Taking you through the lesser-known jewels of Rajasthan, Ajay Prakash introduces three forts that have retained their traditional character while taking on the trappings of modernity, offering travellers a taste of royal hospitality.
Rajasthan, one of the most popular tourist destinations in India, has been synonymous with impressive forts, opulent palaces and gracious hospitality. Every tourist who visits Rajasthan aspires to visit the Pink City (Jaipur), the Sun City (Jodhpur), the City of Lakes (Udaipur) and more. But there is also another Rajasthan waiting to be discovered by the discerning traveller: the real Rajasthan which lives and breathes in small towns and little villages. Only a few hours out of the big cities and still unsullied by mass tourism, it is in these less-trodden niches that gracious hosts personally welcome you into their lovingly restored forts and palaces, now operating as beautiful boutique hotels.
On my road trip to Rajasthan recently, I came across Fort Begu, which lies approximately midway between Udaipur and Jodhpur. The fort, dating back to 1430 AD, has been lovingly restored by Rawat Sawai Hari Singh and his sons, Maha and Ajay Raj Singh. Built over 30 acres, it has eight huge gates, two stepwells, 18 courtyards and is surrounded by a wide moat. There are also half a dozen temples, including two prominent Jain temples within the fort, besides the main Dwarkadhish temple dedicated to Lord Krishna. Stepwells around the fort still quench the thirst of the residents of Begu.
After three years of meticulous restoration work, Fort Begu opened its doors to guests in 2007. All the masons and workers employed for the restoration were locals, and a conscious effort was made to maintain the fort’s originality. Accordingly, all materials required were sourced from and around Begu. The most difficult part was to lay pipelines in walls that were five to six feet wide! The flooring of the rooms, done in cool, Kota-like stones which are indigenous to Begu, remains untouched and though only five suites have been restored so far, each of them is a delight with air-conditioning, king-size beds, stained glass windows, exquisite mirror- work murals, huge bathrooms and private sit outs. “When we meditate on our past, the rich history of Begu and the fort fills us with a sense of pride. Converting a part of the fort into a heritage hotel brings in some of the revenue needed for the upkeep of this almost 600-year-old fort,” explains Singh.
The rustic approach through the village and over the moat doesn't prepare you for the first glimpse of the fort which gleams white as it suddenly appears, towering over you. The ruins of the Zenana Mahal and the well-tended Char Bagh in the foreground set off the grandeur of the restored palace. The steps, like all steps of old forts, are fairly steep; but the view from the jharokhas in the verandah is mesmerising. Step through a small reception area into the dining room and you are surrounded by history- 23 generations of rulers look down at you from the walls which are covered with photographs and paintings. Once settled, you can relish the delicious meal that has been cooked under Hari Singhji’s personal supervision, who incidentally can keep you engrossed for hours with fascinating stories from the history of Begu. One of the most interesting stories that he narrates is of a ruler, who was so enamoured by the sound of thunder that he had 50 retainers sit on the roof of his room in Badal Mahal to take turns to roll cannonballs across the roof to simulate the sound!
Moving further west into Marwar brings you to the Chanoud Garh Fort in Pali district, yet another delightful place that has been inhabited by its owners for over 300 years! After intense renovation- for which brothers Jairaj and Mahi, encouraged by their father Ajeet Singhji, quit their jobs in the metros and moved back to Chanoud- it has opened its doors to guests just last year. Its unique historical blend of Mewari and Marwari architectural styles, along with additions during the Raj era makes it very interesting.
Spending time in each room, trying to figure out where windows could be created or where an alcove could be expanded to create an intimate sit out and discovering unexpected surprises in the process- secret stairs, tunnels, dungeons, miniature painting or enamel work on doors, etc- was both painstaking and exciting. During restoration, there was a moment of intense excitement when workers digging a soak pit unearthed a number of matkas. Visions of a hidden treasure flashed across everybody’s mind, but, disappointingly, the matkas turned out to contain coal!
Seven suites have been restored in the mardana wing of the fort. Set around a garden courtyard with a lovely old fountain at its centre, they are tastefully furnished with fabrics from Jodhpur, Jaipur and South India. The Durbar Hall, with its high ceiling, antique furniture, hundreds of old books and walls covered with black and white photographs, invites you to immerse yourself in history. Recalling the excitement of the villagers during the restoration process, Jairaj says, “You could see warmth and happiness in their eyes; something they had lost hope in was coming to life again! It was that moment, that feeling which made us feel more responsible to bring this palace back to glory. These are things you can never own but just be the custodians of and pass on.”
Apart from old, restored forts, there are also those that have been meticulously designed based on constructions of the past. About 15 kilometres outside Jaisalmer, rising like a mirage from the desert sands, is Mihirgarh- a modern construction with timeless character. The minute you step through the arched gateway, you realise that Siddharth Singh (of Rohet) and his charming wife, Rashmi, have created a dream in the desert. While their ancestral home, Rohetgarh, 25 kilometres away, is a quaint amalgam of Rajput and colonial architecture, Mihirgarh is their own creation- a combination of traditional Rajasthani rural architecture with hints of Moroccan and the Middle Eastern styles.
What’s amazing is that Mihirgarh, with over 40,000 sq feet of constructed area, was completed in a little less than two and a half years! The gently rounded walls and corners, the many alcoves with paintings that incorporate the alcoves into the artwork, the special plaster flooring that was done by just one workman and his helper, the furnishings and fabrics which have been exclusively sourced locally- all combine seamlessly in a tribute to the traditional crafts and craftsmanship of Marwar.
There are only eight suites in Mihirgarh, eight and a half to be precise, if one takes into account a lone suite which measures smaller than the standard 1,700 sq feet of the remaining eight. The suites on the ground floor have their own private plunge pool, while the four on the first floor offer an open-air Jacuzzi. The furnishings are rich and luxurious, and the handcrafted fireplaces in each suite, made by local village women, promise to be a delight in the biting cold. Cosy, luxurious, intimate and exclusive, Mihirgarh, in the words of its owner, Siddharth, is “a dream realised- a labour of love and a tribute to the traditional rural architecture of western Rajasthan”.
Only after having experienced the timeless beauty of these places, enriched by the history and stories of their previous inhabitants, did I realise that there are tourists, and there are travellers. Tourists rush through, clicking pictures that they will pore over when they are back home; travellers often carry no camera, preferring to enjoy the experience as it unfolds. And when the experience encompasses a harmonious blend of culture, history and landscape, it forms lasting memories. Fort Begu, Chanoud Garh, Mihirgarh and many other such properties typify the essence of Rajasthan- warmth and hospitality juxtaposed in a harsh environment. These are not hotels, they are homes, and being warmly welcomed into a home far from your own is the best thing for a traveller.
This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Marwar India magazine.