A 600-foot-tall colossus shimmers on the horizon. Is it a desert mirage?
No, it’s the Alila Fort Bishangarh. Superimposed on a 230-year-old warrior fort standing on a granite hillock, it guards a remote valley in the Aravalli range. Architecturally, it blends the Jaipur style with Mughal and a dash of cinematic Disneyland. As the road winds closer, it suddenly turns up to my left, then I glimpse it to the right again, as if it were tracking my approach.
In the arrival lounge there’s no reception counter, no ledger to fill out, just a glimpse into the future of hospitality with a staffer taking a shot of my ID with his cellphone while a laptop-wielding lady hands me a printout of my leisure plan including meals, cocktails, massage and a village walk. Another staffer takes me on a tour. The fort is a maze of rooms, restaurants and other facilities. But that’s how it is with traditional structures, one can’t expect too many straight corridors.
There’s an overall localised feel: the rooftop restaurant serves the cuisine of the tiny Bishangarh hamlet and of the surrounding Shekhawati region, and the cooking is done shikar-style with meats roasted in sandpits. The next morning I order a hearty breakfast of millet parathas, tomato-chilli sabzi, and buttermilk, all of which reflects a typical farmer’s morning meal.
The room directory contains, apart from the usual in-room meal menus, pages detailing environmental and social sustainability policies. Guests are taken to visit the village silversmith, a lady who weaves carpets by hand, a potter, and a farmer’s wife named Daya, who cooks me a wholesome lunch over woodfire in her courtyard. The hotel supports the rural school and organises medical camps for the villagers.
I stay in one of 59 suites that have been shaped to fit within the eight-foot-thick fort walls—due to architectural constraints most suites have different layouts, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Mine, on the seventh floor, has a circular bedroom within a south-facing tower from where I keep an eye on green parakeets somersaulting in the breeze. The spa is in the dungeon, so during my therapeutic massage I listen for wailing ghosts disturbed by the idea that their torture chamber has become a premium health destination.
My rejuvenation treatment mirrors the transformation that the fort has undergone—from having been a ruin to becoming one of India’s most interesting hotels. The war room is now a bar room with a cigar lounge in a turret and serves an intelligently thought out snack menu which the bartender calls Indian tapas: watermelon sashimi flavoured with pickles, tofu cooked in chai, and hummus of mashed green peas, wasabi powder and flax seeds, served with khakras.
It took Rahul Kapoor and his two co-owners 10 years of work to set up the Alila Fort Bishangarh, which opened last February. The wait was worth it as it was crowned by trade publications as one of the hottest new hotels of 2017.
Kapoor tells me, over a cuppa at the airy infinity poolside Mediterranean café, “There was no access road to the fort when we took it over, so we had to climb up to the ruin that was inhabited by a million bats. We found it intriguing so we thought let’s do something. But how do you take construction materials up a hill like that?”
I shrug. No idea.
“I became the proud owner of 22 donkeys. But once I had loaded them, I stood down here and tried to push them up there,” he says with a laugh.
Donkeys aren’t cooperative animals.
“So I had to hire four donkey drivers!” Kapoor wanted to avoid damaging the existing building or the cliff it rested on, so the property was handcrafted one painstaking step at a time with limited use of heavy machinery. He converted the old parts into common areas and added three floors of rooms on top. It’s hard to imagine the complexities of putting in elevators within the historical structure and incorporating knolls of bedrock into the design. “We tried to make the new parts look like they were there from before. To keep the ethos of the place, we used local stone rather than imported marble.”
On my first visit to Rajasthan in 1991, I recall getting off a bus in a nondescript township called Bundi, where Rudyard Kipling stayed while writing Kim. Children threw camel turds at me, despite which I decided to linger, having chanced upon Braj Bushanjee—the erstwhile prime ministerial mansion, now a small lodge run by descendants of the minister. The proprietor told me that they mainly received busloads of European tour groups, but luckily on that day they weren’t fully booked. I paid Rs250 per night (nowadays rates start at Rs2,500) and got a quirky room that hadn’t been modernised much. Entering the bathroom, I smashed my head into the low doorframe. I saw stars.
