As the most popular destination for British travellers, Rajasthan can occasionally feel like a well trodden path. It’s even become something of a jet-setter destination recently thanks to Cartier Elephant Polo, Elizabeth Hurley’s wedding, and the emergence of a series of swanky hotels. It was with great delight, therefore, that my third trip to Rajasthan over the last twelve months began somewhat differently. En route for heritage hotel Ajit Bhawan in Jodphur, I found myself met by the sort of car that I imagine the palace’s original owner Maharaj Ajit Singh might have driven at the turn of the 20th century. It might actually be the Maharaja’s car, I realised, as – without a scratch on it, and gleaming under the warm Indian sun – the vehicle trundled up to the airport rampway as if this were the most normal pick up in the world. The extravagantly mustachioed chauffeur grinned at me as he registered my surpise and, before a somewhat envious crowd of onlookers, we set of for the hotel. My holiday in Rajasthan was getting off to an impressive start.
Ajit Bhawan itself is arresting: a vast, castlelike structure that exudes a peaceful serenity. Despite the occasionally mistaken piece of kitsch (an indoor waterfall in Room 26!), it’s a magical place which combines the amenities of a top notch hotel with an old world charm. On my second night, I moved to one of the luxurious hunting tents in the garden, which, with its wrought iron furniture and own bathroom, might appeal to even even the most reluctant camping enthusiast. For dinner, we continued with the outdoor theme by eating jungli maas, a dish originally invented by the Maharaja of Salwar due to the scarcity of ingredients available on a royal hunting expedition. Goats meat cooked in fresh ghee, salt and spiced up with cayenne pepper, it’s one of those dishes to which any additional ingredient would be absolutely superfluous. Joined by the Maharaja himself, we spent an amazing evening listening to tales of old Rajasthan, as if in the company of old friends.
After a day of acclimatization, it was time to begin exploring Jodphur. Known also as the Blue City it’s not certain why locals began painting their buildings with indigo but the result has created one of India’s most distinctive vistas. Some say it may have been the Brahmins, who wished to indicate their caste, or that the vivid hue was intended as a means of combating termites. Whatever the reason, the effect is majestic, especially in the early morning, and with one of India’s largest forts, Mehrangarh, gleaming in the background. After breakfast in town, we drove up the fort, situated 400 feet above the city, and enclosed by colossal walls of stone which once protected Maharaja Man Singh against his enemies in Jaipur and Bikaner. Standing under the victory gate built by Maharajah Ajit Singh to mark the defeat of Mughals, I watched pilgrims falling to touch the palm imprints covered with vermillion paste and paper thin foil. Rudyard Kipling visited this same spot in 1899, writing of the fort that it was: ‘The work of angels, fairies and giants… built by Titans and coloured by the morning sun… he who walks through it loses sense of being among buildings. It is as though he walked through mountain gorges…”
After Jodphur, I headed to the small village of Luni, where another of Rajasthan’s lesser discovered heritage hotels lies in rural seclusion. At the end of dusty track Fort Chanwa has been meticulously restored to its former glory by its owners Maharaj Dalip Singhji and his wife Rani Madhu. Carved out of the famous red sandstone of Jodhpur and with its ornate lattice work friezes, Fort Chanwa is a place of tranquility and repose. Over the next few days I floated in the pool, went birdwatching in the surrounding countryside, and spent time in the nearby village meeting craftspeople, browsing the market, and becoming a regular at the local chai stall. In the evenings, Fort Chanwa offers traditional Rajasthani performances of puppet shows and folk poetry set to music, which further add to the sense that one has been cast back several hundred years here. Unlike some of the Indian chain hotels which use the world ‘heritage’, the musicians played without any amplification, so that we were left with the completely natural experience, replete with torches flickering in the wall behind.
The third hotel on my Destindia itinerary was Narlai, which really must boast one of the most staggering views of any hotel in the world. Midway between Jodhpur and Udaipur, Narlai was originally a hunting lodge presened by Maharaja Umaid Singhji of Jodhpur to his younger brother Maharaj Ajit Singhji. Two decades later, Maharaj Swaroop Singh, his son, together with his wife Rani Ushadevi under took the project to restore the building: something they’ve done with elegant restraint. Our room offered us a fantastic view of the gigantic 350 feet high mountain of granite dotted with caves and temples, crowned by a statue of a white elephant, proud guardian to the open desert on one side and the crumbling Aravali hills on the other. It is said that a great saint once meditated to nirvana on this hilltop and it’s not hard to see why he chose such a spot.
Despite my non existent equestrian skills I was assured that the thing to do here was a horse safari so, early the following morning, I ventured out on a suitably placid Marwari steed to explore the countryside. Trotting peacefully along, and with little need to say anything at all to the other riders, I found myself slipping into a state of profound contentment. For several hours we meandered through the landscape – a peculiar mix of rocky hills, scree, and dunes that is absolutely peculiar these Aravelli hills. In the distance we saw a group of wandering sadhus, en route to make a puja at a nearby temple, as well as Sambhar, a dark brown maned Asia deer indigenous here.
It was with a trace of regret that I left Narlai for the final destination of my holiday in Rajasthan, Fateh Garh Palace. I needn’t have worried, however, because Fateh Garh didn’t disapoint. Literally meaning ‘Fort of Victory’ the hotel is not only one of the most sensitively restored pieces of Rajput architecture I’ve visited, but they’ve taken the step of sourcing 50% of energy requirements of the hotel from solar panels and wind turbines. In an age where luxury travel is becoming more and more of an ethical dilemma, , I was thoroughly impressed to see Fateh Garh showing a greener footprint like this. With a superb restaurant, world class spa, swimming-pool, courtyard and huge garden, Fateh Garh is genuinely one of the world’s most stunning hotels, and rightly still on the Conde Nast Hot List. From here I spent a tranquil few days exploring Udaipur, the City of Lakes, the highlight of which was the Jagdish temple, an Indo-Aryan Vishanvite complex, and the city’s largest place of worship. Watching the plethora of devotees, each clanging the brass bell to announce their entrance to the place of God, I felt immersed in the sights and sounds of a still deeply spiritual nation, and absolutely content.
Piers Moore Ede’s holiday in Rajasthan was arranged by bespoke travel company Destindia, a new company which prides itself on its local contacts and unique knowledge. Special features such as use of a vintage car, dinner with the Maharaja, and horse trekking can be arranged by request. Visit their website here