WEDDING CRASHERS: At the Nilambag Palace Hotel

IMG_6501.JPGAnother new experience for your intrepid correspondents! We crashed the wedding of the Crown Prince of Bhavnagar — inadvertently of course. And actually it was a giant reception for all the “subjects” of the Maharaja, the wedding having taken place a week earlier in Jaipur where “flight connections are easier and liquor can be served.” We were assured that the actual wedding was an exclusive affair, mostly royal families, and a much bigger deal than the reception. This looked like a pretty big deal to us!

We drove from Diu to Bhavnagar with the purpose of visiting the astonishing Jain temple complex of Palitana and attempting to climb its 3300 steps. A whole other post.

IMG_6452.JPGI had booked us for a few days into the Nilambag Palace Hotel, a former residence of the Maharaja of Bhavnagar, converted into a hotel when he built himself a new palace about 35 years ago. Grand but not ostentatious, and not crazily expensive, slightly smaller than Downton Abbey but oddly English in style in that way. I thought it would be a fun experience and we are dawdling now as we are waiting for the weather in Kathmandu to warm up a bit.

IMG_6458.JPGWhen we arrived the receptionist said, “We’ve been trying to reach you. We are having a family function here this weekend and have cancelled all our bookings.” We were somewhat dismayed as our driver from Diu had just roared down the driveway and through the huge imposing gates out of the estate. “But never mind,” she said, “we are going to honour your booking.” Thus we were the only guests in the hotel while they devoted themselves to preparing for the wedding reception of the son of the Maharajah.

Well, what a bonus. No need to leave the 10 acre grounds to venture into the seething, dirty city of Bhavnagar, we were entertained all day by the swarming hordes of workers necessary to set up a party for 1000 people. First came the great scaffoldings to make a giant stage, and side pavilions stretching the length of the lawn, then two huge generator trucks pulled up and swarms of electricians began wiring the place for at least 50 coloured spotlights trained here and there and zillions of fairy lights twined through all the trailing plants and bushes. The whole palace facade is permanently covered with rows of white lights.

IMG_6464.JPGTables and chairs for hundreds were delivered and set up on two halves of the lawn, ready for the tablecloth and sash tying brigade to swath them in white, red and gold decoration. Two hundred white leather sofas were unloaded and placed in the centre of the front lawn in front of the rapidly evolving stage being prepared for the family receiving line. Ornately carved white benches were placed in the side pavilions. The mirror hangers rushed in with bags and bags of mirrored mobiles to hang from the pavilions and red and gold cushions were placed on the benches.

Meanwhile boys were scurrying in with boxes holding tubes of florist foam encased in wire, with which they covered the back wall of the central stage. Next came the people with 30,000 roses who began painstakingly inserting the roses into the foam wall until it was a solid mass of rosebuds. When we walked out to the front gate, we saw that the same sort of structure had been constructed there. Guests walking in the gate faced a wall of roses, with a silver statue of Ganesh placed in front, and fountains tinkling either side.

IMG_6484.JPGWe wandered out behind the garden restaurant where we have our dinner, and found hordes of cooks, stirring giant pots full of various vegetable dishes. One man showed us the “sweet” which apparently had to be stirred constantly for hours. Meanwhile two enormous buffet tables were being set up on either side of the central lawn, surrounded by hundreds of tables and chairs. The final touch when each table had been decorated, was a bouquet of red roses in the centre.

IMG_6487.JPGA dais for the band was being erected to one side of the main stage, quite small — the band was, as it turns out, a traditional one with four instruments of the type on display in the hotel. The music was very melodic, only traditional airs, no Bhangra dancing at this tony event. Like any former mother of the bride, by 5:30 I was fretting that there was no possible way everything could be done in time for the 7:30 start. No worries, said Vijay our new found friend on the staff, all will be ready. And sure enough, as we were having our solitary dinner on the back patio at 7:00, thoroughly entertained watching the man hired to tie turbans winding metres and metres of filmy cloth around the heads of all the wait staff and many of the guests who arrived all dressed up but carrying a bag with their turban fabric in it, trays of food and huge barrels of hot coals were carried past.

IMG_6471.JPGIn order to make roti and dosas to order they had been preparing the heat sources for hours. Oil drums partially filled with cement and fuelled by hot charcoal made portable tandoori ovens. We went around the front and the band members were taking their places, tuning up and starting in. Gradually guests began filtering in.

