Indian hoteliers are restoring ancient palaces, mansions and havelis into heritage hotels that offer a blend of nostalgia and romance

Heritage hotels attract a lion’s portion of international travellers; almost 40% of all affluent global travellers

Adaptive reuse, Taj Lake Palace Hotel, Neemrana Hotels, HRH Group Of Hotels, Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur, Rajakkad Estate, Jehan Numa Palace, Niraamaya Retreats Surya Samudra, Kovalam, Architect Prannoy Bose, Restoration, Reformation, Heritage hotels, Palace hotels
Jaideep Oberoi

In 2018, tourism across the world was worth about $1.7tn (£1.3tn), or about 2% of total global GDP. Of this, classic heritage sites, or countries known for their tangible and intangible heritage — palaces and forts, churches and temples — attracted almost 28% of the tourism traffic, a survey published in the British newspaper The Guardian stated.

The Rajakkad Estate is a construction of many thousands of interlocking beams

Travellers, particularly discerning, affluent travellers, often opt to live in heritage hotels. The romance, nostalgia and the elegance of the past are some of the reasons they quote. Many like the idea of waking up in a heritage structure, where time has stood still. Room service could have guards in traditional headgear. This is where adaptive reuse of heritage building comes into play. Heritage hotels, from palaces to mansions, from colonial-era homes to old Kolkata rajbaris, evoke a sense of beauty and elegance and are being restored into beautiful hotels. Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, chairman, HRH Group Of Hotels and a member of Indian Heritage Hotels Association, is considered a pioneer in the heritage hotel space in India. He has said in an interview, “Heritage represents a major segment in global hospitality.

Living in palaces, forts or castles involves the romance of living in a historic past. The lifestyle, F&B, adventures of the past — all contribute to the mystique of spending your vacation in a palace or mansion where royalty once lived or entertained.”Shriji rewinds to the time when Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur first opened its doors to travellers in 1963. “There was no such thing as tourism in Rajasthan. The airport did not exist; there were no flights and no tourism infrastructure to speak of. It was considered a sin to make money out of people who came to stay with you, in your palace.”

Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur, was once Jag Niwas, the palatial home of Maharana Bhagwat Singh

Today, heritage hotels attract a lion’s portion of international travellers; almost 40% of all affluent global travellers to the state, made famous by the regal lifestyle that its royalty represents, opt to stay in palace hotels. The growing millennial market is also reshaping the travel industry. Their need for unique, authentic experiences have bought atmospheric heritage hotels, with a compelling historical and architectural narrative, to the forefront. However, heritage cannot be a euphemism for providing services that are not of great quality. “Many believe that heritage is an excuse for not providing the kind of facilities that they would otherwise provide. Everything has to be up to the standards of a luxury hotel — from F&B services to the facilities you provide, the service standards and even operations,” he adds. In Rajasthan, the heritage hospitality movement was pioneered by Shriji’s late father, Maharana Bhagwat Singh, when he converted their summer palace Jag Niwas into the Taj Lake Palace Hotel in the early 1960s.

The heritage hospitality segment has since then gained immense traction, with havelis, palaces, mansions, coffee estates and colonial homes being converted into chic luxurious hostelries which attract the crème de la crème.

So, what goes into making a perfect heritage hotel?

Revitalise and restore

Of crucial importance is revitalising and restoring a heritage structure to welcome guests. There is nothing like a dash of history with your morning cuppa. Rajakkad Estate in Perumparai is an exquisite seven room hotel that opens out to a lush garden at Pallam Palace, a beautiful 18th-century structure with intricate woodwork, which once belonged to the royal family of Travancore. Originally situated in Kerala, the building was twice dismantled, transported and reassembled before it opened to guests in the Palani Hills. It stands within coffee and spice estates, close to a ridge. Drawn from the forests of the Western Ghats, it is a construction of many thousands of interlocking beams, panels and screens, sheltered by a roof canopy that appears to float above, making light of a structural complexity that reflects forgotten refinement.

Among the first fort palace to be restored into a hotel was Neemrana Fort Palace, once a grim ruin that merged into the dusty Aravalli hills, which Aman Nath, founder and chairman of Neemrana Hotels and his late partner, Francis Wacziarg discovered and restored to pristine condition. The ruins were conserved and restored using traditional materials where necessary, as well as employing modern technologies and materials. Local craftsmen were hired to restore the fort-palace. The property was turned into a hotel to ensure that it earned enough to be able to pay for its maintenance. The devastated gigantic complex around it were restored through minimum intervention.