But the stay became an eye-opener for me. Rajasthan has always been India’s number one inbound tourist destination, but it was only in the post-liberalisation economy that its many grand heritage structures got turned into hospitality hotspots.
A decade later, the Thakur of Rohet village, Manvendra Singhji Rathore whose Rohet Garh I visited, told me about how the hotel business started for him—when in the 1980s in Ajmer, he met Bruce Chatwin, who was looking for someplace to sit and write his book The Songlines (now a travel classic). Singhji offered Chatwin accommodation and from then he’s been hosting tourists.
Converting palaces, havelis and forts into hotels has, considering the lack of heritage conservation strategies and funding, become something of a noble Rajasthani hobby. Famous examples include the majestic 14th-century Neemrana fort, considered to be a pioneering restoration project, and the ultra-boutique Raas Haveli in the old town of Jodhpur. Though one generally has to rent a room to be able to appreciate these structures, there are also specimens such as the ‘French Haveli’ in Shekhawati, with traditional painted walls meticulously restored by a French artist who charges tourists Rs200 for a quick guided tour. Others, like Malji ka Kamra—also in Shekhawati—are open for free to walk-in visitors during certain hours. That’s where I’m headed next.
It’s a long, winding road from Bishangarh to Churu, at the other extreme of Shekhawati. Malji ka Kamra was built by a Marwari merchant a century ago as a guest-house to entertain royalty. At the turn of the millennium it was a looted ruin. Two brothers who own petrol pumps pooled together money with a friend and bought the mansion in 2004. They restored it over a period of six years to its former glory, guided by RARE, a company in Delhi that promotes small luxury hotels. I learn this after having checked into a delightful suite where the walls and vaulted ceilings are entirely covered in curious frescoes depicting VIPs and city scenes. Staying here is like living in a Rajasthani version of the Sistine Chapel, and I highly recommend Room 205 as per-haps the most eccentric bedroom in Asia. The mansion’s exterior is like a humongous marzipan wedding cake with sculptures of sugar icing.
The hotel employs a fulltime historian, Lal Singh Shekhawat, who guides me through alleys into all the other fabulous painted havelis in Shekhawati dating from the region’s heydays, circa 1840-1940. Only one seems to be inhabited, the Tola Ram Kothari Haveli from the 1870s, while others are semi-abandoned, crumbling.
One of the owner-brothers of Malji ka Kamra, Narayan Balan, takes me out on a sunset drive in the desert—a youngish chap, he wishes to put Churu on the map, saying, “Whenever one travels outside and mentions that one is from Churu, people say: where?”
We set up folding chairs on a sand dune to have fresh kachoris and chilled wine. The brothers are searching for interesting desert picnic spots, so the next morning I have breakfast of millet chapattis and rustic chutneys at an ancient well and caravan serai.
As we eat together, Balan tells me the moving story of how his grandfather, Pemaram, used to work as a gardener at the mansion in the 1930s. When it was ready to be opened in 2012, the brothers were satisfied by the sight of the former gardener being able to enjoy a cup of tea on the grand veranda of his former workplace.
Rajasthan offers more unique stay options than any other place I know of in the world. One could in fact claim that here, the hotel is now the destination—and it gives each guest the opportunity to be royal for a weekend.
Alila Fort Bishangarh is a 55-km drive north of Jaipur, but public transport will only take you as far as the Manoharpur Toll Plaza on NH-8, 6 km from the hotel (www.alilahotels.com; doubles from Rs13,920).
Malji ka Kamra is in Churu town on the Delhi-Bikaner railway line, 198 km north of Jaipur (www.maljikakamra.com; doubles from Rs3,960; open daily for tours from 10.30 a.m.-12.30 p.m.).
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).