As with many incurable travellers, fantasies persist. And for those tireless adventurous types, destinations are becoming more exotic and unconventional. Anyone with lofty peripatetic ambitions now has the opportunity to visit and stay at a few of India’s ancient forts and steep themselves in the grandeur of the residences of former Maharajahs and their Maharanis.
Some of the glitz and glitter of the palaces may have dimmed but in many cases, the ‘bones’ are still very much in evidence and the regal-ness of their original luxurious persona still exists with many princely comforts. The forts, once blood soaked from battles, are still mysterious with their pitted turrets and ramparts and create an ambience that allows visitors to share in its past.
It’s a long trip but flying non-stop on Air Canada’s new route to Delhi from Toronto, shaved about 4 hours flying time.
As an inveterate insomniac, with the help of the great pitch of the business class seats, I had a decent night’s sleep and awoke ready for a trip that include ancestral homes and strategically placed forts and best of all, not jet lag.
Roads in India often fraught with unbelievable traffic, lack of signage and pot holes that not even Canadian winters can produce, reminded me of what an Indian friend was said.
“Hate it or love it, one thing is sure, you never leave India indifferent.” The colourful state of Rajahstan, in the north western, was my choice for sampling a few heritage properties although a few dozen are scattered throughout the sub-continent.
“This is Kipling’s India,” said my new friend, Bob, a former school teacher from San Diego California referring to poet Rudyard, who was born and lived for many years in India.
Bob and I sat enjoying a civilized cup of refreshing Marsala tea on the patio of Pushkar Palace overlooking the Pushkar’s holy lake surrounded by many palaces and just metres away from the chaos of the narrow street beyond the threshold. This Zen-like ambience in the famous holy town of 12,000, with the only temple in India dedicated to Lord Brahma, has changed little over the centuries and its past goes back to medieval times.
Built 400 years ago, the now hotel with 53 deluxe rooms, was revamped by Jaget Singh, the 10th grandson of Rao Jodha, the founder of Jodphur. Singh grew up in what is now a WelcomHeritage managed property although he remains the owner. The lake palace was the summer residence of the Maharajah of Kishangarh and modeled in traditional Rajasthani style. As Singh and I walked through the streets, this man of impeccable taste, wearing a quasi western, perfectly fitting, Nehru collared suit, was bowed and saluted to by the locals, dozens of them employed at one of his three hotel properties. Pushkar Palace’s royal comfort in traditional Rajasthani style, has a panoramic view of the numerous temples and ghats.
The hotel was completely occupied which didn’t seem to surprise Singh since India has become a destination for those who have seen and ‘done’ Europe.
My room was on the fourth floor, reached by a narrow twisting marble staircase. Although the room was small compared to my expectations, I did have a breathtaking lake view which more than compensated for the squashed quarters. The bathrooms are modern, there’s a ceiling fan, enough wardrobe space and a heater for the coolish nights.
Suite #102, a huge palatial suite where Singh used to reside before opening another hotel in the nearby desert, is decorated with rosewood and local lime stone plus a palette of vibrant colours for which Rajasthan is known.
My neighbour who didn’t have a lake view, never seemed to leave his rattan chair on the outdoor terrace where he could see the hubbub of holy people praying at the lake and crowds of tourists, while he read his books, the caring staff always discreetly present. The only time he mingled was for the meals however, often he seemed to opt for room service at his perfect perch. The menu has a wide range but when in India, eat Indian and that includes great vegetarian choices. (The food at Pushkar Palace was perfect for the western taste..not too spicy but very traditional. Malai Kofta, Paneer Bhurji, Vegetable Raita, Missi Roti are some of the choices).
Pushkar Lake Palace Reader
The 4 star rating is a bit of a hoax. It should be a five star hotel. However, taxes in India, like elsewhere, are a consideration and that extra five pointer would add additonal costs on the property, I was told by Singh.
