Srinagar’s heritage hideaway, Lalit The Grand Palace, has been made over by Bharat Hotels
Once upon a time there was a king who lived in a palace. Not any old ordinary palace, mind you. It had a fairytale location, backed as it was by well wooded hills, with the finest location in the city, far above a shimmering lake. The palace had enormous halls and, not surprisingly, bedrooms fit for a maharaja. There were wooden floors and large windows that overlooked immaculate lawns, planted with king-sized pink roses. In the sprawling gardens, the weather was mild for half the year and freezing for the other half, but when it was cold, the king and his retinue beat the cold by the simple expedient of moving to another, warmer part of his kingdom.
In time, the fairytale existence came to an end. The old king passed on; his son gave the palace to a hotel chain to run, which they did. For a while, the fairytale existence looked as if it would continue— at least for the hotel, if not for the original occupants — but a period of great strife took place and the hotel employees had to flee for their lives. For a few years, the palace stood forsaken on its perch, stripped of everything it ever had — carpets, furniture, even chandeliers. Fortunately, a knight in shining armour had a dream and enough foresight (as well as the means to see his dream through) to purchase the palace.
When your car sweeps up the driveway that leads off the road around the Dal Lake, up a forested hillside, the only sound you hear is birdsong. The rest of the city and its clamour is left far behind. It is as if the intervening years of strife have not happened, because the knight in shining armour, whose name happens to be Lalit Suri, has done his job superbly well.
The old palace contains the suites, including a suite for a latter-day maharaja—it’s as large as a couple of three-bedroom flats put together. And the new wing, built from scratch during the Oberoi days (for they were the chain who ran it until 1990) has a facade that closely approximates the original part. In the centre, Bharat Hotels has constructed their lobby the old lobby conveyed none of the grandeur of the palace, being a long narrow room that was nearest the entrance. The present lobby, created literally out of thin air, gives the guest a delicious sense of anticipation, being large and airy, and exactly like one’s perception of what a real maharaja’s palace should look like. Royal artefacts—swords, paintings on marble, kani jamewar shawls — carry forward the grandeur of the space.
Where Bharat Hotels has triumphed, is in seamlessly creating modern facilities in an old palace, with no sense of the Patchwork effect that usually mars such ventures. All corridors, all through the hotel, are single-loaded, and they are be-hind the rooms, so that no matter where you stay, you have a view of the garden. In the original plan, all corridors were in front of the rooms, so that the only people to enjoy the view was the service staff.
Maintaining a heritage property is a nightmare. Because it is so sprawling, there needs to be a high staff:guest ratio, but with the political situation in Kashmir only just beginning to stabilise, the hotel has had to work with the skeletal staff that it has had, ever since being taken over by the present management. “None of the guests can believe that we have only 15 gardeners,” claims Ranjit Singh, manager, proudly.
When you’re sitting in the sprawling lawns in the magical hour between dusk and night-fall, and the lights of the houseboats far, far below are just beginning to twinkle, it’s easy to believe that the fairytale still continues.