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December 2009 - January 2010


A royal retreat

by Aline Dobbie

It is always a pleasure to visit Rajasthan, a big favourite with me and my husband Graham. Jodhpur is a well-maintained city and we were staying that night at Balsamand Lake Palace and would return on the morrow to Umaid Bhavan. We drove through the gloaming to Balsamand Lake Palace which is about 9km northeast of Jodhpur. This lovely summer palace was built on the end of a dam which was first constructed in 1159 by Balak Rao Parihar and this delightful rainwater lake is a cool oasis amidst the rocky hills. The present day palace hotel was laid out as a summer retreat for Jodhpur’s royal family in 1936. The welcome was warm and efficient and in no time we had left our car, been garlanded and taken up to the hotel entrance and foyer. The palace was lit by twinkling little lights and there was the promise of so much to see the following morning. We had been given the most sumptuous of suites with a huge elegant bedroom most beautifully furnished and with stunning soft furnishings of silk with striking Indian designs. There were two bathrooms and I thought they had been well thought out but I just loved the huge shower. It was a bit of a race because we were due for dinner at Thakur Sunder Singh’s family home and this required a full change. On the way to the car we were shown some other rooms in the garden and the outside eating area where chefs were busy preparing delicious tandoori and other delights.

Jodhpur it was explained to us by Sunder Singh had benefited hugely from the Chief Minister’s ideas – that was Vasundhara Raje until December 2008. The roads have been widened and shops are not allowed to encroach upon them, roundabouts have been built, the place is cleaned and maintained and, as is always the case, the Indian Army areas which house The Border Security Force are spick and span.

Umaid Bhawan in Jodhpur

We had a delicious dinner with Sunder and his son Aditya that evening and finally jumped into bed quite late. The sunrise saw me up and dressed to go and watch the sun rise over the Aravalli Hills and photograph the light when it finally shone on the hotel. It was a glorious morning and the lake looked serene in the early morning sunshine with all the bird calls in the trees around me. The hotel’s grounds are spacious and attractive and for warmer times it has a beautiful swimming pool with clever colonnades which would give shade from the harsh sun. As it was, that morning there was a large group of chipmunks totally absorbed in eating their breakfast thoughtfully provided by the ground staff right next to the swimming pool. There is a jogging track and croquet facilities and an Ayurvedic Spa, but I did not have the opportunity to use them.

We had an excellent early breakfast with just the two of us sitting on the terrace overlooking the lake. When we departed we made a point of going to see the Maharajah of Jodhpur’s horses. The stable block is beautifully maintained and the horseflesh is superb. There were several mares with their foals and a fine stallion as well. I was left in no doubt that anything that belongs to HH the Maharajah of Jodhpur is well run and maintained and a credit to him and to Rajasthan and of course ultimately to India. The name by which he is known respectfully around Jodhpur is ‘Bapji’, the honorific as most of you would know means respectfully ‘Father ji’.

We returned to Umaid Bhavan Palace. This creamy pink sandstone building set on a hill with elegant grounds leading up to it is the last and largest palace to be built in India. The palace was commissioned by Maharaja Umaid Singh with the express purpose of creating jobs for his people when they had been famine-stricken in the 1920s. It was begun in 1929 and the architect was H V Lanchester who had lost out on the commission to design Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. He was also known for the Central Hall building in Westminster in London. This attractive fusion of Rajput, Jain and European Art Deco styles has worked well and continues to look very imposing be it from the air or as one surveys it. 3000 men took 15 years to complete the whole building and 19km of railway had to be laid to bring the sandstone from the quarry. There are 347 rooms which include eight dining halls, two theatres, a ballroom, lavishly decorated reception halls and a large beautiful underground swimming pool as well as one in the grounds. At the inauguration of the building 1,000 people were seated in the central hall under the dome for dinner.

This heritage hotel is quite simply one of the most stunning I have experienced; the General Manager arranged for us to have a tour of all the principal suites and great rooms and we were bowled over by the attention to detail and sheer opulence of the place. For me Art Deco had been part of growing up in post war India where so many buildings and mansion flats belonged to that era; moreover the various relations who had married at the end of the 1930s had all owned good Art Deco furniture and ornaments so it was really the norm in many ways. Here the standard of design and ornamentation in that style was the best that one could have found and has been well maintained and built upon. We were shown the maharajah and maharani suites which are out of this world and the maharajah suite was used by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall on a recent visit. Looking out from the dining terrace or the lawns surrounding the swimming pool one has a superb distant view of the Meherangarh Fort and somehow between the dichotomy of the old with the fort, of which I have already written, and the relatively new palace you feel that Jodhpur has moved with the times.

Umaid Singh’s grandson Gaj Singh II the present Maharajah of Marwar-Jodhpur who is head of the Rathore clan lives in a wing of the palace with his family and no doubt keeps a ‘seeing eye’ on standards. Currently The Taj Group of Hotels runs the palace for him, whereas Balsamand Lake Palace is run by the WelcomHeritage Group. Graham and I would heartily recommend anyone that can extend their budget to experience these wonderful heritage palace hotels.