Pushkar Palace attracts Europeans and Americans but it also appeals to the Indian people who see this as a cool summer escape, long recommended from generation to generation.
Another of Singh’s innovations, about a 15 minute drive from Pushkar city, is the very popular Royal Desert Camp, a tented resort in the Thar Desert. There are few places which captures the nostalgia or a time of royal safaris tents with the exception that this tented accommodation has permanent bathroom facilities. The blond fine sand looks as though a sculptor had a hand in the design of the pattern.
Pushkar Palace. Facilities include internet, air conditioning, laundry service, travel desk.
Driving in India is a life threatening affair. Many roads are just an unpaved single lane but the adeptness of the drivers, as they miss by inches oncoming trucks, is unquestionably, a great talent.
On the road to Khimsar Fort, established in 1523, the honking horns weren’t out of rudeness, I soon discovered, but a warning to the hoards of trucks who have signs on their rear stating to please honk. As they move over to the side to let cars pass, I’m amazed there are no finger signals or hostile looks.
Khimssar Fort Doorman
Two old cannons at the entrance of the fort are the perfect adornment on this 11 acres property. Smartly, turbaned and uniformed guards salute guests and within nano seconds, you’re hooked on the spectacle of this unexpected resort. Perched on the edge of the Great Thar Desert in a very rural area, this was the ancestral home of Rao Karamsiji who was the 8th prince of Rao Jodhaji, Maharaja of Jodhpur. And Khimsar was one of the head houses of the Karamsot Rathors.
Within a short time I was introduced to Kunwar Gajendra Singh, the 19th descendant and his wife, Kunwrani Priti ( who is indeed, a very pretty woman). A section of the fort is their residence which is part of this intriguing complex.
On the property are a few shops but one of great importance is the Nila Moti Trust which was set up by a Swiss woman and encouraged by the Maharani. A few dozen local women make wonderfully crafted clothing with the proceeds going to these women and the village. Facing a rectangular garden, the pool, the sprawling landscape, is the remnants of the old grey stoned fort, now the convenient location for dinner. Dark intriguing niches have tables set with candle light.
A narrow stone rampart leads to a domed terrace, once part of the fort’s observation area. It’s pure perfection on the constant sunny days, for breakfast. It’s not difficult to spend hours lingering over the delectable choices of food and the view.
The rooms of this 50 room hotel/fort are massive. The bathroom large enough that in most hotels it would be the bedroom. Dressing and sitting areas and the huge bedroom with scalloped Rajasthani architectural arches have all the modern conveniences. About 15 minutes away, is another property of the Singhs. Ten wonderfully designed clay, sand and cow dung round thatched roof huts will soon become
16 since they are so popular. Sitting in the midst of the desert with all the creature comforts, the sky is invisible since it’s blanketed with stars. One wonders if there are any left for the rest of the world. Camel rides and evening meals around bonfires provides an unique experience.
Khimsar Fort in Khimsar
Tel 91 1585 262345 Fax 91 1585 262228
Email firstname.lastname@example.org WWW.khimsarfort.com
Nearest airport is Jodhpur 90 Kms which connects from Delhi, Mumbai and Jaipur.
By rail, nearest station is Jodhpur 90 Kms.
Bal Samand Palace
Things to do. Jain Temples at Osian, puppet show and folk dances each evening.
Bal Samand Palace in Jodhpur, built in red sandstone, is a study of splendid Rajput architecture. From the modest entrance, it’s a surprise to walk a few metres and see a colonnade that stretches beside some of the 300 acres of green. Twenty six former stables, now converted into comfortable room with curved ceilings and decorated in stone, wood and white plaster, are not luxe but comfortable. The only sounds come from tweeting birds and water hoses for the gardens and orchards, once considered the finest of its time.
Bal Samand Palace built circa 1594, during the regime of Sawai Raja Sur Singhji, has an unique features-an ancient aqueduct system which was installed to run above the stables to keep the horses cool during the hot summer months.
