A new highway slices through the Rajasthani countryside from Udaipur to the metropolis of Ahmedabad, an icon of Narendra Modi’s gleaming sales pitch for a new India. If you turn off the motorway and wind east for 40km, you will reach another India: the forgotten principality of Dungarpur.
It is a world apart from Rajasthan’s bustling big four: pink Jaipur, blue Jodhpur and the golden deserts around Jaisalmer and Udaipur. Dungarpur’s discreet palaces are tucked in a valley far from the main thoroughfares. Its royal history may sound familiar, starting with a house that branched off from the Mewar line in the 13th century and ambled its way into the 20th century with a succession of maharajahs who became expert in cricket and the construction of Art Deco follies. But its secluded location among the dusty tribal lands of the Bhil people has kept it out of the Rajasthani mainstream.
Head first to the old palace, the magnificent, tottering Juna Mahal, built on a fortified cliffside when the dynasty was worried about the Mughal army. An old retainer with a jangly keyring will show you around all seven storeys. Each room is unique, and as colourful as any vision of Rajasthani luxe. Ask him to unlock the cabinets filled with frescoes of a wildly erotic nature hidden near the top of the palace. Successive panels depict positions to make the jaw unhinge.
As tensions subsided, the family moved into the Udai Bilas Palace, carved from a local stone on the shore of the Gaib Sargar lake. Today, the larger part of it has been reincarnated as a hotel, with rooms that sprawl around a courtyard paved like a marble chessboard. Air-conditioning and other mod-cons do not detract from the Gatsby-era opulence: iron-clawed bathtubs, large drawing rooms, mounted leopards’ heads. You can breakfast on a lawn overlooking the lake, on which an austere temple floats like a lily.