In a bid to instill pride in their heritage, the mistri or carpenters and craftsmen were hired from villages around. The structure was also consolidated to protect the complex from disintegrating. Regular cleaning and lime wash ensured its preservation. The construction made of stone with fluted columns, low parapets, curvaceous brackets and foliated arches and a bulky dome in masonry was executed to match the existing ones. The idea of active conservation actually prompted the two to turn it into a hotel, their first, which led them to create several such heritage hotel properties across India.

In Bhopal, the Jehan Numa Palace, built in 1890 by General Obaidullah Khan, commander-in-chief of the Bhopal State Force, is a lovely white structure that marries British Colonial, Italian Renaissance and Classical Greek architecture. After independence, when the government abolished privy purses, the beautiful palace was turned into a government hostel and then used as offices of  the Geological Survey of India.

In 1981, the owners, led by the late Yawar Rashid, grandson of the general, decided to convert it into a hotel to offer guests a taste of royal Bhopali hospitality. A restoration project was then embarked on. During restoration, a beautiful mosaic fountain was found buried under rubble by the previous users. It now stands near the swimming pool. A trotting track for pedigreed horses was created to recall the royal family’s passion for breeding thoroughbreds. The once regal gardens had gone to seed, and were painstakingly bought back to life.

The palace hotel opened in 1983 and has expanded over decades, with more rooms being added, besides four restaurants, two bars and a spa. The palace hotel has multiple nooks studded with white wrought iron benches and tables, overhung with blushing pink rose bushes and red bougainvillea. The palace grounds now boast shady mango and jamun trees. The term ‘back to the future’ could also aptly apply to Niraamaya Retreats Surya Samudra, Kovalam, a former mansion-turnedretreat. Located at the highest point on the cliff, it offers its guests a refreshing sojourn in well-appointed, carefully restored Tharavadu or traditional Kerala-style homes. These age-old structures define not just the heritage premium rooms but also the public spaces like the spa, bar and restaurants. The retreat showcases the best aesthetic features of the buildings of yore — ornate doors, terracotta roofs and carved pillars. The Octagon, a signature suite is a sprawling traditional stone house that exhibits the architecture of Kerala, features a private sun-deck, open-to-sky baths with rain showers — and offers a stunning view of the Arabian Sea. Its distinctive heritage architecture that throws a spotlight on Kerala’s glorious past. With a former mansionturned- hotel at its highest point on the cliff, the retreat is a series of carefully restored Tharavadu or traditional Kerala-style homes, which have been converted to cottages and public spaces like the lobby, spa and restaurants.

The challenges

From infrastructure to upholstery, the daunting task of keeping intact the historical relevance is sometimes overwhelming. Architect Prannoy Bose, who has restored smaller palaces, mansions and colonial houses across much of east India, from Bengal to Jharkhand, says, “Built centuries prior, the palaces were designed to allow natural ventilation as opposed to modern air-conditioning technologies.
This makes retrofitting work such as laying plumbing and electrical lines rather challenging, especially while maintaining the antique aesthetics. Replicating crafted work such as marble or wood carving becomes quite expensive and finding the right expertise to deliver that perfection is time consuming. Most challenges arise from the limitation of allowable changes and require an intelligent restoration."

One of the finest examples of adaptive reuse is the spectacular RAAS, on the foothills of the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur. It is a perfect combination of Rajasthani heritage and contemporary finesse. Nikhilendra Singh, the owner-founder of RAAS Hotels (they have three) says his brother had been buying and restoring havelis. When they saw the RAAS haveli, they knew it had to be more than a home. The haveli was beautifully restored by the Lotus Design Studio. “The setting (at the base of the spectacular Mehrangarh Fort), the unique challenges of the site and the project’s aspirations made it even more daunting,” architect Ambrish Arora has said. Setting up a 40-room luxury hotel on a plot of 6,000 sq-m, with three semi-historic structures on it, was a challenge.

The site plan had to balance privacy even as it retained the inclusivity of the walled city. The architects set out by restoring the historic buildings in lime plaster and stone. For the new buildings they worked out a contemporary vocabulary that used locally sourced materials and skills, to avoid the pastiche Rajasthani haveli look. This was mirrored in the interior design, resulting in a contemporary and yet authentic experience. Much like most architects and hoteliers sensitive to the cultural and geographical moorings of the heritage structures, they used a lot of local craftsmen, who, unfortunately, had no knowledge on how to read drawings.

