Almost all roads and train tracks leading to Jaisalmer (the town has no airport) originate from the city of Jodhpur, 185 miles to the east. A typically vibrant and colorful Rajasthani city lorded over by an impressive fort, Jodhpur probably is best known in the West for the riding pants with puffy thighs and tight calves that it gave to the world, along with its name.
But jodhpurs are not the only thing worth knowing about this city, at least for anyone passing through this section of India. Jodhpur happens to be home to one of the most pleasant little hotels in all of India, a place that somehow combines the old-world, gemu tlich style of Europe with the flair and hospitality of India's maharajahs.
In fact, the Ajit Bhawan Palace, as the hotel is called, was built and is run by scions of the royal family of Jodhpur, one of India's largest and most powerful princely states prior to independence.
And for a weary traveler returning from a Jaisalmer camel safari, the Ajit Bhawan is a perfect place to rest and relax and be regaled with tales of the raj by Swaroop or Sobhog Singh, the two brothers who own and run (and reside in) the hotel.
The brothers Singh are the sons of Ajit Singh, whose father was a former ruler of Jodhpur, and whose brother, Sir Umaid Singh, was the last great maharajah of the state. Umaid Singh ruled Jodhpur from shortly after the turn of the century until his death in 1947. During his reign Ajit served as his brother's prime minister. In the 1920s both brothers decided to build palaces, not only to have grand new residences for themselves, according to their descendants, but also to provide employment for their people, who were suffering through years of famine. Thousands of Jodhpur families labored for years on the two palaces.
Today the red limestone Ajit Bhawan stands almost in the shadow of the mammoth Umaid Bhawan Palace, which took more than two decades to complete. The Umaid Bhawan also has been converted into a hotel, and though it is on India's glamorous, five-star hotel circuit, it is a gloomy, sepulchral building (it has a basement swimming pool that makes you feel you are splashing about in the River Styx) that is totally devoid of the charm of the Ajit Bhawan.
The Ajit has two types of accommodation. Twelve rooms are on the ground floor of the original palace. They are roomy and high-ceilinged and are decorated with local Rajasthani art and furniture. No two rooms are alike. Another 24 rooms have been built in bungalows alongside a tiny stream and a beautiful garden behind the palace. Each of the bungalows has been individually designed to represent a different Rajasthani caste, and to give a flavor of how these people have lived. There is a nomads room and a woodcutters room. There are bungalows representing artisans, stonecutters, Rajput warriors, merchants, priests and farmers. One bungalow has a tree growing through the middle of the room. Another has a small waterfall. Beds might be made of old bullock carts or large slabs of stone. And the decor and furnishings reflect the style and tastes of the various tradesmen.
Dinner is a special experience at the Ajit Bhawan. Often it is served in the gardens or in the palace's central courtyard, a 60-by-80-foot stone patio adorned with huge brass pots and bird cages. Food is served buffet style from pots atop burning coals. Everyone eats as one big family, around a long, horsehoe-shaped table. Swaroop and Sobhog Singh play the quintessential hosts, in their own unique ways. Sobhog, the elder brother, usually comes to dinner wearing shorts and a polo shirt following a day on the golf links. Swaroop is likely to be dressed in traditional jodhpurs, an elegant white cotton Indian shirt and multicolored Rajasthani slippers.
Swaroop is the more gregarious, and loves to talk about the bygone days, days he obviously still yearns for, when his family ruled Jodhpur with unlimited (but, according to Swaroop, benevolent) power. The brothers trace their family rule back to the 13th century, and tell how one of their ancestors had been revered as an incarnate god.
Guests wishing to visit rural Rajasthan can request a village tour, escorted by Swaroop in the family jeep (a U.S. World War II relic). Stops may include a village of potters, weavers, basket makers and blacksmiths and lunch at a farmhouse. Swaroop also will scurry about the terrain hoping to espy for you wildlife such as deer and antelope.
Ajit and Umaid Singh, like many of India's former princes, were great hunters and sportsmen. A walkway around the palace courtyard has wonderful old photographs of the two brothers, along with some of their British raj colleagues, hunting boar, tigers and elephants, playing polo and showing off their assorted trophies. Some of the trophies, as well as the busts of some of their hunting prey, can be seen in the Ajit Bhawan's posh drawing room and dining hall. These two rooms also have libraries and various Indian trinkets and pieces of art collected by the family.
Rooms at the Ajit Bhawan are $12 single, $19 double. Dinner buffets are $3. Breakfast is a la carte, and lunches are served only on special request. The village tour, during which Swaroop often talks politics with the locals as a carryover from the days when his family sent emissaries to proselytize on behalf of the maharajah, costs just under $45 per jeep-load, including lunch.