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In the House of Raj

I grew up dreaming of India. My grandparents lived there when I was a child, and wrote me long letters filled with tales of lush gardens and ruined temples and monkeys scampering over rooftops. Kipling's The Jungle Book, Rumer Godden's The River, and R. K. Narayan's Malgudi stories added their shading to my dream picture. I longed to see the Taj Mahal by moonlight and the burning ghats on the Ganges; but even more than these, I wanted to visit Rajasthan--literally, the "land of the rajahs"--India's northwesternmost state, stretching from the Thar Desert on the Pakistani border to the plains of the Punjab to the green hills of the Chambal River valley.

Rajasthan's capital, Jaipur, a walled city whose buildings have been washed a deep oleander pink, encapsulates all the allure of the India of my fantasies. And Jaipur's newest hotel, Rajvilas, is a perfect introduction to the region. All of its buildings were constructed using traditional methods and materials: lime plaster (mixed on-site by means of a camel-powered grindstone) and hand-carved stone and marble. The fortress walls, blue-tiled fountains, marble sculptures, formal gardens, and gracefully latticed pavilions evoke Persian-inspired, Mughal, and Hindu originals.

The brainchild of P.R.S. Oberoi, CEO of the Indian hotel conglomerate, Rajvilas is modeled on the hotelier's own country house, a meticulously restored 16th-century Rajasthani fort. Like its paradigm, Rajvilas effectively combines princely grandeur, local craftsmanship, and 20th-century comfort. It isn't just the palatial forecourt, with its fountains and marble elephants, that makes you feel as if you've morphed into a character from Paul Scott's Raj Quartet. What other hotel has a 250-year-old Hindu temple (still in active use) on its grounds?Or a smart bay pony and trap, driven by a red-turbaned syce, for touring the premises?Or a uniformed functionary parading through the garden with measured tread, carrying a white flag to scare away any pigeons that might befoul the footpaths?

AS I ALIGHT FROM THE WHITE, AIR-CONDITIONED JEEP sent to retrieve me from the airport, a gracious young woman in a long Rajasthani skirt, overblouse, and odhni (a head scarf pinned to one shoulder) comes out to greet me by name. She leads me across the courtyard and through monumental brass-clad doors copied from 17th-century originals. In the lofty entrance hall I am welcomed again, this time by a young man in cream-colored trousers, patterned kurta, and brilliant yellow turban. He offers me a glass of watermelon juice as refreshment before I accompany my hostess on a brief tour. We stop first at the paneled library, decorated with vintage photographs of mustachioed Rajputs and dead tigers. Here guests can sit by the fire on cool evenings, sipping drinks mixed at the bar in the corner. In the dining room, with its elegant pillars and flowered frescoes, the tables are laid with hand-blocked Rajasthani printed tablecloths. We pass through another set of monumental brass doors, cross a moat filled with water lilies, and follow a flagged path flanked by rosebushes and jasmine beds. We skirt green lawns dotted with desert palms and neem trees in whose shade string hammocks beckon, then walk under a carved Mughal-style stone pergola to a serene, fountain-watered courtyard.

My room, one of six in a pink-walled bungalow, looks like something Martha Stewart would design if her previous life had been in the India of the raj. It's airy, high-ceilinged, and shuttered; the huge four-poster bed is swathed in billowing curtains and coverlets (block-print and cutwork), and piled with soft embroidered pillows. There's a cozy window seat, perfect for reading or lounging, along with Rajput miniatures on the wall, colorful dhurries on the floor, and intriguing stone and pottery objets--modern reproductions of antique originals--placed artfully around the room. The bathroom has a double sink, and the glass-walled shower stall and sunken marble tub both look out on a pocket-size walled garden.

More-adventurous guests can stay in one of the hotel's 14 luxury tents, which re-create the royally appointed temporary quarters erected by royal hunting parties when they went out into the desert or forest in search of big game. These "great camps" would contain more than a dozen silk tents kitted out with the comforts of home--if "home" was usually a Rajput palace-and fully staffed with cooks, servants, and even entertainers. Clustered in two "villages" on the edges of the Rajvilas property, the tents are surrounded by a mud-daubed wall. Instead of the dainty Mughal frescoes that adorn the entryways to the guest bungalows, the walls are painted with geometric designs and perforated by free-form portals like those used in rural villages.

The tents themselves are the stuff of make-believe. Strictly speaking, they're rooms with cloth ceilings: the glass-and-concrete walls are built on sandstone slabs and surmounted by huge canvas tents. Inside each, a canopy of mirror-embroidered silk descends from tent poles wrapped in the same fabric. The French doors on all sides are veiled with roller shades that match the ceiling, and sheer white cotton draperies are hung all around. When you're inside, sitting on a rattan campaign chair, or when you're lounging on the front or rear deck listening to parakeets screeching in the desert palms, it feels like the real thing. The real thing, however, probably would not have a teak floor covered with sisal rugs, or a state-of-the-art concealed sprinkler system, or air-conditioning, or the endless supply of hot water that fills the antique claw-foot tub in the bathroom. Like so much else at Rajvilas, the tents manage to combine authenticity--or the illusion of it--with supreme luxury and convenience.

Wanting to experience every identity that Rajvilas can confer on its guests, from rajah (or rani) to shikari (tiger hunter), I have reserved a traditional room for the first part of my stay and a tent for the latter part; but as soon as I am settled in my villa, I begin to feel wistful at the thought of having to leave it for tent life. No need to worry, though: the most important qualities of Rajvilas--the sense of fantasy and the sense of being cared for--are alive on both sides of that mud wall.


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