Just under two hours after leaving Jodhpur airport, we reach the nondescript town of Nagaur. As our car trundles past a railway crossing, there isn’t much to see except cycle and auto mechanic shops. Suddenly, the golden ramparts of Ahhichatragarh Fort appear before us. We enter through the imposing Sireh Pol and are back in the 18th century.
Nagaur was put on the tourist map when Ahhichatragarh Fort, which dates back to the 4th century, was restored over many years by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust that owns it. It is now the site of the World Sacred Spirit Festival, held every February.
Legend has it that the 16 queens of Maharaja Bakhat Singh, who ruled in the mid-18th century, lived in the ten havelis that make up the Zenana Mahal. The mahal has now been converted into a small boutique hotel called Ranvas or the abode of ranis.
In contrast to the arid landscape all around, the palace complex has beautifully laid out Mughal-style gardens with water channels, fountains, and lotus pools. Around it are pavilions, palaces, and courtyards.
The havelis are close together, so the narrow paths between them are always in the shade. As we walk on the cobbled paths, we are greeted at every corner by bowing turmeric-turbaned staff. The juxtaposition of domes and arches and the carefully tended plants makes me feel like I have fallen into a miniature painting.
Each haveli has a courtyard flanked by a pavilion with two or three bedrooms around it. I am shown my elegant room in Jhaliji ki haveli, which has four bedrooms. My room is cool and quiet and decorated with textile designer Brigitte Singh’s exquisite block-printed fabrics. An old wooden chest makes a handsome bedside table and someone has thoughtfully placed a stack of books on it.
The bedrooms on the lower level all face inward—they were once the zenana, designed to keep the ranis away from prying eyes. Suites on the terrace look out over the domes of the havelis and the ramparts of the fort and are a wonderful place to enjoy sunrise and sunset.
I wander out from my haveli and find myself in a stunning courtyard planted with banana, frangipani, and flowering piloo trees. A small grove of pomegranate bushes and tinkling water fountains separate the swimming pool from this courtyard, providing guests privacy.
On the far side of the courtyard, a dining pavilion has awnings in orange leheriya tie-dye. An interesting mix of Indian and Western dishes make up the menu. I enjoy the innovative mezze platter, which comes with different “dips” like baingan ka bharta and raita served with crisp bajra bhakri. Impeccable service from the staff, and a respectful “hukum” uttered at the end of my every request, make me feel like quite the maharani.
Everywhere I look, something takes my breath away—an old stone wall covered with fuchsia bougainvillea, a vain peacock admiring itself in the lily pond, the leaves of the neem tree fluttering in the breeze.
For the active traveller, the hotel manager will organise a fort walk, village hike, or a tour of the conservation efforts at the fort, but I find a great way to make lasting memories at Ranvas: I wander around with my sketchbook making small drawings and adding little splashes of colour. The highlight of my trip is an evening stroll around the palace complex, when the golden light from the sinking sun sets the marble and sandstone walls ablaze. It takes me back to an era when the pace of life was gentler and medieval Rajasthan was at the peak of its cultural glory
Appeared in the May 2014 issue as “Abode of Queens”.
Ranvas is 127 km/2 hours northeast of Jodhpur airport. The hotel can arrange a pick up. There are a total of 33 rooms in three different categories, priced between ₹16,500 and ₹23,500 per night including breakfast (ranvasnagaur.com).