Patiala pegs its fortune on heritage

ONCE the abode of Punjab’s nobility, the Rajendra Kothi in Patiala may soon throw its doors open to visitors who wish to take a part of history back with them. It is now official that the state government has zeroed in on the magnificent Kothi to kickstart its campaign of rejuvenating the rich heritage of the state.

This decision will help in the conservation of a heritage property. The renovated Rajendra Kothi would not only serve as a brilliant showpiece in the Punjab’s royal landscape but also assume the role of a "practical building", redesigned for leisure in contemporary times. Not just that, it would also set the trend for heritage hotels in Punjab. Till now, the state does not have a single heritage hotel, while there are more than 200 such properties all over India. Rajasthan leads the pack, attracting the largest number of domestic and foreign tourists with its 85 heritage hotels. Jaipur alone houses 43, followed by Udaipur (19), Jodhpur (14), Bikaner (6) and Jaisalmer (3).

Neemrana Fort, located in Alwar, 122 km from Delhi, is a sought after heritage resort in India. A Grand Heritage Property, it has 41 rooms. Another famous heritage hotel in Rajasthan is Laxmi Vilas Palace. Located 27 km from the Udaipur airport, it overlooks the magnificent Fatehsagar Lake.

Himachal Pradesh also offers the best to tourists with its 16 heritage hotels, including the famous Nalagarh Fort, 60 km from Chandigarh; Oberoi Clarkes, Cecil, Wildflower Hall ‘ located in and around Shimla; and Hotel Castle in Kulu. Rated among the best in India, Hotel Castle, a medieval stone and wood mansion, was once home to the Raja of Kulu. It also has a gallery next door containing the works of Nicholas Roerich.

Back to Punjab, proposals for setting up heritage hotels in the state have been floating around for long. The idea, however, took shape only after February 14 last year, when the Punjab Government in collaboration with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) hosted the first heritage festival in Patiala. Undoubtedly among the richest heritage cities in Punjab, Patiala is home to several architecturally rich structures, including the massive Old Moti Bagh Palace, Sheesh Mahal and Rajendra Kothi, facing the picturesque Baradari Grounds. However, despite its rich wealth of historic buildings, the city lacks amenities for a modern-day tourist. It virtually has no hotels to cater to the tastes of a discerning domestic tourist or the foreign spender.

Interestingly, even in the new tourism policy announced some time ago, it was stressed that Patiala needed to be developed as a tourist destination. And for that, the focus had to be shifted to the international tourist. While announcing the second Patiala Heritage Festival in February this year, Deputy Commissioner, Patiala, Tejveer Singh had admitted that better hotels were required in Patiala, which, at present, offers accommodation alternatives that are below average. It is to meet this demand, that the concept of a heritage hotel was developed.
The project is now in full swing, with the Punjab Urban Development Authority (PUDA) inviting expressions of interest from all over the country. In fact, the identification of the heritage property was a lengthy process because Patiala offered many options. Finally, Rajendra Kothi, more than a century old, was chosen over other sites due to its strategic location as well as its structurally sound interior. The site was selected after many consultants visited Patiala to oversee its heritage properties and voted Rajendra Kothi as the t feasible structure for a heritage hotel. Mahendra Kothi, another historic site in Patiala, was not chosen because it has to be converted into a Habitat Centre. Sheesh Mahal, another magnificent building, already houses the museum and the Old Moti Bagh Palace has the National Institute of Sports.

The choice thus fell upon Rajendra Kothi, which is located near other historically significant sites like Baradari Grounds and Maharai Club. Facing Baradari Stadium and 1 km from the bus stand, this palace is said to have been built in the late 19th century by Maharaja Rajendra Singh. Once home to Maharaja Rajendra Singh and later to his son Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, the Kothi was extensively used to host foreign guests of the royalty. Between 1962 and 1967, it even housed the Punjabi University.

A rich blend of the Mughal and colonial architecture, the Kothi has over 20 rooms. It requires negligible partitioning, as the spacious rooms boast of bathrooms with modern fittings.

Chief Administrator, PUDA, Sanjay Kumar, said: "PUDA will identify the best client who has the capability, the expertise and the experience of handling heritage properties. Our officials recently visited the heritage properties in Rajasthan to understand their functioning. It was on the suggestions of consultants that PUDA drew up terms and conditions for the parties interested in handling the project in Punjab. We have received responses and will shortly evaluate them. And then the process of bidding will start for the Kothi to be leased out."

It is learnt that major players like the Welcom Group, the Taj and ITC have shown interest in Rajendra Kothi, which has attractive features like the fern house, a dance hall and a skating rink. The front portion of the Rajendra Kothi’s ground floor has been executed in beautiful white and black marble. The rest of it is made of red sandstone slabs. The main building has round pillars that support a Jack-arched ceiling. Even the doors of t rooms are arched. The second floor of the Kothi has 13 rooms, while the third floor has six.

Even as the process of selecting a suitable client for converting Rajendra Kothi into a heritage hotel continues, those in the travel and hotel business welcome the step. Says Manmohan Singh, President, Tourism Promotion Society of Chandigarh, who supported the Patiala Heritage Festival last year, "This move was long awaited because Patiala has a dearth of good hotels. Also it is not very well connected. When the Shatabadi was proposed for this part of the region, the people of Patiala and Bathinda did not stand up. Today they have lost on the count of connectivity. While the road to Patiala is now good and well laid out, connectivity needs to be improved."

Hailing the decision, Manmohan Singh remarked, "The entry point to the Kothi is magnificent. Its courtyard has also been delightfully done. Conversion of the Kothi into a heritage hotel will automatically ensure its conservation, besides allowing the government to make a judicious use of the place. It can be used for lodging as well as tourism promotion. Even in Chail, Palace hotel, which is a heritage site, has not been shut out for tourists. Patiala should also follow suit. The authorities could plan to accommodate guests in Rajendra Kothi but they should keep some of its portions open for tourists also. Further, PUDA’s role should be restricted to civil woks. We now have specialised heritage architects and consultants who can work out the best plans for developing such properties. Punjab should engage one such reputed client so that once the hotel comes up, its maintenance is ensured. I have visited many heritage hotels in India. I feel the Lake Palace in Udaipur is the best-maintained heritage property. This royal structure is being maintained by the Taj Group, making it world class with its fine commercial inputs. Maintenance is the key to the success of heritage hotels"

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