India’s most fabled province transports you to a bygone era of tiger hunts and regal feasts while pampering you in 21st-century comfort.
I grew up fantasizing about India. When I was a child, my grandparents lived there and wrote me long letters filled with tales of lush gardens, ancient temples, and monkeys scampering across rooftops. My dream picture was coloured by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Rumer Godden’s The River, and R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi stories. Of course, I wanted to see the Taj Mahal in the moonlight and the flaming ghats on the Ganges. Still, even more so, I wanted to see Rajasthan, India’s northwesternmost state, which stretches from the Thar Desert on the Pakistani border to Punjab plains and the verdant hills of the Chambal River basin.
Rajasthan’s capital, Jaipur, a walled city with buildings painted in a deep oleander pink, epitomizes the allure of the India of my dreams. Rajvilas, Jaipur’s newest hotel, provides an excellent introduction to the area. The structures were built with ancient methods and materials, including lime plaster (mixed on-site with a camel-powered grindstone) and hand-carved stone and marble. Persian-inspired, Mughal, and Hindu originals are evoked by the fortress walls, blue-tiled fountains, marble sculptures, formal gardens, and beautifully latticed pavilions.
Rajvilas is based on P.R.S. Oberoi’s country estate, a beautifully rebuilt 16th-century Rajasthani fort, and is the brainchild of the Indian hotel conglomerate’s CEO. Rajvilas, like its model, successfully blends regal grandeur, local workmanship, and 20th-century comfort. Of course, the opulent forecourt, with its fountains and marble elephants, isn’t the only thing that makes you feel like you’ve transformed into a character from Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. What other hotel boasts a 250-year-old Hindu temple on its premises that is still in use? How about a sleek bay pony and trap, driven by a red-turbaned syce for visiting the premises? Or a uniformed official striding around the lawn with a deliberate pace, waving a white flag to deter any pigeons from squatting on the footpaths?
A GRACEFUL YOUNG WOMAN with a long Rajasthani skirt, overblouse, and odhni comes out to greet me by name as I alight from the WHITE, AIR-CONDITIONED JEEP dispatched to pick me up from the airport. She leads across the courtyard and through huge brass-clad doors that are replicas of originals from the 17th century. I’m greeted once more in the soaring entrance hall, this time by a young man dressed in cream-coloured slacks, a patterned kurta, and a vibrant yellow turban. Before I join my hostess on a brief tour, he offers me a glass of watermelon juice as a refreshment. The panelled library, filled with old photos of moustachioed Rajputs and slain tigers, is our first destination. On cool evenings, guests can sit by the fire and sip drinks poured at the bar in the corner. The tables are dressed with hand-blocked Rajasthani printed tablecloths in the dining area, which has exquisite pillars and flowery murals. We walk through yet another set of monumental brass doors, across a water lily-filled moat, and along a flagged road flanked by rose bushes and jasmine beds. We travel across verdant lawns sprinkled with desert palms and neem trees, whose shade string hammocks entice, before entering a tranquil, fountain-watered courtyard through a carved Mughal-style stone pergola.
My room is one of the six in a pink-walled bungalow, looks like it was designed by Martha Stewart if she had spent my prior life in Raj-era India. The big four-poster bed is swathed in billowing draperies and coverlets (block-print and cutwork) and piled with soft embroidered pillows; it’s spacious, high-ceilinged, and shuttered. There’s a comfy window seat for reading or reclining, as well as Rajput miniatures on the wall, vibrant dhurries on the floor, and intriguing stone and pottery objects—modern replicas of old originals—strewn about the space. The bathroom features a double sink and a glass-walled shower stall and a sunken marble tub that each overlook a small walled garden.
The hotel’s 14 luxury tents, which re-create the royally decorated temporary quarters erected by royal hunting teams when they travelled out into the desert or forest in quest of the great game, are ideal for more daring visitors. These “big camps” would be made up of more than a dozen silk tents outfitted with all of the creature comforts of home—if “home” meant a Rajput palace—and operated by cooks, attendants, and even performers. The tents are grouped in two “villages” on the Rajvilas property’s outskirts and are enclosed by a mud-daubed wall. The walls are painted with designs and punctured by free-form portals like those used in rural areas, rather than the exquisite Mughal murals that adorn the entryways to the guest bungalows.
The tents themselves are completely fictitious. The glass-and-concrete walls are erected on sandstone slabs and topped by big canvas tents, so they’re technically rooms with cloth ceilings. A canopy of mirror embroidered silk descends from tent poles draped in the same fabric inside each. On all sides, translucent white cotton curtains are draped, and the French doors are veiled with roller shades that match the ceiling. It feels like the genuine thing while you’re inside, reclining in a rattan campaign chair or lazing on the front or back deck, listening to parakeets screech in the desert palms. The real thing, on the other hand, is unlikely to have a teak floor with sisal rugs, a state-of-the-art concealed sprinkler system, air conditioning, or the never-ending stream of hot water that fills the antique clawfoot tub in the bathroom. Like so much else at Rajvilas, the tents blend authenticity—or the appearance of it—with unparalleled comfort and convenience.
For the first half of my stay, I’ve booked a standard accommodation, and for the second, I’ve booked a tent., wanting to experience every identity that Rajvilas can bestow on its guests, from raja to shikari; however, as soon as I am settled in my villa, I start to get nostalgic at the prospect of having to leave it for a life in a tent. There’s no reason to be concerned: Rajvilas’ most significant qualities—a sense of fantasy and a sense of being cared for—are present on both sides of the mud wall.
In the days of the maharajahs, such shows were commonplace. Any fears I had that this would be just another quasi-exotic nightclub performance dissipate in the face of the performers’ discipline and austerity: it’s as if they’re performing for themselves only.
Men in brightly coloured turbans, long patterned kurtas, pants, and short vests in varied shades of cream and rose; ladies in cream-and-blue print skirts, tunics, and odhnis; all designed by Tarun Tahiliani, India’s finest couturier—cosset guests with a blend of dexterity and charm. At Rajvilas, those traits appear to be on exhibit everywhere, even in the laundry. My shirt and pants are eventually returned, albeit belatedly, with the disarming explanation that they had not been ironed to the satisfaction of the dhobi-wallah. They’d never looked so pressed before.
Even Rajvilas’ standard amenities appear to have been adapted from a Rajput miniature picture.
It’s difficult to leave RAJVILAS because it’s so comfortable and charming, but even on my first day, I manage to go out with a car and driver, as well as a guide, all arranged by the hotel. I come across treeless, rock-strewn slopes crowned with palace forts, otherwise parched valleys covered with orchards, buildings with frescoed façades and lacy brickwork, and people dressed in vibrant blues and greens, saffron yellows and scarlets, and beautiful pinks. Trucks painted as brightly as Gypsy carts rumble by. Even the omnipresent camels, who pull carts laden with bricks or wood, have ornamental patterns shaved into them or have stencilled designs painted on them.
After all of this amenity, seeing Jai Singh’s second famous monument, Jantar Mantar (Formula of Instruments), an astronomical observatory made up of massive geometric stone-and-metal buildings that could be a set for a Philip Glass opera, is almost a welcome respite.