As with many incurable travelers, 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 4-6 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 included ancestral homes, palaces and strategically placed forts and best of all, no 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 once 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. There he could see the hubbub of holy people praying at the lake and crowds of tourists, while he read his books, with 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).
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 capture one’s imagination bringing forth nostalgic pictures of a time when Maharajahs and their Maharanis and Princely potentates went on royal safaris in desert 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.
International Airport from New Delhi is 400Kms, Domestic Airport from Jaipur is 149 Kms, Rail in Ajmer is 13 Kms,
For further information about Royal Desert Camp: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel 91 145 27722401
Khimsar Fort in Khimsar
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 that 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.
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 with the pool and 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 is pure perfection for breakfast on the constantly sunny days,. 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 is 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 is blanketed with stars. One wonders if there are any left for the rest of the world. Camel rides and evening meals around bonfires provide a unique experience.
Tel 91 1585 262345 Fax 91 1585 262228 Email: email@example.com
Nearest airport is Jodhpur 90 Kms which connects from Delhi, Mumbai and Jaipur. By rail, nearest station is Jodhpur 90 Kms.
Things to do: Jain Temples at Osian, puppet show and folk dances each evening.
Bal Samand Palace in Jodhpur
Bal Samand Palace in Jodhpur, built in red sandstone, is a study of splendid Rajput architecture. From the modest entrance, it is 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 rooms 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 a very unique feature-an ancient aqueduct system which was installed to run above the stables to keep the horses cool during the hot summer months.
Behind lemon trees, scented flora and a huge three-tired fountain is Bal Samand Palace. Its 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. Ornate 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. The vision comes to my mind of gold trimmed sari-clad Ranis and impeccably attired and turbaned Rajas, leisurely strolling through these regal halls and out into 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, situated near the 13th century water reservoir, may be large but it is charming. Although most of the meals are served off a brick buffet counter, they are definitely nobleman’s cuisine.
Tel 91 291 2572321 Fax 91 291 257 1240
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
By air from Delhi and Mumbai,
Rail overnight from Delhi
Things to see: Mehrangarh Fort and Jodphur’s bazaars.
Karni Fort, in Bambora
After transversing 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. It has recently been restored to its medieval opulence. 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. Looking around I saw a sight which still seemed unreal. There below ,in the centre of a man made lake, was a white marble Bala Diri (gazebo) adorned with heaps of vibrantly coloured cushions. Inside, being served by a turbaned waiter, a visiting group of six Austrians were eating either a very late lunch or an early dinner.
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 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 email@example.com
By air the nearest airport is Udaipur. Karni Fort is connected to Udaipur by road
Things to do: Visit Jaisamand Lake, Udaipur and Chittorgarh Fort.
Story and Pictures by Barbara Kingstone
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