There’s no dearth of viewpoints at Six Senses Fort Barwara. The Shikar Burj overlooks a lush expanse of the Aravallis that stretch into the stark immensity of Rajasthan. The foyer stands right across the Kharbuja Mahal and Zenana Bagh courtyard stares like a precipice over the patchwork settlement of Barwara. The east end of their all-day diner extends into the belly of a watchtower whose three diaphanous jharokhas proudly frame windswept grass stalks on a nippy evening. The Viewing Gallery is a proud pavilion whose understated magnificence flourishes under the propitious watch of its silent guardian, Chauth Mata.
It is said that the goddess appeared in the Chauhan ruler Maharaja Bhim Singh’s dream, asking to be worshipped in Barwara, a former fief in present-day Sawai Madhopur. Chauth Mata’s wish was the devout king’s command, who had the temple built in the year 1451. A storied shrine sits on top of a hill not too far away, visible from the north face of the fort: the temple underpins the very idea of Chauth-Ka-Barwara.
Of course, now, having had international hospitality giant Six Senses’ latest outpost come up in its 14th-century fort, the somnolent pilgrim town is set to arrive on the international map. Given whispers that a highly anticipated Bollywood wedding might take place here, passersby and townsfolk still stop in their tracks to stare at the massive hybrid SUVs ferrying guests up to the property. It is hard to believe every statement that is being made out there about Barwara.
Making my way through the multi-level sprawl and saying my khamma ghanis, I reach the lobby to a grand, quintessential Rajasthani swagat, complete with a chanting of the Gayatri mantra—just for me. Rhythm, my GEM (Guest Experience Manager), checks me into a cosy Sanctuary Suite, which has a really well-stocked minibar, smart TVs in both rooms, two showers and a bed that has shaken my firm lack of belief in hotel beds. Later, GM Sangjay Choegyal will inform me over dinner that the beds have handmade mattresses, an endeavour that is part of their Sleep With Six Senses philosophy. For now, I’m having a comfort lunch of watermelon gazpacho and Japanese udon noodles at The Cortile, the elegant all-day diner where no demand is ever out of bounds. How else do you explain the service staff not protesting a sleep smoothie at eight-thirty in the morning? So what if the ingredient list comprises banana, honey, walnut, kefir, oat milk and cinnamon—it is part of my Sleep With Six Senses philosophy.
After earnest attempts to fight off the ensuing stupor, I walk out bravely to the Rajawat Room, the reinterpreted lobby-lounge precincts, for a heritage and horticulture walk with Surya Pratap Singh, the curator of the walk. Surya is an avid birder and of royal lineage himself, which his Rajputi stache could give away if you’re discerning enough. Packed with cherry-picked anecdotes and legends surrounding Fort Barwara and its history, Surya’s tour starts off with local religious beliefs and myths, circles their sociological implications, and keeps flowing into sundry directions based on the part of the fort we’re at.
For instance, at the spa and wellness centre that was once the Zenana Mahal, we learn about the design considerations of a Rajputana ladies’ harem. From the arched entrance of the baradari-style structure, you walk about 30 feet to get to the dyodhi (threshold), and further to a faux entrance known as taak that houses a small Ganesha temple instead of a doorway. The access is actually through a vestibule to the right designed to ensure the privacy of the women inside.
To understand the ethos of Fort Barwara, one has to take into account folk symbols and local religious motifs, even in its modern avatar as a luxury heritage property. Right from the Chauth Mata Mandir to the striking Meena Temple, which is a major place of worship for the local Gurjar and Kanjar communities, the fort’s inherent addressal of its founders’ strong religious beliefs is marvellously alive even in its modern outlook—it is a heritage hotel after all. Chauth Mata continues to be the archetypal kuldevi of the fort’s generational inhabitants, but the assimilation of modern sensibilities is commendable.
Restoration work on Fort Barwara, a decaying citadel, started a little over a decade ago, when the king, Prithviraj Singh, handed over the reins to architects extraordinaire Nimish Patel and Parul Zaveri. The following evening, we catch up for coffee and some conversation, where the king—a soft-spoken and knowledgeable urban gentleman with a towering presence—will recount the journey of the fort’s restoration and redesign, the challenges and internal disagreements, and eventually, the difficult process of handing his ancestral property over to the hospitality giant. At the moment, Mr Singh’s residence is the grand Kharbuja Mahal, but back in Delhi, he has a much humbler apartment. I believe whenever he’s back here, he’ll get either of the two marquee accommodation options: the Thakur Bhagwati Singh Suite or the Raja Man Singh Suite. The latter offers 3,000 square feet of uncorrupted luxury: a private pool and garden, and panoramic views.
It’s clear from a framed picture in the Rajawat Room that the present-day resurrection of the fort would have been once inconceivable. The process of turning it around began while Prithviraj’s father, Bhagwati Singh, was alive. The son of Raja Man Singh—a decorated soldier who contributed to the British effort in WWI, and subsequently received the honorific Rao Bahadur—Bhagwati Singh went to Ajmer’s prestigious Mayo College, but returned to Barwara to serve the local community. He established a trust for the upliftment of the community and had the walkway up to the Chauth Mata Mandir covered with roofing to make it easy on devotees headed uphill.