And yet, constant interaction and working around these issues contributed to the emergence of the final form of the project. The location of the site in the walled city also made material transportation a big challenge. Running a heritage hotel, particularly a palace hotel, can also be very tricky. Taj Falaknuma Palace (see more details in case study), once a palatial home of the Nizams of Hyderabad, is a perfect example of how luxury, heritage, legacy, nostalgia and beautiful hotels can come together in such a tantalizing whole. Parvinder Bual, the general manager of this palatial hotel, talks about balancing heritage and legacy with demands of a modern hotel. “The constant balancing between preserving the heritage, ensuring that the interiors, the artefacts, the furniture — some of which may be centuries old — makes it imperative to match up to the luxury that luxury hotels offer, while maintaining its historical relevance.”

Who is driving the business to heritage and readapted hotels?

Once, it was inbound tourism. Today, Shriji says, there is an equal number of domestic tourists. “Since 1999-2000, we have pioneered regal weddings in Udaipur and across Rajasthan. Destination weddings, thus, have become synonymous with Udaipur and its iconic Jagmandir Island Palace, Shiv Niwas Palace and Fateh Prakash Palace. Each of these palaces has also won innumerable Ministry of Tourism Awards instituted by the Government of India, as destinations for 'regal weddings', they remain incomparable and unique.”

Case Study

Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad

Among the most beautiful examples of adaptive reuse of a heritage palace into a hotel has to be Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad. The baroque palace hotel is a statement in royal opulence, replete with the finest materials and finishes, ranging from leather upholstery and velvet tapestry to the finest marble and teak. Rahul Mehrotra and Associates were hired to carry out a conservation survey of the palace. The clear design theme while restoring the main palace was to retain the opulence and enhance the grandeur by creating finishes, furniture and equipment that resemble the old ones which once adorned the interiors.

The Taj Group hired Wimberly Allison Tong and Goo to create the conceptual architecture. Experts from across the world were contacted to help recreate the old artefacts and structures. P.T. Wijaya, a landscape consultancy firm from Bali, were hired to restore the landscape and advice on exterior lighting designs. Made Wijaya, a celebrated tropical garden designer with over 600 gardens to his credit, was associated with the project. Ruya Mocan, a cousin of Princess Esra is responsible for delivering the soft and hard finishes
for all the Palace Rooms and the Zenana Suites. The fabrics, upholstery, furniture and finishes are sourced from Turkey. Princess Esra, wife of the eight Nizam, was deeply involved in all design aspects. Nick Poynton, chief architecture consultant from Wimberly Allison
Tong and Goo (WATG) led a team which designed the new look of the palace hotel.

The east side of the main courtyard houses the new Palace rooms. The existing colonnade was used while creating these rooms. The arch founding was re-used and the external section, facing the city, was given the old Palladian look to echo the style of the original building. The Zenana rooms, with their different shapes and sizes, posed a different challenge for the designers. The rooms had high level ventilators, which served as the source of natural light. However, under the new construction scheme, the air conditioning ducts were installed through these openings. The doors were then designed to provide natural light. In the north courtyard of the Falaknuma Palace, which houses the Zenana Mahal, to bring about the aspect of symmetry and enhance the looks of the place, elevations were
matched. A new floor was constructed in the south and east blocks to match the opposite side exactly.

Extreme care was taken to not damage any of the walls within the main palace. This proved to be a major challenge while incorporating the air-conditioning system and upgrading the lighting in the rooms. A conscious decision was taken to provide air conditioning in only major areas such as the 101 Dining Hall, Chess, Hookah, Billiards rooms. The Pincer Suites (historical suites) were done without making any significant changes to the structure and the new additions were the bathrooms. Even the wiring for the services has been routed through the floor, wherever possible so that the murals and paintings on the walls are not affected.

