Indian palaces are part of a visual language that shapes the way India is portrayed in media and in turn, the way we see Indian culture. That said, many of the films featuring India use the Taj Mahal to represent Indian architecture. It’s a warranted association given the impressiveness of white marble palace that graces the bank of the river Yamuna. The fact that it involves a love story, that of Shah Jahan building it as a mausoleum for his queen Mumtaz Mahal, adds an additional layer of mystique to the structure.
But as beautiful as it is, the Taj Mahal isn’t all there is to the Indian subcontinent. When you have a civilization that’s at least 8,000 years old, you’re bound to get more than a few architectural wonders.
1. Hawa Mahal
Kicking off our tour of Indian palaces is a personal favorite of mine, the Hawa Mahal. The name of the palace translates to “The Palace of Winds”, a name that likely has something to do with the way the palace was built to facilitate the circulation of air and light.
The Hawa Mahal Palace is situated in Jaipur, as an extension of the City Palace. Built in 1799, the palace is a spectacular mix of Islamic Mughal and Hindu Rajput architecture and was designed for ladies of the royal family of Jaipur. Notice the windows of the Hawa Mahal? The palace provided royal ladies a literal window to the outside world, giving them a taste of public life while still observing pardah, a religious practice that calls for the seclusion of women from men.
The Hawa Mahal Palace has a whopping 953 windows, each boasting a finely carved latticework. The palace’s use of red and pink sandstone allowed builders to carve intricate patterns into the windows, leaving them looking no harder than lace when light filters through them. This is further complemented by the colorful glasswork that adorns the windows, giving the ladies of the palace their own private light show every sunrise and sunset.
2. Amer Fort
Okay, maybe this one is a bit of a cheat but once you see the interior of the Amer Fort, you’ll understand why its beauty makes the cut for a palace.
The Amer Fort cuts an impressive figure on the otherwise monotone landscape of the Thar desert. Built in 1592 by Raja Man Singh, the fort once doubled as a palace for rulers of the Kachhwahas clan. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is among the many hill forts of the Indian state of Rajasthan. Though its exterior is starting to show its age, its sturdy material of marble and sandstone have helped guarantee its survival through the centuries.
The Amer Fort is split into four different courtyards, each holding its own architectural delights for anyone who makes the time to visit the palace. Perhaps the most popular of these is the third courtyard which served as the ruler and his family’s private quarters. The courtyard contains a lush garden that can give the Alhambra palace a run for its money.
Another wonder of the third courtyard is the mirrored ceiling in its mirror palace area which you can see depicted in the image above.
Visitors of the Amer Fort have the option of taking a 10-15 minute walk up its steps or just taking an elephant ride. It’s tempting to go all out for the royal experience, but try to walk instead. Amer Fort’s elephant wranglers have been investigated for abusing the animals with accusations ranging from beating them with bullhooks, to forcing them to carry extreme loads, to not providing adequate medical care or food.
3. Mysuru Palace
All of these Indian palaces are extra, but the Mysuru Palace in the Indian state of Karnataka brings it to the next level. The palace was built in 1897 in the Indo-Saracenic architectural style that was popularized by British architects in the Indian subcontinent towards the tail end of the 19th century.
According to author Pradip Kumar Das, the architectural style combined Mughal architecture with Gothic revival and even Neo-classical elements. This strong Western influence shows in the structure of the Mysuru Palace which feels like it wouldn’t look too out of place if it were plopped on the English countryside.
The interior of this Indian palace is a lively burst of turquoise blue, reds, and gold details. Its high arches, while keeping the look of classical Indian architecture, reach up towards a distinctly European-looking stain glass dome.
4. Chowmahalla Palace
Chowmahalla Palace is located in the city of Hyderabad in Telangana state. Though construction began in the 1700s, the palace would only be completed a century later, around the 1850s. The timing of its completion subjected it to the same architectural influences of the Mysuru Palace. Its mix of Indian Mughal and European Gothic architecture means the palace has gems like the main hall below.
A testament to the peak of the power and wealth of the Nizams of Telangana, the palace is divided into four palace complexes. In fact, it’s in the name. ‘Chow’ means ‘four’ in the local languages of Urdu and Hindi. Given its size, originally comprising 45 acres of land, made maintaining the palace a feat that required hours of manpower and a mindboggling amount of wealth.