Elements old and new blend seamlessly in sprawl of the hotel’s different areas, syncretism in architecture offsets religiosity in iconography, and luxury is rooted firmly in the generous expanse of space. It’s a triumph of adaptive reuse. The walls of the newer structures are done in a cool mud-melange shade, both blending with and standing out from the formidable remnants of the pre-restoration period effortlessly. The stone ramparts recall the Chauhan period, and even elements from the Delhi Sultanate. The droopy cenotaph of Kharbuja Mahal is an unmissable Rajput-style centrepiece. The jharokhas of Zenana Mahal and the chhatris all around add feminine accents.
The retention of the native flora of the region is a central theme of the landscaping of Fort Barwara. It is not only functional and sustainable, but a significant element of the fort’s living heritage. The botanical bounty of moringa, kachnaar, henna and fruit trees extends into the lawns of the Kacheri, the former royal courthouse that now acts as the GM’s residence, an old-fashioned dwelling with a bifurcated entrance staircase and an upcoming pergola.
The value of local produce for sustenance wasn’t lost even on purveyors of plenty—the Kharbuja Mahal is a nod to the melon varieties that grow close to the river Banas in Sawai Madhopur, including the local muskmelon kachri. The hotel, as part of its sustainability programme, also plans to start the removal of the invasive mesquite shrubs that dot the slopes around the property, and rewilding the landscape with native species.
The Rajawat room has become my favourite part of the hotel. Step in from the east to a whole series of sights, starting from the bar and reading area, the exquisite lobby, and the porch, which leads to the Zenana Bagh. Enter from the west and it hands you into an open 14th-century courtyard for bonfires, performances and meals, cradled by the glass walls of Cortile, the calming, luminous ambience of the lounge bar-cum-reading room, and the shikar burj (glassing tower) that is just enough rundown to call to mind Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress.
The Rajawat also offers a cosy refuge from the cold November rain, and the reason for that are its hulking walls. The five-feet-thick walls not only provide insulation from extreme weather, but also lend structural strength. In this style of construction, the walls keep losing thickness with each floor above, ensuring stability. Prithvi Singh, seated right next to a doorway in one end of the lounge, shares that the Rajawat used to be his father’s quarters. Briefly, one of the plans during the restoration was to turn this space into a presidential suite of sorts—an exclusive, limited-access sanctum. However, that plan didn’t come to fruition as the owners and architects eventually settled on opening it up as a communal space to everybody.
The design aesthetic of The Cortile is of a much more recent time, and depends on natural light for a lot of its character. However, as night falls and local artists start belting out plaintive desert strains, the lighting comes into its own, allowing the succulent and sumptuous laal maas in front of me to attain just the right shade of red. For breakfast on the second day, my frantic search for the perfect egg dish ends with a playful rendition of the Parsi classic akuri. Sangjay is a big proponent of a crazy new addition to the Cortile kitchen that I try on the side. Called Rocket Fuel, this cutting-size shot is supposed to be an extra-sour gut-fortifier that can be had on an empty stomach. That’s the reason that at lunch I can wolf down a whole Barwara Club Sandwich after quesadillas and a killer charcoal lemonade.
What sets the resort apart from other luxury properties that cater more specifically to travellers headed to Ranthambore is (no, not the big, fat Bollywood wedding) a much wider assortment of wellness offerings, from ayurveda, signature massages, and body detox programmes to yoga, an exhaustive spa menu, and alchemy bar workshops. Housed across the Zenana Mahal, the spa area extends for 30,000 square feet. The original features—mirrorwork studding the area around the entrance, the Shekhawati-style frescoes that are still pretty much intact, the shimmering central pool in the courtyard where the sunlight falls on unbroken columns—add a tender romance to the notion of self-care. The meditation area also features one splendid centrepiece: a sculpture of Vishnu resting in shavasana, cradled inside the coil of his ardent devotee, Sheshanaga.
A packed itinerary is something they don’t do at Six Senses Fort Barwara, and that I have been told well in advance. Wind down the night with a relaxing hot soak and a movie to stream, and during the day, saunter into the Rajawat Room and catch up on some reading. Crash on the plush seating in the courtyard with a nice playlist, or maybe even sketch the scene, before embarking on a walk to absorb the learnings of the previous evening. Both Prithviraj Singh and Sangjay stress on flexibility and space, and if you’re someone who likes to take it slow while on a holiday, you’ll find yourself at ease in this sanctuary of style and substance.
Jaipur International Airport is the closest airport, and, accounting for traffic, it takes three hours to drive down to Chauth-Ka-Barwara. If you’re travelling from Delhi, driving down or catching a train to Sawai Madhopur is a better option (~5 hours). Doubles from Rs 64,000. (www.sixsenses.com/en/resorts/fort-barwara/accommodation).
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.