Diggi’s Days of Yore

Pulling back the litfest palace curtains

Before it played host to the Jaipur Literature Festival, much of the Diggi House was off-limits to outsiders. AKHILESH TIWARI / DELHI PRESS IMAGES
01 February, 2012

AS EVENING SETTLED upon the Diggi House, noises escaped from the family quarters of the haveli. Someone was on the tabla, a dancer’s steps followed, and a woman’s voice soon joined. The private performance was being guarded earnestly by a lathi-yielding chowkidar, but that didn’t prevent my aunt, renting a room at the house at the time, from being in awe. It was a typical evening enjoyed by the erstwhile Thakur Sangram Singh Diggi, whose heyday lay between 1918 and 1968—one of many evenings recalled by my aunt when she stayed there.

The Thakurs of Diggi (a thikana or sub-state about 50 km from Jaipur) were noblemen in the court of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II in the 18th century. Asked to move their official residence to Jaipur when the Maharaja shifted his capital from Amber in 1727, the house that was built in the heart of the city became a symbol of power. Comparable to parliamentarians’ bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi, the Diggi House was built for the same reason—to be in close contact with the centre—and ran on similar principles, too—inaccessible to the public and often corrupt.

Recalling Sangram Singh, a close friend of the Diggi family tells me, “Like most of the landlords of his time, he was fond of the good life—drinking, horses, women, music, cars etc. But all that extravagance in post-Independence India was unsustainable. He was forced to sell some portions of the huge property.” The residential area that now lies immediately behind the house was carved out of the section that had been sold, and is known as Sangram Colony, named after the Thakur.

Despite urges to scale down his lifestyle, the Thakur, among the last of the elites in newly independent India, only knew how to live as the rich did. He retained an enormous retinue of gola and goliyan—male and female servants who were offered along with a Rajput bride as part of her dowry and were considered the husband’s property. Although fiercely loyal to the family, some of the female servants shared their stories with my aunt, who was overseeing the construction of my grandparent’s house in Sangram Colony from 1960-61. Many among the goliyan who opened up to her had physical relations with the Thakur (as was the custom), but the children they bore were not to be given the Thakur’s name.

Such was the fiercely guarded exclusivity that outsiders were prohibited from seeing any member of the family—male or female. And many portions of the now-inviting Diggi House were strictly off-limits to outsiders. The beautifully manicured front lawns and gardens, for instance, were carefully guarded by chowkidars.

The years after Sangram Singh were mostly sober and low-key for the house. The only marginally flamboyant character was his grandson Ashok Diggi, who shared in some of the pastimes of his predecessors. He was often seen around the city driving his open jeep. Ashok also loved alcohol, which is what eventually claimed his life in 2005.

But it was the other brother Thakur Ram Pratap Singh Diggi’s bride, Thakurani Jyotika Kumari Diggi, who veered the family in another direction after 1988. Beginning with a few small changes, she transformed the house. Ironically, even as much of the Diggi House remained off-limits, people occasionally cut through its corridors as a shortcut. I remember an incident when I was tugged along to the house with my elder cousins. As we approached, some ferocious looking Dobermans came rushing towards us. At six, I ran and never went near the property again. Jyotika, when looking back at those years, says, “I was really horrified at the sight of people just passing through. I got the broken boundary wall closed.” The dogs would have been enough.

The daughter of a Navy officer with relatively modern values, Jyotika also put an end to the prevailing purdah system in the house. And soon enough, the house was changed into a hotel in 1991, and named Hotel Diggi Palace to better attract tourists. The timing was perfect. The year marked the beginning of economic liberalisation in the country. While my aunt paid a mere R50 a month for two rooms back then, the rates today start at R4,000 a day, exclusive of taxes.

Now serving as the main venue for the biggest literary festival in Asia, the Jaipur Literature Festival, the palace accommodates thousands of new visitors every year—a fitting redemption for its less welcoming past.