Thankfully for this Indian palace, Princess Esra, former wife of Nizam Mukarram Jah, was ready to step up to plate. The Turkish princess spearheaded the restoration of the Chowmahallah Palace, employing an army of conservation architects and craftsmen to record and recreate the beauty of the palace over a period of seven years.
The palace is open to visitors for a small fee.
5. Laxmi Vilas Palace
Located in the state of Gujarat, the Indian palace of Laxmi Vilas is another 19th-century creation made for Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III. The then ruler of Gujarat set out to create a new home and seat of power in 1890. Just as with other homes built in the Indo-Saracenic style, the owner of the palace commissioned a British architect, Major Charles Mant, to design the sprawling property.
But Mant wouldn’t remain the architect of the project for long. Rumor has it, he committed suicide out of fear that the palace was badly built due to fatal miscalculations. Another architect by the name of Robert Fellows Chisolm would later be recruited to take over the project.
The end result is a gorgeous palace that’s four times the size of Buckingham Palace. This makes the Laxmi Vilas Palace the largest private residence in India.
Fortunately for tourists, the Laxmi Vilas palace is open to visitors and is practically a hotel at this point. It’s gorgeous open-air Darbar Hall is a popular venue for musical performances. Plus, have I mentioned they have a museum and a golf course?
6. The City Palace of Jaipur
The City Palace of Jaipur is an 18th-century Indian palace located in Rajasthan state. You might recall that this palace is the main palace to which the Hawa Mahal is an extension. Located in the heart of Jaipur, the palace is an elegant structure carved of red sandstone and marble. Its high arches feature complex floral motifs and are supported on marble columns.
The palace was built in 1727 after Jai Singh II, the ruler of the Kingdom of Amber, moved out of Amber and into Jaipur, bringing with him his family, an army of courtesans, and thousands of servants and retainers. Since the establishment of the palace in the city of Jaipur, the City Palace has remained the home of present-day descendants of Jai Sing II. It is currently the residence of Princess Diya Kumri of Jaipur along with her two sons and daughter.
If you thought the exterior of the City Palace was impressive, wait till you see the interior of the royal residence. The Indian palace contains several grand halls such as the Sabha Niwas hall and Sarvato Bhadra hall. Both halls functioned as a space for Jaipur kings to receive visitors. The former served as a place for hosting a public audience, that is, for commoners, and the latter for other nobles, royals, and officials of the Jaipur government.
You can get a taste of the Indian royal high life by booking a room in the City Palace. Well, palace quarters are a better way to put it. The Jaipur royals currently have the Gudliya Suite available for tourists to rent. Notable guests include Princess Diana of Wales and talk show host Oprah Winfrey. A night’s stay at the Gudliya Suite starts at a jaw-dropping $5,000.
7. Umaid Bhawan Palace
Here’s another Indian palace you can stay at if you have the money. The Umaid Bhawan Palace, which is also located in the state of Rajasthan, is currently under the care of Gaj Singh, the grandson of the original owner Maharaja Umaid Singh.
Once the exclusive seat and residence of the Jodhpur royal family, a portion of the palace is now used by Gaj Singh as a hotel and events place. But let’s be real, it’s not a hard feat to live on and make money off the same property when the Umaid Bhawan Palace has 347 rooms.
The Umaid Bhawan Palace’s interior design is noticeably more European than the other palaces on this list and this can be chalked up to stronger British influence during the time of its construction between 1928 and 1943.
Curious to know how it matches up to the Laxmi Vilas Palace? The Umaid Bhawan Palace’s website claims that it’s currently the world’s sixth largest private residence.
Unlike the City Palace, another famous site in Rajasthan, this palace is known for being made entirely out of palm court marble, the same gleaming white material used in the construction of the Taj Mahal. If you can afford a room in this palatial hotel, you can get your pick of the palace’s 70 Art Deco bedrooms and suites.
8. Ujjyanta Palace
The Ujjyanta Palace may be a museum now but it used to be the home of the Manikya dynasty and a hub of governance for the Kingdom of Tripura.
