In the lap of the Aravalli Hills in Gujarat, lies the untouched town of Santrampur, which is riddled with ancient palaces and striking temple ruins. Text & Pictures By Harsh Pate
If years of road-tripping through Gujarat and Rajasthan have given me anything, it is an undying urge to explore their royal heritage in the form of their palaces and forts. Most of them have been converted into hotels, which gives one the added chance to experience the royalty of a bygone era. So when I chance upon Shri Joraver Vilas in Santrampur, I am surprised that such a beautiful property is so little heard of. I set out on a rainy morning in early September from my hometown, Ahmedabad, in search of this hidden paradise, nestled amid the lush lower reaches of the Aravallis.
As the commercial hubs of Ahmedabad recede in my rearview mirror, a landscape of verdant fields beneath a cloudy sky replaces it. Shri Joraver Vilas is three hours by road from Ahmedabad. First comes the lake, and then the tall gates and walls of this Art Deco palace. Far from the chaotic humdrum of our hectic urban lives, it feels like an oasis of tranquillity.
A cool, refreshing hibiscus sherbet greets me upon arrival. While waiting in their blue-walled drawing-room, I gaze at the photo frames of eras long gone, taking in the history of this erstwhile kingdom.
Rana Sant, the first ruler of Santrampur, and his brother Limdev carved out the kingdom of Santrampur in 1255. All of its rulers were from the Parmar clan of Rajputs, claiming a lineage to the legendary Emperor Vikramaditya of Ujjain. Shri Joraver Vilas itself was built in 1926 by Saheb Shri Joraver Singhji, who wanted a quiet getaway from the frenzy of his court. Compared to the cavernous official residence of the ruler, it was a more personal and modern place—at least by early 20th-century standards.
The great-grandson of Joraver Singhji, Paranjayaditya, and his wife Mandakini live at Shri Joraver Vilas at present and have opened the doors of their stately home to tourists. The palace interiors are reminiscent of the Art Deco era it was built in and aspires to recreate the regal hospitality of the past. Five contemporary rooms and suites occupy the ground floor of the villa, surrounding a magnificent central courtyard. Inside the suite and out, a confluence of royal aesthetics adorns the walls, the bathrooms, the tables, the door knockers, and the furniture.
My room aptly named the Lake Suite, overlooks the lake by which this property is located. From a little nook that is ideal to read a book in, to the warm pink-hued walls and the Art Deco bathroom with a view of the garden courtyard, this is a magnificent suite. I refresh myself and set out for a stroll in the sprawling gardens, where I am greeted by Vrishankaditya, the son of Paranjayaditya and Mandakini. Over a hearty breakfast, we plan the day—the highlight being a high tea in a boat, and a show around of the other palaces owned by the family.
At 4 pm, I make my way to the lake where my boat is ready with a lavish spread of local and western delicacies. From French toast, cookies, and black coffee, to juices and Gujarati snacks like sweet chikkis made of peanuts and jaggery, and pakoras—everything is laid out on a beautiful white embroidered tablecloth, and looks fit for a king.
I can’t help but take my camera out to capture this setting, and while I am at it, the boat sails from its lotus-filled moorings to the opposite shore. From here, the villa looks dreamy. In the distance, I see migratory birds along with a few buffaloes taking a dip in the lake. Meanwhile, I sip herbal tea from the Santrampur Field and Flower collection. The forests and fields around are abundant in indigenous flowers, fruits, and local grains. Santrampur Field and Flower (picpanzee.com/santrampurfieldandflower) is a local brand started with the purpose of using this product to make tea, jams, sherbet, and chutneys.
We sail back to the shores of the villa after 45 minutes out on the lake, and then comes my favourite part of the day. The 1970s vintage jeep is ready as Vrishankaditya and I drive towards Raj Mahal, up a steep hill, waving at the kids who recognise the roar of the machine. Santrampur comprises two townships, Sant and Rampur. While Rampur is the commercial town or the ‘city centre’, Sant was reserved for the palaces.
Apart from Shri Joraver Vilas, Sant has two other palaces owned by the royal family, Raj Mahal and Hawa Mahal. Raj Mahal is in a derelict condition but retains the beauty of its Gothic architecture, with intricately carved wooden pillars and beautiful detailing. While Raj Mahal sits at the bottom of the hill, Hawa Mahal lies strategically on top, overlooking Rampur on the east and Sant on the west. The 360° view from Hawa Mahal, with the River
Sukhi meandering below, the neighbouring villages and the backwaters of the Kadana Dam, is breathtaking. I am in awe of the beauty as I listen to Vrishankaditya talk about the family’s plans to develop this palace into another hotel in the future.
As we take in the lush greenery of Sant and Rampur from the Hawa Mahal, the setting sun paints orange strokes on a grey sky. On one side, Shri Joraver Vilas is visible in the distance, while on the other is a small temple on a hill that Vrishankaditya plans to explore after the monsoon. On our way back, we stop by the ruins of a Shiva and Vishnu temple in the village. This complex of four temples, dating back to the 14th century, has been identified by the Archaeological Survey of India as a protected heritage monument.
If breakfast and high tea are royal affairs, the dinner defies description. I walk down the courtyard to my favourite room in the villa. It is decorated in colourful, intricate mirror-work (known as kapchi), and this is where dinner is laid out. Since Santrampur is located near the Gujarat border, with Rajasthan on the northern side and Madhya Pradesh on the eastern, the cuisine is also greatly influenced by these areas. The family also has close ties with Parsi families residing in Santrampur, which means various Parsi dishes find their way to the dining table, such as, patra ni machchi (steamed fish wrapped in banana leaves) and keema parendu (spicy minced mutton topped with eggs).
Santrampur and its neighbouring areas are predominantly inhabited by tribals, who grow maize. The maize baati or paaniya (a hard dumpling of maize flour wrapped in leaves of the rubber bush, called akda locally, cooked on a wood fire, and then doused with a generous helping of ghee), along with desi murghi (country-bred chicken) and hara chana bhaji (a dish made of green gram), is a delicious addition to the royal cuisine. Of course, vegetarian Gujarati fare is an integral part of the menu as well, with delicacies like meethi dal (sweet lentils), khandvi (soft, spicy rolls made of gram flour), undhiyu (one-pot vegetable casserole dish), and mohan thaal (a sweet made of dry fruits). The in-house speciality, however, is the meethi murghi. The secret recipe has been carried down through generations. This chicken preparation is cooked with dry fruits, milk and milk solids, saffron, and whole red chillies. The sweetness brought about by the dry fruits and the heat of the red chillies make it mouthwatering.
The saying ‘everything sparkles under a chandelier’ comes alive in the drawing-room. The huge golden chandelier here blends with the floral upholstery, carved tables, and lamps. As I sit here after a delectable dinner, the reality to which I will return tomorrow feels like a different world.
Shri Joraver Vilas has five suites (starts from INR 9,000/ USD 135; royalsantrampur.com)
Go on a guided nature trail across Santrampur. The Panchratan Temple is 1 km from the centre. You can also request a boat ride on the lake, and visit a rural farm and/or tribal home. The Tribal Haat (market) at Santrampur comes alive every Tuesday.