Location: Usha Kiran Palace, Lahkar, Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh
As Indian palaces go, Usha Kiran is relatively modest. And it’s all the more congenial for that. Everything is handy, no ten-minute walks to find the dining room. It’s also retained its period feel despite now being part of the big Taj hotel chain.
Originally built in the 1880s as a royal guest house, one of its later visitors was Edward Prince of Wales during his 1921-22 winter tour of India, a trip of 41,000 miles lasting eight months. It was the ultimate package tour, with a legion of lackeys to organize every detail. The aim was for the prince, representing king-emperor George V, to thank the Indian people for their vital role in World War One and to strengthen India’s loyalty as its independence movement gained momentum (to be achieved in 1947). On 8 February, 1922, the prince and his party arrived at Gwalior by train, welcomed by the immensely rich, powerful and hospitable Madho Rao II Scindia, Maharaja of Gwalior. Host and guest clambered into a howdah strapped atop an elephant called Hirandaz who had the Prince of Wales’s signature plume of feathers painted as decoration on his trunk.
The procession of eighteen elephants carrying the royal party wound its slow way to The Scindia’s vast, outrageously extravagant Jai Vilas palace. This hotchpotch of classical and Indian styles adapted to Indian requirements was put together by Sir Michael Filose in the 1870s in time for an earlier royal visit. Recently, what became a dusty morgue has been cleaned up, re-thought and is a joy to visit (it’s a two-minute walk from Usha Kiran) thanks to the capable Priyadarshini Raje Scindia, working with Abha Narain Lambah conservation architects.
But the prince did not stay at splendid Jai Vilas. As with other foreign visitors, his ways and diet were anathema to the devout Hindu ruler. So this diligent, Raj-loyal host put him up in the guest house next door, little Usha Kiran palace.
Today’s guests are hosted for today’s wellness-seeking world. Relax in intimate courtyards, hang out on huge sofas on the upstairs landing ‘sit-outs’, wander nine acres of gardens, plunge in the pool. The head chef is happy to take foodies off to the market with him, then show them how to cook Gwalior’s Maratha dishes; concerts of the classical Gwalior gharana music can be booked, a real treat. The stone jalis (cutwork screens), billiards table, 1930s rosewood elevator and two-blade ceiling fans are still in place; the Jiva spa pampers body and mind. For activities, explore the town, take a memorable day trip, or pre-book some river-rafting.
Must-do wellness experience: relaxing - to catch up on diary, photos, novel and daydreams
Usha Kiran buzz phrase: Have you gone to the market with chef yet? It’s amazing!
Ideas for unpacking your kind of slow-down wellness at Usha Kiran
Man Mandir Fort stands on the great bluff of sandstone, part of the Vindhyan Hills, overlooking Gwalior town. On the way up, find monumental Jain statues; at the top, in addition to the magnificent fort find carved Hindu temples, a Sikh gurdwara, a Mughal period palace and more.
Set out early for a day trip south (120km) to Orchha to explore the island palace of the Bundela rulers, with its remarkable surviving floor-to-ceiling wall-paintings. Seek out a dancing girl's house and chhatris beside the Betwa river, lunch at a good hotel. On the way back, visit Datia.
Arriving at Datia is special: drive across a causeway and through a sleepy village to the soaring, empty, multi-story symmetrical palace (it's never been lived in). Use your phone torch to clamber up the internal steps, marvel at the crisply cut stonework on each floor, then enjoy sunset at the top. Magic.
Jiva spa has the usual menu of indulgent wellness treatments plus some recipes from Gwalior's own traditions. To get in the mood for these, visit the fine tombs for the great musician to Akbar's court, Tansen, and his teacher Muhammad Ghaus, brilliant exponents of the Gwalior Gharana.
If you take the Gwalior-Agra road to/from Usha Kiran, consider pausing at Raj Niwas Palace in Dholpur. Built in the 1880s of local read sandstone (as used by Lutyens for New Delhi), it's been extravagantly and imaginatively refurbished. Use the cafe, view a room or two, perhaps decide to stay...
Episode 18: Brijrama Palace, Varanasi
Is it now time to start planning your Unpacking Wellness experience for 2022?
We shall emerge into a more cautious world. In preparation, I have designed some slow-travel Unpacking Wellness experiences. They are suffused in wellness, interaction is controlled, crowds are avoided. You pick and mix your selection from four week-long, in-depth visits to South Indian spots I especially love - on plateau, coast, forest and delta. Do one, two, three or all four.
Enjoy privately or in a small group (dates to be announced)
If you have not traveled with me before ....
Please know that we experience great sights in the best possible way, with lots of add-on encounters and visits to off-beat places.
We meet conservationists, curators, craftsmen and musicians, we walk with naturalists, we cook with local chefs.
In sum, we imbibe the essence of each area thanks to my four decades of studying and visiting India - and making great friends who I share with you.
For private travel ....
I work with you to create your tailor-made trip to any corner of India, to any budget, for all interests and special needs, for families and parties of friends, for business groups and for honeymoon couples - India is ideal for everyone!