Maharaja Gaj Singh II, head of the Rathore clan, the warrior caste that reigned over the kingdom of Marwar-Jodhpur in present-day Rajasthan, northwest India, for the better part of 500 years, dabs at his forehead with a handkerchief, sips from a bottle of water and launches into a yarn about a famous pair of pants. Not his pants, per se, but the jodhpurs (think riding breeches, tight to the knee, billowy above it) displayed nearby in a case at the Royal Ontario Museum, threads which came to be known worldwide thanks to the Maharaja’s ancestor, Sir Pratap Singh.
Pratap, the story goes, was chosen to represent his family at Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887 in London, a celebration he travelled to by boat and then overland from Cairo, while his clothes and jewels continued by sea until the boat, alas, sank, a nautical disaster that deprived him of the finery he had been planning to wear to the Queen’s party. What Pratap, a crack soldier and daring horseman, didn’t lose were the riding pants he had on when he arrived.
Well, explained the present-day Maharaja, his ancestor was a fine dresser, indeed, but not well outfitted with an ability to speak English. Upon the direction of “some English grandee,” he headed off to Savile Row to see a tailor. He put his riding pants on the table to show the tailor, who asked him, “What is this, sir?” recalls the Maharaja, breaking into a grin. “And he pointed at the pants and he said, “This is jodhpur,” and so the tailor made him dress jodhpurs. “That’s what he wore for the Queen’s ceremony — and that’s how jodhpurs got their name.”
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How the Maharaja came to be at a museum in Toronto on a brutally cold Wednesday morning in early March is another story rife with unforeseen twists. The first occurred when the Maharaja’s father died in a plane crash in 1952, and his four-year-old son became the head of a centuries-old royal dynasty. The next, a biggie, came 19 years later, when then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government eliminated privy purses, the annual allowances the government paid out to an assortment of royal families in what were formerly known as the princely states.
Suddenly, the Maharaja, a one-time student of the British boarding school system and Oxford University philosophy graduate, had to get a real job. Being present at the ROM decades later for the grand opening of a spectacular (truly) touring exhibit featuring more than 250 royal treasures — paintings of Vishnu floating in the cosmic waters, a 17th-century red silk-velvet-cotton royal tent, a custom 1927 silver Rolls-Royce Phantom, a bedazzling diamond and emerald turban ornament, to name a few — curated from the Maharaja’s private family collection and the museum trust he created in 1972, is part of the gig.
Not that the Maharaja seems to mind it much. He is impeccably polite, laughs easily, shakes hands upon introduction and again as a farewell, and invites a stranger to plunk down beside him on a bench back-dropped by an elephant installation topped by a silver riding chair, or howdah. He then relates the story of how a royal family that had its funding cut off transformed itself into the kings of Indian cultural preservation and heritage tourism.
It wasn’t easy, at first. “There was a feeling of being let down,” the Maharaja says, referring to Gandhi’s decision to kill the privy payments. “I had just come away from university, a young student with lots of ideas, and suddenly fell flat, because from being privileged, we became the targeted.” The princely states had been pals of the British, who were no great lovers of the Indian independence movement. As symbols, the royal families represented the old guard, the old ways and, as large land and property holders, a new taxable revenue source for the government.
To stay afloat, the Maharja’s family scrambled, initially selling off one of their palaces for a “pittance” to the army, and also parting ways with a much-loved country estate at a massive discount. The kid who had been away at the University of Oxford all those years sought to avoid future reactive financial moves by forming a hotel company. “I had seen how they do it in Europe,” the Maharaja says, referring to how de-frocked European nobles paid the bills when modern reality came knocking. Among their means was turning their estates into tourist destinations. On that note, the Maharaja partly converted the royals’ primary residence, the 347-room Umaid Bhavan Palace in the city of Jodhpur, into a hotel. Today, the family partners with Hotels Taj, a luxury chain that is part of the massive Tata Group. Half the palace is for the paying guests, the other half remains private.
Mick Jagger, a friend to the Maharaja, has been known to hang out there, as has Prince Charles, another old family friend. The hotel, with rooms fetching about $500 a night, was voted the “world’s best” by TripAdvisor in 2016. “In the beginning, there wasn’t much tourism, in fact, there was no tourism,” the Maharaja says. “But, over a period, it gradually grew.”
The Maharaja remains the family patriarch, but the driving force behind the family business today is his daughter, Princess Shivranjani Rajye. She is Cambridge-educated and unmarried, a relationship status her father hoped to alter by arranging a marriage for her. “She had no interest in that,” he says, laughing. “She made that very clear.”
Joining her father on the bench by the elephant, the princess makes some other things clear: the palace/hotel is a farm-to-table-to-waste enterprise: what guests eat is locally sourced, there are no plastics used, and conserving water — Jodhpur is a desert city — is a priority.
The family owns other hotel properties, plus a towering old red sandstone family fort they converted into a museum trust, which provided the bulk of the objects for the touring museum exhibit that is in Toronto through the end of August. The exhibit has a dual function: it is a window into the past and a tourist brochure for anybody who has ever had a hankering to go to Rajasthan. In this way, the royals are likewise museum pieces: walking, talking links to a 500-year-old royal line that guests, wandering the halls of their palace/hotel home, occasionally bump into. “We have heritage tourism and real estate — those are the family businesses,” the princess says. “The rest of what we do is charitable.”
Visiting Canada was a first for father and daughter. Similar to Pratap, their long-ago forebear, they had some wardrobe issues. The Maharaja didn’t lose his luggage en route to Toronto; he simply didn’t pack for the cold, an early March run of double-digit, sub-zero temperatures that had even the hardiest of snow-loving locals bellyaching about a seemingly endless winter. “It is very difficult to anticipate the weather,” the Maharaja says. “It really is quite bracing, though I haven’t been out enough for the cold to get into my bones. The one day we are going out, we are going to Niagara Falls. You have to see Niagara Falls. I hear it is quite nice in winter. The hotel has been kind enough to lend us some coats.”