At sunrise on 24 August 2016, guests in their Rs 60,000-a-night luxury suites at the Sujan Rajmahal Palace Hotel were rudely woken by the sound of bulldozers. Those nursing hangovers from too many pineapple and cardamom martinis and expecting a Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel experience were instead treated to the spectacle of a stand-off between Diya Kumari [only child of Bhawani Singh, better known as Bubbles, late maharaja of Jaipur] and lathi-wielding policemen protecting hundreds of workers who were busy sealing the hotel’s entrances, pulling down a heritage building on its grounds and evicting its occupants, all with the television cameras rolling.

Originally a pleasure pavilion for Maharaja Jai Singh II’s favourite wife, the 250-year-old property had seen many changes. In 1821, it became the official home of the British Resident before reverting to the ownership of the royal family at the time of Independence. After a major renovation that gave the building its current art deco look, it replaced the Rambagh as Jai [Man Singh II, maharaja of Jaipur] and Ayesha’s [Gayatri Devi’s] private home. Following Jai’s death, Ayesha moved into the Moti Doongri Fort and then to Lily Pool.

The Rajmahal was occupied by Bubbles but fell into disrepair after he passed away and became the property of his adopted heir, Padmanabh.

In 2014, it was taken over by the Sujan Group, who turned it into Jaipur’s most “crushingly cool” hotel experience, featuring fourteen suites and thirty-seven different patterns of wallpaper “as bright and graphic as a beach towel”, the work of designer Adil Ahmad. Bubbles’s Ford Thunderbird convertible with the number plate JAIPUR 1 is permanently parked out front, ready to whisk guests on sightseeing tours. But on this particular day it was not going anywhere.

As the dust rose from an eighteenth-century pavilion that was being pulverised by jackhammers near the hotel’s perimeter, Diya was joined by her mother, Padmini [widow of Bhawani Singh]. Both were waving court orders in the face of the Jaipur Development Authority [JDA] boss, Shikhar Agarwal, who ordered a temporary halt to the demolitions but refused to reopen the gates.

The night before, the JDA had posted notices on the gates to the palace announcing the “anti-encroachment” drive. The JDA claimed it had a 1993 court order on the acquisition of 12.5 bighas of land occupied by the Rajmahal. Diya insisted she had papers proving a court had stayed the land acquisition and threatened to sue the civic authority. Agarwal insisted the JDA was acting in accordance with the law.

That may have been the case, but it didn’t explain why it had waited twenty-six years to carry out the orders and why its actions were timed to coincide with Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s departure from Jaipur to attend a literary festival in Bhutan.

After all, just a few days before, Raje had dined with Diya and Padmini. “If this could happen to a BJP MLA from a royal family, you can imagine what would be happening to the common man,” Diya thundered. Added her husband, Narendra: “It was the worst humiliation the Jaipur royals could have been subjected to.”

A week later, Padmini proved that even at the age of seventy-three she had plenty of fight left in her. In a statement published in local newspapers, the rajmata announced she would lead a march from Tripolia Gate to the Rajmahal to protest the JDA’s action. What happened was not only an insult to her family but also to the people of Jaipur.

Sealing the Rajmahal was “immoral and repressive” and an affront to the patriotism of her late husband. Given the blessings of local Rajput associations, the march attracted hundreds of people. When protesters reached the Rajmahal, the rally was addressed by Padmanabh [Diya Kumari’s son], who said: “We have faith in the chief minister...judiciary and justice will prevail.”

The stand-off was finally settled after intervention from the BJP president Amit Shah, who reportedly accused Vasundhara Raje of treating the royal family like a “land mafia”.

After vowing never to talk to the chief minister again, Padmini met Vasundhara Raje on 4 September. The same night the entrances to the palace were unlocked. Two days later, a local court ruled against the JDA, ordering a return to the status quo and directing the authority to rebuild the demolished structures at its own cost. Agarwal and JDA Secretary Pawan Arora were removed from their posts two months later. Following a complaint by the royal family, a magistrate issued bailable warrants against Agarwal, Arora and other top JDA officials for the 24 August demolition.

Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s role in the dispute became a hot topic with the media. In 2014, there were rumours that she had wanted to buy the Rajmahal from the royal family. Adil Ahmad was portrayed as being “virtually part of Raje’s family”. The rumours were dismissed as “the handiwork mostly of Congressmen and Vasundhara’s detractors in the media fuelled by her rivals within the BJP”. But they were still strong enough to prompt the Hindustan Times to portray the JDA’s assault on the Rajmahal “as a warning to the royal family which had gone back on its commitment to allow her [Vasundhara] a stake in the property”.

The Rajmahal action would later be cited as one cause of the drubbing Vasundhara Raje received in the 2018 assembly elections.

Excerpted with permission from The House of Jaipur : The Inside Story of India’s Most Glamorous Royal Family, John Zubrzycki, Juggernaut Books.