We then went and inspected Karni Bhavan which is the hotel belonging to Thakur Sunder Singh and his son Aditya. This is a lovely property with a three star rating and reasonably priced. It seemed to me that there were all the attentions to detail that are necessary and I liked it immensely as it had all the comfort but was not going to make a hole in your pocket. Too often these days Indian hotels are being overpriced and I warn hoteliers that they will shoot themselves in the proverbial foot but here at least the private ownership understands that there are a lot of people on a medium budget who want to enjoy Rajasthan and they are providing comfort and charm at that level. The bathrooms are good and modern and the outside eating area is made to look like a village - ‘dhani’ – is the word in Hindi. There is a good pool and also Ayurvedic massage available. I liked the staff who were so keen to please and enthusiastic about their establishment.

A fifty minute car journey took us easily to Rohet Garh. It was a delight to return. I had met Sidarth at World Travel Market a couple of times within the past few years and he had talked with enthusiasm of all the developments at Rohet Garh so it was with pleasurable anticipation that we arrived there. My goodness, there have been developments but all of them good and the place is comfortable and welcoming. We had been given a small suite in the building overlooking the lake which when we last visited in November 1997 had not yet been developed. Now it has become a whole new wing of rooms and even the block looking on to the village has also been developed. It is all done with attractive décor and soft furnishings that are made locally and the court painter has worked his magic with all his lovely murals in each suite and on the outside walls shielded from the rain and sun.

The peacocks strut everywhere and I was conscious that it was these birds or their close ancestors that had inspired the title of this my first book. We arrived in time for a late lunch and the maître’d was very polished and fluent in English and I noticed he also spoke good French and German. He was very proud of the fact that Madonna had stayed at Rohet with her family for the recent New Year. When we were last here the court painter was still to complete the murals on the dining room walls, now those are finished and beautiful and there is a second dining room upstairs on the roof of the old one which is reached by some narrow stairs; it however is a clever room made from a huge tent but very elegant as well.

We were at Rohet for three nights which gave us time to really relax but even here the weather was cold and by nightfall most people found they had not brought enough warm clothing. A quiet word with the reception staff resulted in us acquiring an extra rasai (Indian style quilt) each and a hot water bottle. I looked with amusement and sympathy at those who were attired in a blazer for the man and a shrug for the woman – that was not ‘doing the business’ for anyone whilst we were there!

It was a pleasure to see Sidarth and his family again and I had some conversations with his Father who is in fact still the ruler – Sidarth is his heir. The next day he arranged for us to go and visit the Bishnoi once again but then to go on for lunch to The Wilderness Camp that he has developed. The original idea had been for us to spend one night at the camp but having experienced two nights of tented accommodation in the north in the cold I felt I would do it justice by day! We loved our return visit to the Bishnoi and could see the signs of progress and development in that though they still continue to live their village life they have the odd brick-built house too, and now young Bishnoi who have attended the nearby school can continue their education and also find work in Jodhpur to which they travel by train; they walk to the train or, I did see one or two motor bikes, so progress and prosperity has touched this wonderful proud tribe too. The children were walking to school and stopped to look at us and also converse – it was so good to see.

We noticed plenty of wildlife and the amount of black buck had increased from our previous visit. There were nilgai, camels, birdlife and the black buck in their groups of hinds with young and the strutting males with their magnificent horns. The village folk were shyly welcoming as before and we reflected that our lives are so different from all this. It seems that hanging one’s clothes on a sort of washing line is the only way to keep them from the ground but everywhere was very neat and clean. I liked the fact that there were little earthenware shallow bowls in the scrub filled with water for the birdlife. In the Brahmin village, which is painted in the obligatory blue, it too was neat but the emphasis here was on drying red chillies which made a wonderful photograph – thousands and thousands of chillies on a charpoy (strap bed) drying in the sun.

We were then driven to the Wilderness Camp and were enchanted. This has been beautifully done with tented ensuite accommodation which is all white and spacious and then the communal social areas with fireplaces and bright touches in soft furnishings. Lunch had been brought especially for us and we were served with ceremony all on our own. The peace of the desert, the bright sunshine in a clear blue sky and the charm of the place with its bright flowering poinsettias and bougainvilleas worked its magic and we both decided to lie back, each on a charpoy, and enjoy the warm sunshine. Kingfishers dipped and darted nearby and Sidarth has made a natural looking pond which is the focus for the camp.

I was told with great pride that Madonna had loved the Wilderness Camp and had ridden out to it for her stay at New Year 2007/2008 because of course Rohet has lovely horses and if one is experienced it would make an enjoyable ride. Alishah is Sidarth’s fine stallion and he had stood for some of Gaj Singh’s mares earlier in the year. The Marwar Horse is a special breed and has ears that curve towards each other and other defining characteristics. We had inspected Alishah back at Rohet and also petted the two young colts in the stable. The breed was known at least as far back as 1212 and it was the ancient breed also known as the Malani from which the warrior mounts for the Rathore rulers were bred and trained. The breed went into decline during British colonial times and immediately post independence but, thankfully people like HH Gaj Singh and his late father before him realized that conservation was required and the Institute of Horse Breeding & Research was established at Chopasni near Jodhpur. Now the breed has become a status symbol to own and they can often be seen in cities as they are much in demand for the wedding ceremony that demands a bridegroom ride into the festivities. They also make good polo ponies and are used by the police and the army.