The Indian palace was built between 1899-1901 by Maharaja Radha Kishore Manikya. Similar to other Indian palaces made in the period, the Ujjyanta Palace was designed by British architect Sir Alexander Martin. Despite the relative newness of the palace, the dynasty it represents was the ruler of the oldest of India’s princely states.
Following the integration of the Kingdom of Tripura with the rest of India in 1949, the real estate properties of the Manikya royals became the property of the state of India as a whole. The palace would later house the Tripura Legislative Assembly prior to the inauguration of the palace as the Tripura State Museum.
The Ujjyanta Palace is nothing short of grandiose. It’s only two stories high but features three intricately decorated domes. The palace is surrounded by a lush garden and commands a view of the nearby river.
While you can’t spend a night in this Indian palace these days, the famous Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore was once a frequent visitor of the royal residence. According to Pradyot Kishore Manikya Bahadur, the current patriarch of the Tripura royal family, the palace was named by the poet himself during one of his seven visits.
9. Padmanabhapuram Palace
The Padmanabhapuram Palace shares few visual similarities to the other palaces mentioned here but it’s arguably the most Indian by virtue of its minimal Western influences. Initially constructed in 1601, this Indian palace proudly shows its age in its white walls, tiled roofing, and complex wood-carved friezes.
Located in the Indian state of Kerala, the Padmanabhapuram Palace is actually a complex of buildings that served as residential suites and audience halls, most notable of which is the Mantrasala audience chamber where kings of the Venad kingdom discussed matters of state with their ministers. It sits securely within the fortifications of Kalkulam and takes advantage of the strategic protection of the nearby hills.
Though many parts of the Indian palace are made of wood, the fact that it’s now over 400 years old is a testament to Indian craftsmanship and architectural prowess. Since Padmanabhapuram Palace was established during the Travancore era, many believe that it is the oldest palace in India.
10. Lalgarh Palace
Rajasthan state returns to our list again with this next Indian palace. The Lalgarh Palace in Bikaner is one of the most famous heritage hotels in the area and features the same Indo-Saracenic architecture typical of palaces built around the 19th century.
Built between 1902-1926, the palace turned hotel was initially made for Sir Ganga Singh, the former Maharaja of Bikaner. Its architect, Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob, designed the palace which was built out of red sandstone. The original plan was to make the palace on a budget, using a cheaper stucco material. But after the Maharaja of Bikaner started getting into the project himself, the plan was abandoned in favor of making the palace of durable, carved stone.
Its many rooms follow the Victorian convention of including drawing rooms, guest suites, event halls, and lounges. The Lalgarh Palace’s sheer size allows it to house several buildings. It’s currently home to the Shri Sadul Museum, the private home of the Bikaner royal family, and two heritage hotels, the Lallgarh Palace Hotel and the Laxmi Niwas Palace.
11. Narain Niwas Palace
The Narain Niwas Palace is another Indian palace that currently doubles as a heritage hotel. It was originally built for General Amar Singh Ji, the Thakur of Kanota, in 1928. Again, the era of its creation meant the palace used the then-popular Anglo-Indian style of architecture used by Indian royals commissioning British architects.
Unlike the other palaces on this list, the Narain Niwas Palace never served as a primary residence or even as a government building. The palace was fully intended to be a country resort for Kanota royalty looking to take a quick vacation. Its leisurely purpose is reflected in the design of the palace which is airier and more open than many of the other palaces here.
Visitors will pass through beautifully manicured gardens on their way to the entrance which invites them into a series of shimmering chandeliers, vaulted ceilings, and ornate stonework. These properties ensure that each of the 52 rooms of the Narain Niwas Palace is a symphony of color designed to delight visitors.
Like Lalgarh Palace, the Narain Niwas Palace is divided into a quintessentially Victorian array of rooms. You can take a virtual tour through each of the palace’s architectural crowning jewels through the Hotel Narain Niwas website.
Pro tip: Start in the Bar Palladio and take your time appreciating its bright blue walls and brilliant frescoes. Slowly make your way out to the courtyard and follow the path up to Janana Chowk for the perfect Indian palace vacation fantasy.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a flight to India to book.
If you’re planning a grand tour through Asia, check out our list of 7 Things To Do In Manila. Take it from a Filo, when you go on a food trip through Manila, do it in Binondo, the world’s oldest Chinatown.