The central building of the main palace is not used for guest accommodations. Instead, it houses the Business Centre and the retiring areas along the corridor. The Gol Bungalow houses two restaurants — Adaa and Celeste. The exteriors of the new building match that
of the Gol Bungalow. The restorers and designers have put a huge emphasis on lighting design. The lighting in the palace originally was more from a central source, the chandeliers. Tony Corbett from Corbett Designs was responsible for planning the lighting designs of the different rooms in the main palace. The chief intent while suggesting the lighting arrangement was to keep it as a support that enhances the interiors rather than dominating any sections. The lights to be used in the main palace have been designed to work at a low level, to be more in sync with the traditional century-old style of using table lamps.

The lighting in the theme rooms such as the Hookah Room, the Billiards Room and the Cards Room are very subtle and are lit mainly through the low level candelabras. The restoration of the leather upholstery on the chairs and sofas across the different rooms in the main Palace was done by Baron Leather Inc. The original leather used for the upholstery was intricately engraved or embossed on. The leather used in the chairs and sofas of the Billiards Room, Cards Room and Hookah Room on the first floor was of camel skin. The hand-made carving on the leather was so intricate that every square-inch had over 10,000 designs on it, ranging from flower petals to animal faces and even a full-length carving of a theme, for instance, a leaping horse followed by a trail of dogs. The leather is almost a century-old and due to seepage and incision of moisture in it, had become very hard over time and simply broke if one poked at it. The team started off by creating several samples of the leather to be used for the Taj Falaknuma Palace Hotel. It was not before the fifth iteration that the samples were approved and it took around a year for the entire process.

The seamless wall-to-wall carpets, a specialty of the palace, is by Shroffs Carpets. The restoration of the carpets started with the development of the yarn. The team worked on the small samples of old original carpets based on which the special yarn was developed. Since this special yarn could not be made from domestic wool, yarn was imported from New Zealand to ensure a perfect match with the original yarn used in the original carpets. The yarn hence imported was of 30 counts and of the highest quality. It was then dyed and tested with chemicals imported from America to generate the exact shade of that in the carpet. A team of in-house expert dyers were successful in matching the old look that had to be recreated for the new carpets.

The restoration effort included plastering the lime layers wherever the chips had fallen and then bringing to life the same pattern that was painted originally. It was the imagination of these artists that allowed them to remake the landscapes that had come off the walls at certain places in the foyer area.

All the doors in the main phave stained glass that is fitted in lead channels. There are various Tudor faces that have been painted at the centre of this glass. The lead channels are painted using gold paint. The restoration artists suggest that the glasses used in those days were all hand-made, since there was no concept of float glass. Over 100 years of exposure to the changing climate and due to aging, the paintings on these glasses have lost their original texture and one of the glasses was badly damaged.

The restoration effort included developing the glass for the missing portion, staining it  with the appropriate picture and then glazing
it into the lead channel, before finally installing it on the door. The stained glass was procured from England, France and Poland. The glass was then stained in a stepwise process, wherein first the basic colour is procured and the pattern staining is done with metallic oxide paint. Falaknuma Palace has a collection of Venetian chandeliers that adorn the ceiling of different rooms. All these chandeliers are of Belgian make and custom-made by Osler. They have the most complex brilliant cutting that involved covering the glass surface with intersecting cuts, creating innumerable, often fragmentary shapes making up larger patterns.

The restoration artists who worked on this project have been in the business of glass artefact restoration for the last 40 years, and had a good idea about the glass texture and the way it was to be cleaned. The challenges of running a palace hotel There are several challenges of running a heritage palace hotel, as Parvinder Bual, the general manger of Taj Falaknuma palace says. “From infrastructure to upholstery, the daunting task of keeping intact the historical relevance is sometimes overwhelming. Built centuries prior, the palace was designed to allow natural ventilation as opposed to modern air-conditioning technologies. This makes retrofitting work such as laying plumbing and electrical lines rather challenging, especially while maintaining the antique aesthetics. Replicating crafted work such as marble or wood carving becomes quite expensive and finding the right expertise to deliver that perfection is time consuming. Most challenges arise from the limitation of allowable changes and therefore requires an intelligent restoration.” In terms of modern technology, all the required software for efficient guest delivery have been incorporated in the palace hotel. “Also, all technological upgrades with regards to safety and security have been incorporated in line with the corporate guidelines, thereby creating a perfect setting of a historical royal palace and offering world class service,” he says.

While there are several challenges, Bual will tell you that there are several advantages too. “The biggest advantage is the experience of living in an authentic royal palace which has been lovingly restored. The value of preserving a heritage structure and making people re-live the history for a long time to come is priceless. “

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