We arrived at our destination Devi Garh in time for lunch. This incredible building is a delight and of immense interest. Devi Garh was built in the 18th century and nestles in the Aravalli hills and commands one of the three main passes into the valley of Udaipur. Sajja Singh, who originated in Gujarat, was awarded this strategically significant principality, in recognition of his bravery and loyalty to Maharana Pratap during the battle of Haldi Ghati. The actual construction of the fort palace started only in the 1760s, under Raghudev Singh II, with further additions made to the structure by following rulers. When Rajasthan was established as a conglomeration of princely states the fort appears to have been abandoned.

Two hundred and fifty years old, the palace was simply a series of small, dark interconnected chambers, infested with bats and birds, when the present owners acquired it in 1984. The entire edifice was falling apart requiring extensive restoration and rehabilitation work for which conservation organizations were called in to preserve the building. Once the work of strengthening and restoring the palace was complete then the actual work of converting it into a luxurious and elegant hotel began. Devi Garh has regained its past glory and is once more an imposing, towering and impressive structure as a unique all-suite boutique hotel, with 39 suites furnished in the style of modern India. It is quite visually stunning and decorated in a minimalist but lavish décor with all sorts of quirky charming elegant details that make it a delight.

One is welcomed with ceremony and we said farewell to our driver and approached and stood under the main archway from the top of which a shower of rose petals rained down on us and we were given a welcome drink. The management asked us which of two suites we would prefer and Graham and I chose the one facing the sunrise. It was lovely and sophisticated and spacious with its own turret room giving a splendid view of the village and valley and mountains around us. The staff fall over themselves to help and serve you. Our bedroom was spacious; then there was a sitting area with huge television and then a dressing room all done in white marble plus a huge marble bath and then a massive marble shower with small windows looking out, all hundreds of feet above ground-level. There is a lift to these suites but frankly these apartments in the old fort, in my opinion, are not for those who might be infirm or disabled. By the very nature of this strange high multi-storied fortress one must be prepared to walk and climb some rather steep ancient steps. It is however all well worth it as long as you are fit. There are superb newly built garden suites near the swimming pool.

There are so many clever decorative ideas used that it defies description but my photography shows it all well. The pool area is big and beautiful with a wonderful panoramic view all round; the pool is heated and elegant tented canopies provide shade and waiters take drinks and light snack orders. There is a beautiful spa and beauty treatment complex situated under the swimming pool. I loved just lazing by the pool and watching the sun set and the light change. Moreover, a place as beautiful as this produces the most excellent tea which was to our liking! Devi Garh is not however cheap but the whole experience was a very comfortable and happy one and I would recommend people to visit for two nights as we did.

We took a hotel vehicle and visited the famous temples at Eklingji. The temples are a pleasant 23 km drive away from Devi Garh and on the shores of a lake. They are well preserved and maintained and we both enjoyed the excursion. It is a complex of 108 temples and shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva. This is the site reputed to be where the founder of the Mewar ruling dynasty Bappa Rawal received special blessings from a holy man who lived here. The present Maharana continues to attend worship at this temple complex weekly apparently. The main temple was built in the 16th century. We were not allowed to photograph within the temple precincts however and we did not linger. Our preference was Nagda, a short distance away from Eklingji which has lovely Saas-Bahu temples which are twin structures dedicated to Lord Vishnu built in the 11th century. There is a finely carved torana and the sculptures remind one of Khajuraho and the intricate detail of amorous couples in scenes from the epic Ramayana.

Devi Garh is not at all far from Udaipur and now there is a good main road the distance from the new Udaipur international airport is minimal and hotel guests and travellers can arrive by air or leave by air and have but a short transfer to and from the hotel along part of the national highway which in fact connects Delhi to Mumbai. Udaipur’s airport had just opened a new terminal building and there are four new aircraft stands and the improvements mean that it is designated an international airport with customs and immigration facilities, not merely a domestic airport, which again is a sign of the progress that Rajasthan has made.

We had a free night however so we were driven into Udaipur and I arranged for us to stay one night at a guest house. We wanted to stay at one of the luxury hotels but they appeared to be completely booked and as I had a very specific requirement in that I wanted somewhere from where I could photograph the lakes in the sunrise and sunset we decided to try a guest house. The Tiger proved to be good with a recently renovated interior with comfortable very clean bedrooms, though the bathrooms were quite basic; this was another place where beautiful new modern marble floors lifted it into another category. The owners also have a German bakery and coffee shop across the road and a well regarded restaurant called Savage Garden. The Tiger is situated at the Gangaur Ghat right where the colourful action takes place daily in Udaipur and it has an adequate restaurant on the top floor with the most beautiful panoramic views and the roof terrace is the cherry on the top! Rajasthan is somewhere to which I can return again and again.

(This article is an extract from Aline’s book India: The Peacock’s Call.)

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