On a daily average, about 600 people throng the Lukshmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara, Gujarat. For most people, the tour ends with taking photographs of the 19th-century mansion of Baroda’s royal family from its portico. But this August, I joined the rank of guests hosted by the Gaekwads in their private chamber.
Tucked inside the ladies’ quarter, my wood-furbished room is the size of a 1 BHK Mumbai flat. But in contrast to Mumbai’s cramped spaces, my bedroom has a high ceiling and a fetching chandelier. Intricate floral motifs engrave the arches above the windows, while walls flaunt royal portraits. I am living a day in the life of Mia from Princess Diaries.
It was a balmy afternoon when I arrived at the palace, a red sandstone facade juxtaposed against a blue sky. ‘Opulent’ doesn’t quite sum up how extraordinary Lukshmi Vilas’s architectural styles are—Islamic domes, canopies à la the Jain temples of Gujarat, a 300-foot clock tower, and hints of Victorian Gothic and Italian Renaissance. The sandstone was brought from quarries in Agra, marble from Rajasthan and blue trapstone from Pune. Intended to protect the structure from sun and rain, jharoka-style balconies adorn the palace. Touted to be four times the size of Buckingham Palace, the full breadth of the panorama fits in my camera only when I step back about 200 feet, into the palace’s 10-hole golf course behind me. Envisioned by Maratha ruler Sayajirao Gaekwad III, Lukshmi Vilas was completed in 1890 and cost a whopping £1,80,000—it was believed to be the country’s costliest construction. Its British architect, Charles Mant, paid a different price. Paranoid that he’d gone terribly wrong with his calculations after building the first six feet, Mant committed suicide.
Much like the facade, the interiors of the palace is a fusion of the East and the West. Equipped with elevators, internal plumbing, telephone systems and wiring, Lukshmi Vilas was well ahead of its time. Now, there’s a plan to convert part of the palace into a heritage property. With 172 rooms, the palace was originally built for just two people—the Maharaja and the Maharani. Today, the country’s largest private residence is inhabited by five members of Baroda’s blue bloods—a family largely credited with moulding the city’s administrational, educational and artistic legacy.
As I contemplate the right etiquette to greet a queen, Radhika Raje walks into the room and offers a warm handshake. Draped in a rose pink saree with her hair worn in a shoulder lob, she looks unassuming and instantly puts me at ease. A history major and former journalist in New Delhi, Radhika is married to Maharaja Samarjitsinh Gaekwad. She tells me how her day shifts between readying her two daughters for school, spearheading a vocational training centre for underprivileged women and overseeing the documentation project at the in-house Maharaja Fatehsingh Museum.
“I first saw Lukshmi Vilas only as a newlywed in 2002. My parents did not show me any pictures beforehand because they didn’t want that to tip the scales for a 23-year-old,” she smiles. As plans for the heritage stay pick up pace, Radhika admits to the challenge of striking a balance between home and hotel. “We plan to show Lukshmi Vilas as it is—a regal, ageing abode with a chipped stained glass here and there, and we don’t plan to ‘fix’ them all. We hope guests appreciate it for its history.”
It is impossible to look at Lukshmi Vilas and not think of its prized possession—the 45 Raja Ravi Varma paintings in the palace and the Fatehsingh Museum. In the late 19th century, Sayajirao hosted Varma for four years during which he painted the masterpieces for the king. The palace now holds the country’s largest private collection of the painter. A large part of Radhika’s work is to add to it by procuring the legendary artist’s oleographs and prints.
Growing up, a print of Varma’s Saraswati painting hung in the living room of my house. Over a decade later, I come face-to-face with the original in the Gaddi Hall (coronation room). As the audio tour guides me through the painter’s royal portraits and scenes from Hindu mythology, I conjure mental images of an era when subjects sat still for hours to be immortalised on canvas.
Photography inside the palace is prohibited for visitors, so I am thrilled to be able to take photographs of Felici’s marble and bronze sculptures at the main entrance. I take in the sweeping staircase leading to the residence area on the first floor—a marvel personally laid out by the Italian sculptor using carrara marble, as used by Michelangelo in carving his masterpiece “David.” Inside, the sheer splendour of the Darbar Hall floors me. Stunning mosaic work covers the ground, the balcony depicts angels playing the shehnai, and stained-glass windows portray epics from Indian mythology. Known to host concerts and cultural events, it brings to mind the set of a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film.
As I retreat to my room later that evening, I visualise Lukshmi Vilas a century later. The regal structure shall stay cemented, waiting to greet another generation of visitors. I sleep peacefully at night, for I’ve had my rendezvous with royalty.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.