Past Delhi’s airport, as I am being driven along the smoggy, beige highway, leafing through the fashion glossy I’ve found in the backseat, I look out often, and more intriguingly, once I enter Haryana. This is my first time window shopping along this route, and the building blocks of modernisation are displayed rather well. Factories gleam in the April sun. Smokestacks tiptoe for the skies. And, on occasion, drivers swerve trucks so heedlessly that the black, evil-warding pompoms tied to their wing mirrors sway like upended rag dolls.
It’s a little past noon when the car increasingly starts to feel like a red-hot tandoor, its AC ambushed by the scalding 42 degrees outside. Skewer in spiced chicken, relish tikkas: the banality of jokes I crack (to myself) only keeps plummeting. But when Google Maps shows another hour to Noor Mahal, the word brilliant escapes louder than intended and the mild annoyance with which I then swig a mouthful from my Bisleri triggers Radhe Sham to act. A quick aloo paratha break in the dhaba corridor of Murthal serves as the perfect opportunity. Before revving up the engine again, tucking a copy of Delhi Times in his underarm, the driver alights. Tearing a double spread, he secures it by my window. As a sun shield? Every time he accelerates, as if performing a comedy of manners, a Tiger Shroff cutout kicks and retreats. Full marks for ingenuity, Radhe, but not my idea of holiday hot boxing. I’m pacifying myself when I catch him in the rearview, grinning triumphantly. He does manage to eke a half-smile out of me.
Two hours and some negligible off-roading later, I finally see Noor Mahal’s frame: Its Rajputana turret-like chhatris, Mughal domes and the unmissable Mughal scalloped arches, or daantedar mihrabs, crisply carve the day’s clear skies. On the outskirts of Haryana’s basmati bowl of Karnal, equidistant from both Delhi and Chandigarh, the palace hotel stands fringed by fields I’ve thus far only seen from the confines of express train windows. First impression? Airlifted from Rajasthan, airdropped in Haryana, with a layover at a Mughal hotspot. This I deduce as Radhe winds up the palm-potted driveway. After an exhaustively eventful morning, I’m relieved to be standing inside the lobby of Karnal’s only five-star, and I can already see why it positions itself as perfect for both, big conferences and weddings of the big, fat kind.
If Urdu was a person, we’d be madly in love. For now, Khwabgah, my suite’s sexy Persian name, is enough to tempt me into bed. That, and I’m terribly spent. Plus, this 1,600-square-foot royal retreat is Noor Mahal’s finest, a notch above even the Presidential Suite. To enter it, even at 5’2”, I need to bend: stout, wooden, and 230-years-old, Khwabgah’s main door was once hinged to a haveli in Bikaner’s Raisamand. Today, it opens to a low-ceilinged, antique-laden, rust-ochre antechamber, past which Bittu guides me into the master bedroom. When my affable butler parts the hefty curtains, what I see beyond the glass door is also Khwabgah’s USP: a terrace the size of Bayview Cafe, my favourite rooftop bar back home in Bombay. I love it for the bird’s-eye view it affords of the Gateway of India, of tourists posing for Polaroids, of boats bobbing in the Arabian Sea. Front-ended by the Indian tricolour—Noor Mahal’s owner is a retired colonel—from Khwabgah’s terrace though—all I see is grass, all I picture is weed.
Mindful of Bittu lurking in the antechamber, I finally dive in the king-sized, wooden bed in which Bollywood’s dream girl has perhaps harboured a dream, or a few… Hema Malini, Rahul Gandhi, Sunny Deol, Prince of Leicestershire, have all stayed here. Made aware of its celebratedness by Bittu, I lay in my suite, arms and limbs spread apart shavasana-style, and that’s when my surroundings creep up on me. How lovely would it be, I think snuggling into the milky-white quilt, if those bejewelled wooden combs, framed on either side of my bed, could sings paeans of the princess whose hair they once caressed between their teeth? Looking to my right I ponder which house was this chunky window attached to, before it was fashioned into this gorgeous table, its glass top reflecting plump peaches and juicy grapes that Bittu must have placed in the fruit basket this morning?
Making many such mental notes about the decor, before heading down for lunch, I enter the white, marbled bathroom inside which, the Bengali mirrorwork is striking. To admire the artistry, I step in even when I neither need a shower nor have I gotta go—for those jobs too, the pot, although Chinese in appearance, is on point. It has an in-built bidet, auto flush, and is studded with a dozen Cadbury’s Gems-like red, blue, yellow buttons for whom I doubt I’ll have much use in the next two days. But at `1.25 lakh—certainly a rich rack rate given the location—here, luxuries dwell in every corner. The bathtub, for instance, boasts jacuzzi jets.