IMG_6481.JPGBeing inhibited Canadians, we were shy about actually crashing the party, but urged on by all and sundry, and especially Vijay, wearing a most glamorous turban, we got ourselves positioned for a good view of the goings on. As everyone arrived, women in multicoloured saris, and many men in the most gorgeously brilliant turbans, they greeted friends, took their places on the sofas or cushioned benches, chatting and enjoying the usual conviviality of a wedding. Waiters went around with trays of Coca Cola, juice, and tiny water bottles, the only liquid refreshments on offer in “dry” Gujarat.

IMG_6523.JPGSeemingly whenever they felt like it, groups would present themselves at the stage, where a man in a white suit with a flamingo pink turban would greet them, presumably get their names, and then present them to the wedding couple and the Maharaja and Maharani. The bride’s role in this, as in all Hindu marriages, was to look paralyzed with shyness, while the parents and sister of the bridegroom greeted everyone and accepted bouquets of flowers. Some more important guests got a photo with the group.

We were fascinated by the dress. Gujarati women dress mostly in saris — about 2/3 saris to 1/3 shalwar kameez suits in daily life. Even road workers wear brilliantly coloured saris. For this occasion there were some extremely opulent saris on show, and some not so much, surprisingly. The groom’s mother and sister were beautifully dressed, mother in a cloth of gold sari, the groom’s sister, tall and elegant in red. Some men were in the full kit out — fitted silk coat embellished by medals and shiny buttons, jodhpur style pants, curved slippers and magnificent turbans. The bride was laden down with filmy red fabric, heavily embroidered in gold, covered wrist to elbow in gold bangles, face adorned with a nose to ear golden piece that would have prevented her smiling even if she’d wanted to. However, other people had taken no care at all. It was just like a Maple Ridge wedding, some in all their finery, others just in from the street! Some of the children looked so cute, in rainbow hued fairy dresses for the girls and mini rajah suits for the boys. Others were in hoodies and jeans! Doug thought none of his grandchildren would be allowed to attend a wedding like that.

We wondered if all the people who paid their respects were actually invited — it seemed like all the workmen went up and bowed, as well as a lot of quite ordinary looking people. Our speculation is that as “subjects” of the Maharajah perhaps they were not actual party guests.

We had to leave to go to bed about 10:00 as we were to rise at 4:45 next morning to go to Palitana. People were still sifting in, groups had gathered at the tables on the lawn to eat, others sat gossiping on the sofas, children ran and played at will, and the band played on. All very free form and relaxed.

Our pal Vijay later gave us a tour of the whole palace, unlocking the suite rooms for us, and explaining how it had all worked when the family lived there. There are many works of art displayed along with huge formal portraits of the present royal family and those preceding. One of the younger sons of the previous generation had taken up birding in a big way, and his original watercolours of the birds of Gujarat adorn the hallways and staircases.

IMG_6681.JPGFurnishings are very much what would have been there since the place was built, though reupholstered and refurbished. Many of the large wooden sideboards in the living areas are very reminiscent of Downton Abbey and Vijay told us they were purchased at a shop called English Country in Mumbai which still exists today. Since the antique sofas were considered too delicate for guest use they had been replaced. Throughout there were beautiful examples of antique local handicraft work. The original royal apartments for the extended family members have been divided up with additional bathrooms to make the guest rooms. The more palatial suites retain the original bowling alley sized bathrooms which were probably renovated in the 1920’s judging by the lurid tile colours. The maintenance is immaculate. The 15 foot ceilings are freshly repainted, like wedding cake icing with gold accents, and the chandeliers are clean! You don’t know how rare that is here!

Since royalty no longer has access to the “public purse” (since 1972) the family has sold off a great deal of the land surrounding the former palace. The current size of the property is 10 acres, but formerly it was 8 square miles. The Bhavnagar royal family was formerly 7th in India in the size of its land holdings, but far from the richest. Some of the princely estates were mega wealthy. The bridegroom is currently at hotel school in Switzerland and will run this hotel after he completes a few years apprenticeship in various hotels in Europe. Many formerly royal families rent out rooms in their threadbare “palaces” but this family seems to have made a business empire of hotels, industry, and ship breaking, among other things.

IMG_6672.JPGVijay encouraged Doug to take pictures of all the noteworthy items so he will make a separate album of those pictures. What a wonderful bit of serendipity for us, quite the noteworthy experience.