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LUXURY HOTEL: Chapslee House, Lakkar Bazaar, Shimla, India
At Chapslee in Shimla, the opulent days of the Raj live on.
At one end of the long house, the face symbol of Louis XIV - the Sun King- stares out from original twin gold filigree candelabras that rest on an enormous mahogany sideboard from the Doges' Palace. In the hall the walls have given themselves over to Gobelin tapestries from Paris and the ceiling is strung with an exquisite rose-edged Murano glass chandelier. At Chapslee in Shimla refered to mostly as Chalpsee House but more recently advertised as Chapslee Palace (though it is more grand mock-tudor manor than Indian fort), the opulent days of the Raj live on within the walls of this grand two storey manor that has become an exclusive six suites hotel.
 

Everywhere there is something of wonder for your eye to fall upon. Near the foot of the grand staircase a Bruges tapestry from the 1700s, beautiful in its decay, fades into the background as an amazing collection of antique Sikh weapons and the horns from former hunting trophies take over the scene moving up the stairs. And hanging on the walls, hanging over everything is the image of the last Maharaja of Kapurthala, the Honourable Charanjit Singh, the man who was first responsible for almost all that you experience at Chapslee House today.
 
We are studying the almost life-size portrait of the Maharaja in The Hall when his grandson, Kanwar Ratanjit Singh of Kapurthala, comes through to greet us. "Call me Reggie," he says, seemingly unaware of how the name doesn't fit with his own quiet dignity. He offers us tea in the Gold Room that's attached to a sun-filled conservatory. We soon find ourselves teetering on the edge of a rose brocade chaise longue, fumbling in the delicate dance of transferring fresh papery mille feuille pastries and biscuits with silver tongs from the vast platter offered by the young waiter replete in khaki and brass buttoned bell hop outfit. Reggie kindly pretends not to notice. He pours tea into fine boned china cups and speaks on about the gold walls that give the room its name, the paintings, the cabinetry.
 
He tells of the history of this manor that was originally built in 1838. How, as Governor General Lord Auckland's residence, it soon after gained the dubious recognition of being the location for the signing of The Afghan Manifest that marked the beginning of 'The Great Game' of Anglo-Afghan-Russian wars. Every now and again he gets up to point us to something else more lovely in the house: another memory, a piece of history that comes attached to it. It becomes increasingly clear that to truly appreciate being at Chapslee today, is to have an understanding of its important past.
 
His Grandfather bought Chapslee in 1938 and Reggie was born here in 1940, two weeks after his family first moved into their summer Shimla residence after its refurbishment. It was a time when all those associated with the days of the Raj shifted annually to this hill station, renowned as the 'Queen of the Hills', and his Grandfather, King of the Punjab, rode high on the exclusivity of having been courted by King George V and King Edward VIII. There are dining chairs here that held Viceroys who would come with their wives and entourage for hours long lunches and dinners, and tennis and croquet on the vast lawns. His Grandfatherís table became renowned as one of the finest in North India. He takes us through now to the library and card room to show us a large old sepia photo. Cross-legged in the middle of a gathering around Lord and Lady Linlithgow, the third last Viceroyal family of India, is a young turbanned Reggie.
 
These are memories and ways of being that he has carried around in his skin for a very long time. "My Grandfather, he had a tremendous aura. His passing away in 1970 was the end of an era as far as we were concerned. We realised we had to make the property pay, so that's how we came to turn it into a hotel in 1976," he explains.
But it ís not the business, nor the money, but the rationale behind it he wants us to understand. "This was the only way we could keep up the traditions of the lifestyle which I have grown up in and seen. We try to live up to that to some extent; the way we eat, the way we look after our guests. I don't know if I'll be able to get across to you the sentiment."
At Chapslee House ...the OPULENT days of the RAJ live on
 
Years of his achievement of this are written in the visitor's book. Here you can read how people have come from all over the world to seek holiday comfort in a place where time moves in a way that ís missing in their lives. In that they have also found a space where manners, grace and a sense of beauty still carry equal weight.
 
When Reggie takes us through the guest suites, we aren't surprised that they also still house the beds and exquisite belongings of former Royal family members. Each comes with its own immaculate ensuite, and in every window we find new corners of the Himalayas that rise up and around Chapslee in craggy peaks dusted with snow.
 
When we finally enter the Maharaja's suite a soft gasp runs through us. From the down-filled folds on the oversized gilt bed through to the ivory inlaid bureau and delicate French lounges, his grandfather's presence can still be very much felt. Big, grand and opulent, even the bathroom is an enormous adventure with Norman Lindsay-like photos hooked suggestively above the bidet and bath.
 
Everything is so evocatively intimate, it's hard to imagine how Reggie opened his home up to strangers. He stops a moment and laughs a little to himself. "Well, what bucked me up was a book, 'How To Be A Snob', written by the Duke of Bedford. He was the first nobleman in England to open his house to visitors and that took a lot of guts. He was literally laughed at, but he stuck it out and wrote a book about the experience."
 
It is when Reggie speaks about food that he truly comes into his own. Like his father and grandfather before him he is a great gourmand. He tells us of the secrets of Royal Indian cuisine, how the recipes are handed down through the men without ever being written down. When he explains the intricacies of making a pilau with raw mango, or the improbable delight of a sweet dessert made from garlic, his face comes alive. "One thing I can say is that I don't think that there are many people in India who can make these things," he says proudly.
 
The next day he surprises us at lunch. Reggie has two chefs among his ten staff, but he has decided he wants us to experience his own take on Anglo Indian dishes. A pillowy cheese souffle with mustard is followed by a lightly fried pomfrey fish from the Bay of Bengal with crisp potatoes and herbed tomatoes, then a dessert of delicate creme caramel and banana.
 
But it is not only the food, but the way it is served that moves you. The heavily engraved silverware surrounding the china on the mahogany table, the crystal decanters filled with an array of sauces, the crisp linen, the finger bowl spiked with fresh lime leaves, the waiter who quietly floats around you, never missing your needs. In all this elegance, the attention to detail, you find the sense of what Chapslee is about; that this is the way things have always been.
 
Check in: Chapslee House, Lakkar Bazaar, Shimla, 171001, India Phone: + (91) 177 202542
Fax: + (91) 177 258663. Email: chapslee@vsnl.com
Insider Secrets: A small Victorian cottage on the property is available for long lets. More than one writer has holed up here to finish their novel.
Luxury Link: www.chapslee.com
 
 
 Prue Rushton  20/3/10
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