In the House of Raj
Published: June 2009
By Amanda Vaill
A palatial new hotel in India's most mythical province takes you back to the days of tiger hunts and royal feasts while coddling you with 21st-century style
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.
ON MY FIRST EVENING I DECIDE to eat outdoors under the colonnade that encloses the fort's courtyard, in order to enjoy the music and dancing that take place there during dinner. Such performances flourished in the days of the maharajahs. Any apprehension I may have that this will be just another quasi-exotic nightclub act vanishes in the face of the performers' discipline and austerity: it's as if they're playing for themselves alone. Torches throw the hotel's crenellated walls into sharp relief; Mughal chandeliers bathe the carved stone pillars in a soft glow; the plaintive arpeggios of the sarangi, a string instrument, rise and fall, punctuated by the thunk of the tabla and the clink of ankle bells. I could be sitting in the royal fort at Amber--the old palace of Jaipur's maharajahs, about 10 miles away--except that the maharajah surely didn't have a chef who could produce a fusion menu featuring Thai citrus-and-chicken soup or lamb loin on polenta with black bean sauce.
The staff--men in brilliantly colored turbans, long printed kurtas, trousers, and short vests in varying shades of cream and rose; women in cream-and-blue print skirts, tunics, and odhnis; all designed by Tarun Tahiliani, a top couturier in India--cosset guests with a blend of deftness and charm. Those qualities seem to be on display everywhere at Rajvilas, even in the laundry. At one point my shirt and trousers are returned somewhat belatedly with the disarming apology that they had not been ironed to the dhobi-wallah's satisfaction. Needless to say, they had never before looked so well pressed.
Even the usual amenities at Rajvilas seem to have been copied from a Rajput miniature painting. The swimming pool is lined with traditional blue pottery and surrounded by teak-and-wicker lounge chairs and fringed, embroidered-silk umbrellas. Water spurts from the trunks of limestone elephants into the pool. When the thrill of swimming laps palls, guests can sip fruit smoothies brought poolside by the inevitable kurta'd waiter. Rajvilas also has a spa, located in an 18th-century house, or haveli. The tranquil treatment rooms offer various Ayurvedic massages, body polishes, and facials. To dispel the last vestiges of jet lag, I treat myself to an orgy of kneading and smoothing; lulled by the experience, I keep drifting off and hardly need the soothing cups of herbal tea that follow.
RAJVILAS IS SO COMFORTABLE AND SO CHARMING that it's hard to tear yourself away, but even on my first day I manage to venture forth with a car and driver, and a guide, all arranged by the hotel. I discover treeless, rock-strewn hills crowned with palace-forts, otherwise arid valleys studded with orchards, buildings with frescoed façades and lacy stonework, and people dressed in bright blues and greens, saffron yellows and scarlets, breathtaking pinks. Trucks as colorfully painted as Gypsy wagons rattle past. Even the ubiquitous camels, pulling carts full of bricks or wood, are shaved in decorative patterns or painted with stenciled designs.
My guide, Farooq Khan, fits all three of Jaipur's major attractions--Amber Fort, the City Palace, and the Jantar Mantar observatory--into a five-hour trip, a useful compression if you're in Jaipur for only a short time, but one that can leave you feeling a bit dizzy. Amber, on a crag northeast of the city, once did double duty as fortress and pleasure dome. Its forbidding walls enclose formal gardens, waterfalls, beautiful frescoes of flowers and vines, and even a spectacular gallery, the Sheesh Mahal, whose walls are inlaid with tiny convex mirrors that give off an unearthly glow. As Farooq points to carved brass doors and lime-plaster walls finished with arayish--a compound of ground marble, egg whites, and limestone that has an almost porcelain-like sheen--I recognize the source for many details at Rajvilas. The same is true of the City Palace, built when Maharajah Sawai Jai Singh II moved his capital to the newly built planned city of Jaipur in 1727. It isn't only the pink crenellations that seem familiar here: the antique weapons mounted on the walls have clearly inspired the displays in Rajvilas's main building, and the print fabrics on view in the museum have their modern counterparts in the hotel table linens and hangings.
As at Amber, each room, each building of the City Palace seems more wonderful than the one before it: the brightly painted 19th-century Diwan-i-Am, or Hall of Public Audience, lined with latticed galleries from which the maharajah's wives could watch the proceedings without being seen; the glorious Pritam Niwas Chowk (Square of the Beloved), a courtyard once used for dance performances, graced by portals with four distinct decorative motifs-a peacock's tail, whorls of malachite, leaves, and flower petals.
After all this extravagance it's almost a relief to see Jai Singh's other great monument, Jantar Mantar (Formula of Instruments), an astronomical observatory made up of huge geometric stone-and-metal structures that could be a set for a Philip Glass opera. Built in 1728 and influenced by the precepts of Ptolemy's Almagest and Newton's Principia, which Jai Singh read in specially commissioned Sanskrit translations, Jantar Mantar's "instruments" can mark time to the second and measure precisely the azimuths and altitudes of numerous heavenly bodies-an important feature in a culture ruled by the stars.
RAJASTHAN'S RAVISHING (AND AFFORDABLE) handicrafts are an integral part of its identity, so I was eager to visit the bazaars and workshops in Jaipur and the nearby village of Sanganer, where printed fabrics and handmade paper are produced. In ateliers, printers carefully line up woodblocks for successive impressions of dye; paper-makers sort through heaps of brilliantly colored petals that will be pressed into sheets of paper. I am invited to walk barefoot over a rug to feel its silken quality; bedspreads and tablecloths are unrolled for my inspection; pashmina shawls are flung around my shoulders--it's a wonder I don't fill more than the front and back seats of the car with table linens and Rajasthani quilts and silver jewelry and pottery and paper products.
Before leaving Rajasthan, I want to see something of the countryside, so one day I travel to the village of Samode, situated between arid hills and verdant orchards. The palace of a former rajah, full of charming wall paintings, is now a quaint hotel that was used as a location for the film The Far Pavilions. The rooms still feel like a movie set-a familiar sensation in Rajasthan, where the line between fantasy and reality is so often blurred. But the ultimate fantasy is the elephant safari arranged by Rajvilas, followed by a picnic at Naila Fort, the countryseat of P.R.S. Oberoi. Riding behind the mahout in the howdah of a mildly capricious pachyderm named Bulbul, I feel like Kipling's Toomai of the Elephants as we lurch through dry riverbeds, past thorn-tree forests and thatched-roof villages and fields of wheat and mustard. The only sounds are the twitter of birds, the swish of Bulbul's feet in the dry grass, and the tinkling of bells on her harness. This may not be the real India, but it is real; it may be fantasy, but I'm living it and I never want it to end.
Rajvilas, Goner Rd., Jaipur; 800/562-3764 or 91-141/640-101, fax 91-141/640-202; villa doubles from $280; dinner for two $45. Guides $10 for a full day of personal sightseeing; car and driver from $7.50 for two hours in a budget compact to $115 for a full day in a Mercedes.