I eat little at the all-day diner Brown Sugar and of what I do, the cherry-topped, house-made, mint-green scoop of pan ice cream is first-class. Enjoying pan without the effort that goes into chewing it, now that’s a holiday, I reckon; easy and laid-back, especially when there isn’t much else to do outside Noor Mahal. Kurukshetra, “The Land of the Bhagavadgita” and Panipat, on whose grounds Babur defeated the Lodis in 1526, heralding his Mughal Empire, are barely 30 kilometres away. But the debilitating heat makes it unviable to explore either. So I simply await the itinerary’s high points. One, the property tour. Two, a meeting with Roop Choudhary. He is the hotel’s MD and son of Manbeer Choudhary, the former army man who built the hotel after overcoming resistance and winning over villagers by training and employing their young. Today, its 125 rooms are serviced by a staff of over 400.
“It took eight years to build Noor Mahal. Khwabgah alone took two years,” Roop, dressed in a crisp white shirt, says, when we sit down for a chat in his office, a spacious chamber tucked away to the lobby’s far right. Young, chill, foreign-educated, I’m amazed at how he remembers the stories behind every single artefact in his hotel. Year, make, which auction was it won at. The brocade bedspread in my room was cut out of curtains that hung in a royal house in Faridkot; the 19th-century combs were acquired at a Mysore auction; and the bar’s facade in the antechamber was the chavara, or balcony, of a house in Amritsar’s Golden Temple complex that was bought shortly after the precinct’s expansion in the 1980s, post-Operation Blue Star.
Next evening, standing in the hotel’s central courtyard Deewan-e-aam, I’m mighty amused to watch a suited, young man swirl his girl, photographers desperately trying to capture the couple against overhanging balconies that brim with jalis and jharokhas. Now, I’ve browsed through many overenthusiastic friends’ pre-wedding shoot albums on Facebook but the thrill of seeing that kind of stuff unfurl live is triply entertaining. I’ve stumbled upon this gem during the property’s tour being led by the GM. When it comes to weddings, Noor Mahal truly is a one-stop shop, Chandar Shekhar Puri tells me, “salon, photo studio. Everything’s in-house.” In the next two hours, we cover Noor Mahal, basement to top, breezing in and out of its 16 banquets and open grounds, with wedding preps underway in at least a quarter of them. I hopscotch over a bunch of orchids and white roses that are in the process of being strung and when we cross the chaat counter, on the GM’s insistence, I try pani puri in “unique flavours.” The one filled with chilli-asafoetida-spiced water reiterates my belief that pungency attacks are legit.
After all the walking and recording, I’m famished by the time I enter Frontier Mail for dinner. Named and designed after the train that once trundled between Bombay and Peshawar, the restaurant serves Indian cuisine and is a massive hit with in-house guests as well as locals who drive down, especially on weekends. In no mood to dine on the platform, I pick a table inside one of the bogies, the old-school coupe ambiance in which is recreated by the steel luggage racks that jut overhead and bulky, vintage sad-irons that lay strewn for effect. The dal, kulcha, are all great but it’s the tuni khatta meat that’s decadent. A slow-cooked, smoked mutton dish favoured by the Dogras in the hills, it’s redolent of mustard oil, and the beetroot red of the gravy is actually pomegranate paste. To a live ensemble belting acoustic Hindi songs, I scoop up the yummy curry with bits of garlic naan.
From the piercing ragas and the clickety-click of wooden blocks that only a karthal can produce, I can tell the Manganiyars are in the courtyard. Already up after dinner, I run out of Khwabgah into the common corridor and look down. A woman is twirling her bright red ghaghra, a little boy is dancing, while two turbaned men sing, veins green and throbbing, eyes shut tight. Leaning against the railing I listen in and then later, lured by the pleasant dip in the temperature, I finally walk out into the terrace.
Below, a baraat is grooving to the tunes of a local brass band. My vantage point also gives me a partial view of the open-air venue the wedding party is heading into, inside which, I can see a Badshah video on a big screen. Mind oscillating between the Manganiyar’s soulful folk renditions and Badshah’s Punjabi rapping, I again break into a half-smile, amused at this paradox that also sums up Noor Mahal: It offers all things commercial but it also treasures Indian heritage, deeply enough for it to pass off as some sort of a museum-in-making.
By road, via the GT-Karnal Highway, Noor Mahal (www.noormahal.in) is roughly two hours from both Delhi and Chandigarh. Rooms start at Rs9,500. The presidential suite is for Rs45,000, while Khwabgah is steeply priced at Rs1.25 lakh, exclusive of taxes.
Humaira Ansari is a certified nihari-lover who travels with an open mind and lots of earbuds. She invests a lot of time and Wi-Fi in planning her itineraries. She loves neighbourhood walks, meals at a local’s home, and discovering a city's nightlife. She is former Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.