Behind the lemon trees, scented flora and a huge three-tired fountain is Bal Samand Palace. The majesty is immediate as are the princely comforts. A sweeping white marble double staircase leads to most of the nine rooms. Here the furniture is original. Headboards, chairs and other wood items are intricately carved. The rooms are so large they not only have king size beds but chaise longues, screens for privacy, large bureaus and all the modern conveniences one would expect in a palace today. What comes to mind are gold trimmed sari-clad Ranis and impeccably and turbaned attired Rajas, leisurely strolling through these regal halls to the scented orchards. What would they think of the nine hole golf course, a putting green and the swimming pool now installed amidst 17th century pillars. The restaurant may be large but charming and near the 13th century water reservoir. Most of the meals are off a brick buffet counter but are definitely nobleman’s cuisine.
Bal Samand Palace
Bal Samand Palace, Jodhpur
Tel 91 291 2572321 Fax 91 291 257 1240
Email email@example.com WWW.Marudharhotels.com
By air from Delhi and Mumbai,
Rail overnight from Delhi
Things to see. Mehrangarh Fort, Jodphur’s bazaars.
After hairpin curves, a continuous cacophony of horns, narrowly hitting haphazardly roaming cows, seeing women carrying huge bundles of twigs on their heads, the roadside sameness of village stalls and unemployed men, we reach Bambora, the ancient capital of the Mewa kingdom.
From the steep dirt walkway, the strategically placed Karni Fort, in Bambora near Udaipur, looks like Hollywood’s idea of what a real fort should be with massive turrets, ramparts sitting on the highest point. This mammoth edifice was an outpost of the Sisodia Rajputs who resisted various invasions in the 16th century. Recently restored, to its medieval opulence, as one of the staff carried my valise on his head while I dug in my sneaker heels to keep up with him during the long climb, I saw a sight which still seems unreal. There below in the centre of a man made lake was a white marble Bala Diri (gazebo) with heaps of vibrantly coloured cushions. Inside, a visiting group of 6 Austrians eating either a very late lunch or a very early dinner, the buffet of traditional local edibles on the side of the pool being served by a turbaned waiter.
After climbing several staircases, we reached a narrow rampart and wall which led to my turreted room. Small, decorated in traditional Rajasthani brilliance of colour and carved dark furniture, I had the perfect view. From the bay window like area, I watched amazing sunrises and sunsets during my all too short stay. As the only occupant of the fort that evening, I felt very much the Maharani with several servants looking after my every wish. A site inspection
Pushkar Ramparts Breakfast
of the other 30 air conditioned rooms included a few extremely large suites which were the former bedrooms of the royals. Some were decorated with the Rajasthan signature of mirrors set into the white plaster columns and gilded furniture. It seemed a sensible and economical decision to have me in the smaller room since this wing would have meant heating the entire building. Since most of the other establishments I visited were 100% full, I wondered why this immaculate heritage resort wasn’t, it being at the crossroads of so many interesting destinations in Rajashtan and near the hundreds of years old Jaisamand which is the largest man made lake in the region. “It’s only been recently opened to the public,” I was told by yet another Mr. Singh. Just before leaving, he told me he had a surprise to show me. Behind a curtain over a cave-like entrance is a long tunnel with a few twists and turns to an exit. Every fort should have one.
Karni Fort, Bambora near Udaipur
Rajasthan 342 006 India
Tel 91 294 2398283, Fax 91 291 2512105
Email firstname.lastname@example.org www.karnihotels.com
By air the nearest airport is Udaipur. By road is connected from Udaipur.
Things to do. Visit Jaisamand Lake and Udaipur and Chittorgarh Fort.
Barbara Kingstone is a Toronto based travel journalist who writes for publications around the world.
THIS ARTICLE WON THE COVETED 2004 STARWOOD HOTELS & RESORTS GOLDEN CLICK AWARD