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Heritage Matters

Experiencing the richness of our varied yesterdays at famed heritage hotels, Hugh & Colleen Gantzer stress on the need to preserve these masterpieces

Neemrana Palace-Fort

Heritage, like The Environment and The Ecology, is one of those vague terms which people bandy about without knowing exactly what it means. And when it comes to heritage hotels the confusion becomes even more confounded.

According to the Ministry of Tourism, in order to be classified as a heritage hotel, the building should date back to at least 1950, and there’s now talk of that date being pushed back to 1935. Moreover, the architecture of the hotel, its facade and other features should represent the period by virtue of which its owners would like it to be accorded heritage status. Logically, therefore, even if the building was put up in the 16th century but, subsequently, it was redesigned in the authentic ‘Indo-Saracenic’ style of Lutyens, it could still claim to be a heritage property. But heritage is more than architecture. According to the Oxford dictionary, one of the meanings of the word heritage is: a nation’s historic buildings, monuments, countryside etc especially when regarded as worthy of preservation. In other words, there’s an element of quality in it. Not every old building is part of our heritage as, indeed, not every old painting can be regarded as worthy of preservation.

Rajasthan, Shiv Niwas Palace,Udaipur

It follows, therefore, that for a building to be called a heritage property, its architecture, furniture and fittings, and location must capture the age that it claims to represent. If you build a modern steel-and-glass hotel within the walls of an 18th century fort, you can’t call it a heritage hotel because the 18th century did not have such steel-and-glass structures. Similarly, if you dismantle that 18th century Rajasthani fort and translocate it, stone by numbered stone, to Thiruvananthapuram, you cannot run it as a heritage hotel because Rajasthani forts were not part of Kerala’s 18th century heritage. Ambience, defined as the surroundings or atmosphere of a place, is thus an essential ingredient of a heritage property. A heritage hotel must radiate the warmth that people associate with the residence of a friend, even if it means sacrificing state-of-the-art efficiency to achieve this.

Fateh Prakash Palace, Udaipur

This feeling of staying as the house-guest of a friend cosseted us when we spent some time in a charming old mansion in Himachal: Judge’s Court. It was, in fact, built for Justice Sir Jai Lal by his father, in the early 20th century. And since the family used it as their residence till a few years ago, everything in it captures the feel of an age when established values, loyalty and a strong sense of social responsibility were part of the noblesse oblige of the leading families of the community. Thus the furniture, the framed photographs, the interesting certificates of honours and awards bestowed on the family capture a certain squirearchical ambience which no mere designer would be able to replicate.

And, indeed, this matter of location is very significant here. Judge’s Court sits in a garden and an orchard with old camphor, cinnamon, jackfruit, lichee and mango trees. Strawberries grown in the garden feature as homemade strawberry jam on the breakfast table. A paved path winds out from the mansion into the village of Pragpur. Pragpur was the first village to be given heritage status and, therefore, Judge’s Court and Pragpur have an integrated image, a heritage hotel set in a heritage village: one flowing effortlessly into the other. As for our remark that it’s often a plus-point to sacrifice hi-tech facilities in order to preserve the ambience of a heritage property, this has been done very effectively in Judge’s Court. Commenting on the absence of phones and TVs in the rooms, Ajay and Malvika Acharya said that they had been able to spend quality time together as a family, rediscovering the joys of playing ludo and snakes-and-ladders with their son.

Shiv Niwas Palace, Udaipur

Judge’s Court is a heritage hotel virtually unchanged from the days when the owners lived here and is still owned and run by the family. Sensitive and dedicated restorers can, also, take over the shell of a heritage building and recreate an ambience that resembles the original so closely it’s impossible to fault. This is what Francis Wacziarg and Aman Nath did in Neemrana Palace-Fort. Virtually every bit of wood and metal had been removed from the fort when they took it over and made it the flagship of their eight properties. Their work has been so well appreciated that they receive calls, almost every day, from people who can no longer afford to maintain their ancestral homes.

Francis and Aman also helped in the conversion of the first heritage hotel that we experienced: Mandawa in Shekhawati, a hamlet famed for its rurals. Here, even though the fort was in continuous occupation by its princely family ever since it was built, it needed expertise to convert it into a hotel while still retaining its original flavour. For us, it conjured up visions of the dark, heraldic grandeur we normally associated with Gothic fairly tales: it was quite magical. Even though over 40 of the 70-plus heritage hotels are in Rajasthan, because of the profusion of princes in that state, these lordly families were generally unskilled in management. Jodhpur’s famed Umaid Bhawan was a cold and unwelcoming place when it was run by its owners. Wisely, they handed it over to the Welcomgroup and, today, it has regained much of its regal magnificence as have other palaces that have been taken over by major chains. We still believe, however, that what they gain in uniformity and efficiency they lose in individuality and warmth. But then there are many people who feel reassured if they get what they’ve been used to.

Judge’s Court, Pragpur

Finally, there is the boutique heritage hotel: the tiny property, as burnished and faceted as a jewelled pendant. We’ve dined at Fort Cochin’s Malabar House when it was the house of the manager of National & Grindlays Bank. No manager ever exhibited either the flair or the exquisite taste that the present owners have when doing the interiors of this Raj-era bungalow. But if any of them had been so gifted, this is exactly what he would have done with this place.

This is an excellent example of how an heritage hotel can be even better than the original property was in its heyday, while still preserving its personalised warmth and individuality.

Let’s face it, the government is unlikely to find adequate funds to preserve our heritage: there are too many grimy paws scrabbling in its tills. So, if we don’t watch out, we’ll be as isolated as mules with no past on which to build our future. India needs heritage hotels to allow us to experience the richness of all our varied yesterdays.