It is touted that the Umaid Bhawan Palace was built as a drought relief measure by Maharaja of Jodhpur Umaid Singh. The idea was to make a luxurious private residence for the Maharaha in order to create employment for the starving people of Jodhpur. I find it ironic. Imagine a man thinking of making a 347 room luxurious villa for himself out of the misery of the people is he supposed to serve. Surprisingly the Maharaja is glorified till this day as a philanthropist for his `noble gesture’. The moment you enter the Umaid Bhawan a large plaque informs you about this `generosity’.
Umaid Bhawan Palace’s construction was begun in 1929 and employed 5000 men for 16 years. Of course these men were paid. But the money Maharajas in India had was not theirs in the first place. It was state money. Money of the people they ruled over. Money the Maharajas were supposed to spend on their people’s welfare. But it was the money the Maharajas generously helped themselves to from time to time to fund their extravagant lifestyles.
I am surprised that it did not occur to the Maharaja to put the money to dig wells, to harvest water, or in funding the various traditional skills of his famine stricken public. But then he was a Maharaja and what else could he think of other than a palace of luxury?
In 1977 more than half of it was converted into a hotel. It is divided between a luxury hotel, a museum and the residence of the Maharaja’s successors. But it is so massive that it still remains the largest private residence in the world. After the imposing Mehrangarh Fort, Umaid Bhawan is the next monumental attraction in Jodhpur for tourists.
Today Maharaja’s of Jodhpur are depicted in the media as though they were the original Indian patriots of yore. That’s perhaps due to the personal charisma of the present Maharaja of Jophpur Gaj Singhji II who according to those who have met him is a humble unassuming man very unlike his predecessors.
An interesting fact which is often forgotten is that during the Partition of India the then Jodhpur Maharaja wanted to join Pakistan. He had to be prevailed upon by this nobles, village elders and the ruler of Jaisalmer to do a rethink.
But when he had to sign the Instrument of Accession in the viceroy’s office he threw a regal tantrum. He is said to have held a revolver to the secretary’s head saying ‘I will not accept your dictation’. But after this display of royal bluster he signed on the dotted line.