The story behind Rajasthan and its heritage hotels

By putting up privately-owned forts and palaces for sale, the Rajasthan government hopes to boost the state’s tourism sector.

Devendra Singh, 46, and his three cousins, have spent their childhood and much of their adult life within the imposing red sandstone walls of Balariya Fort in Rajasthan’s Jhunjhunu district. The fort, built by their grandfather Narayan Singh, the “king of 12 villages,” is spread over an area of 90,000 square feet and overlooks the Balariya village. So, how exciting is to live in a 120-year-old fort? Devendra and his cousins say they are looking for a change in scenery. Maintaining a structure this size has proved to be a daunting task.

Preserving their own slice of history in a time of spiralling construction costs is becoming nearly impossible for the erstwhile royals of Rajasthan. Devendra’s father and uncles have all passed away, and the cousins have recently agreed to sell off the fort. They know how popular heritage hotels are and are certain they will soon get a buyer eager to start business. In their neighbourhood alone, Mandawa Fort, just nine kilometres away and Dundlod Fort, barely a couple of kilometres away, have been converted into heritage hotels and are doing brisk business; Devendra thinks his asking price of Rs 10 crore is reasonable. He has more modest plans for himself. “Once the fort is sold, I will build a house on my farm,” he says.

The Balariya Fort is one of the 28 privately owned forts, palaces, havelis and other heritage properties in Rajasthan, which are now up for sale or are available on long- or short-term lease. They make up a list compiled by the state’s tourism department as part of the Resurgent Rajasthan summit, inviting private parties to invest in these heritage structures in a bid to spur the state’s tourism sector.

Heritage properties being converted into hotels is not new in Rajasthan but what is novel this time around is the government’s thrust. Examples such as the nearly 300-year-old Rani Vilas in Jaipur, which has recently been turned into a hotel, as well as Fort Begu in Chittorgarh which dates back to the year 1430, are many. Both these properties which ran as hotels are now again on the market — Rani Vilas with an expected market value of Rs 45 crore is open for a long-term lease while Raj Mahal Fort Begu is open for investment.

The current government has now come up with the Rajasthan Tourism Unit Policy, 2015, which replaces the Rajasthan Tourism Unit Policy of 2007; the new policy primarily addresses issues relating to time-bound conversion of land for tourism units, including new heritage hotels, grant of patta (lease deed) to heritage hotels, while also expanding the definition of ‘Tourism Unit’ to cover heritage hotels, all of which is aimed at bringing “speedy investment in the state.” The new policy has spelt hope to many. Veerbhadra Singh, owner of Fort Baghera in Kekri tehsil of Ajmer, is one of them. The 14th generation of his family to live in a two-hectare fort that’s built with huge blocks of granite, with some of its walls over a metre thick, Singh is now toying with the idea of selling it or converting it into a hotel. The fort has a long history. It was a structure that was fortified in the17th century and got much of its present shape then, complete with an escape tunnel, underground cells to store food, stables, and a multi-tier defence system with a moat and towers at all corners. The intervening years have brought in many changes. The moat has gone missing, the stables are empty, and cracks have overtaken the walls but Fort Baghera still holds on to a dishevelled charm. Of the nearly 100 rooms of the fort, Singh throws open about half-a-dozen rooms to tourists, but there aren’t too many takers. An investment of about Rs 5 crore could well change that, he says.

Over a 100 kilometre away, the Pisangan Fort sits snugly among small houses and narrow streets. With its fading murals and walls overrun with creepers, its thick black stone walls still bear an air of authority and the merlons on its battlements, with archer slits to fire at enemies, look formidable even today. Pisangan’s Jitendra Sen Rathore traces his lineage to Udai Singh Sahib Bahadur, the king who ruled Jodhpur around the 16th century and who was an associate of Mughal emperors. According to historical records, Kesri Singh, the grandson of Udai Singh, came to seek his fortune in Ajmer, won the favour of Emperor Shah Jahan and evicted the Panwar Rajputs from Pisangan sometime in the 17th century. Jitendra Sen Rathore, 75, is the 15th generation of the family to live in Pisangan. He has in the past rented out portions of the fort to a school and college but says they only damaged the fort. It took a case court to get the college evicted and now Rathore is keen to lease out his fort. Khawas Fort in Ajmer’s Kekri tehsil has many owners but little upkeep. Though much of the fort is owned by 69-year-old Bharat Sen Rathore, his four brothers have also inherited parts of it. The result is a mishmash of colours, repairs and construction, none of which has been sufficient in preventing parts of it from crumbling. “It used to be seven storeys high then and the subedar of Ajmer was imprisoned here in 1759,” says Bharat. Rajasthan is dotted with forts that hold within it walls such stories of intrigue and war. The list of heritage properties in Rajasthan hoping for private investment to breathe some life back into them is long. Meja Fort in Bhilwara (1875-80), Badu Fort (1729) in Nagaur, the16th century Bassi Fort in Chittorgarh, 400-year-old Kalatera Fort in Nagaur and 250-year-old Sigra Fort in Jhunjhuna, the 800-year-old Badnor Fort in Bhilwara and the 17th century Sarwar Fort are all bulding blocks of history that the government and conservationists hope will stand up to time.