were now fast asleep.

I sat on an ottoman with paintings hanging around me displaying Dickie's ancestors in royal turbans and regalia. I stared at a black and white photo of a young and fetching Queen Elizabeth greeting Dickie's uncle. Clearly, these were honest-to-goodness aristocrats. And yet Dickie was now seated before me in comfortable slacks and a loose button-down shirt, as his wife brought me chai and biscuits.

"You see tourism is what has allowed us to maintain our lifestyle to a degree," he explained, adding that India's royals were cut off from directly collecting funds from their subjects upon India's independence in 1945. Under Prime Minister Indira Gandi's reforms in the 1970s, his family's government stipend and other privileges also ceased. Now being a royal comes with responsibility but far less means. During a recent drought in Patan, for example, the government promised tanks of drinking water. When they didn't arrive people came to Dickie asking him to open his cistern, even though he no more owed them water than they still owed him taxes. But because of his family's legacy Dickie could not refuse.

"India's progress in the last 60 years is due to democracy," Dickie stressed, "but politicians only do what will be good for their constituents during their term in office, not like the relationships people have with royal families, which last for generations." Despite his lofty-sounding title, in fact the most valuable thing Dickie has inherited is his attractive property. Dickie's father, who was born before India's independence, would not allow his princely son to work. With no income the family had been going broke and pawning its heirlooms. When the old patriarch died in 1991, however, Dickie opened his home to tourists. Now he is watching his fortunes rise again, even renovating his estate in Patan to welcome paying guests.

It's strange how tourism not only preserves ruined architecture that would otherwise crumble but also bygone hierarchies and ways of life. Odd too how the best bargain of a trip is sometimes not that one is able to stay in a palace but the story he or she finds buried inside it.