Heritage Hotels and History in Rajasthan, 2004

We've been to India several times since this visit but I thought it was worth posting this report because it covers some of the wonderful small heritage hotels which we loved. This Trip Report was originally written for the Fodor's Travel Forum.

India, as I said to all of my friends on our postcards is too much of everything…too much history, drama, poverty, beauty, chaos, decoration, traffic…yet all in all fascinating.  

I arranged the trip on my own, booking properties directly through email. Only Deogarh asked for a credit card to hold the room and despite nothing more than my email confirming our rooms, we found everyone was expecting us as planned.  

I highly recommend the smaller family run hotels which give you an opportunity to meet local Indian families who have a strong sense of their family history and have opened up their historical homes (forts and palaces) for visitors. For us the highlights were the small rural properties and the opportunities to meet and talk with the owners. We loved the historical beauty of the forts and palaces and I’m still lusting after some of the decorative interiors!

Getting Around
We were very happy to have had a car and driver. It really minimized the amount of hassle you experience and a good driver is infinitely flexible. On so many of our trip we made stops at roadside shrines or temples and stopped to eat along the way. We experienced things in our own  time and enjoyed them as we found them. We didn’t find the driving too bad until we hit the half constructed Alwar-Jaipur highway which was true madness…cows, camels, donkeys, children, bikes and traffic coming directly at you on the wrong side of a divided highway..oh yes,  at night!!!

I arranged two separate drivers (one for the trip to and from Udaipur-Bundi and one Udaipur-Jaipur) both drove the old fashioned Ambassadors which we found very comfortable. The first driver was arranged through Ramesh Dashora at Parul Tours http://www.rajasthantravelbycab.com/ I was somewhat nervous to arrange this entirely through the internet but I was very happy to see Ombrigash there to pick us up at Udaipur Airport. I highly recommend Ramesh’s operation, he is a kind and quiet man who is very knowledgeable about Rajasthan and highly reliable. When he was going to be out of town a month before our trip he emailed me to give me another contact name and ensure that I knew he would be away but that he would try to email back within 24 hours of any enquiry. When we need to change a couple of things in our itinerary in Udaipur he was very helpful and we used another of his drivers Sohan to transfer us to Devigarh. Both of the drivers we met were very pleasant, quiet, accommodating and friendly.
 We arranged our second driver through the very helpful Lily and Mahendra at Jasvilas and everything went well.

Bundi for three nights at Haveli Braj Bhushanjee where we loved the vegetarian Brahmin food, the room was very historical, a little jewel box though the bathroom was minute. We visited the Keshoraipatan Fair one day and toured the town on another. Compared to so many of the places we visited Bundi is very relaxed with limited numbers of tourists…the Palace complex is very quiet with wonderful views and some super decorative details. It’s certainly worth taking a guide as he knows when and we’re to press the caretaker to open additional rooms.

One night at Bassi Fort Palace (above) this was one of our favorite places in Rajasthan and incredibly cheap at $30 per night. The family is unstoppable and very friendly they love to sit and chat…it was quite fascinating to heard about their hunting lodges and the numbers of villages they “owned” prior to Independence. We took a jeep drive out to a Bhil village nearby which was a fascinating insight into rural Indian life.

The next day we visited the fort at Chittaurgarh and then stayed overnight at Ravla Khempur a small heritage hotel about an hour outside Udaipur. Chittaurgarh is a fascinating fort interesting because there are quite a number of temples and palaces. It was the old the old capital of the area prior to Udaipur and it’s important in Mewar history as a place where they faced the Mughals several times apparently the women killed themselves rather than be taken prisoners…hence it’s a popular site for local honeymoons because of the connotation of female fidelity. We saw lots of weddings during our time in Rajasthan because apparently we visited during an auspicious month for marriage though there appear to be plenty more of those every month or two!

Ravla Khempur above is a lovely little hotel run by a family that breeds the most beautiful Mewari horses. It’s a small palace…what in England we’d call a small stately home or country estate…built like so many right on the edge of the village. The room and bathroom were very comfortable and modern and we loved sitting out on the terrace listening to the temple drums at sunset. In the morning one of the family members took us on a wonderful walk through the village where we visited an ayurvedic clinic, the potters house and saw women winnowing grain. I had found the hotel on the internet and was nervous to try a place without any recommendations but after staying here and at Bassi I wish we had booked more of the smaller and less well known properties.

 Since we visited Ravla Khempur it was featured in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel!
Udaipur We planned on three nights in Udaipur but changed our plans because the lake was so low, camels we grazing where there was meant to be water!
We stayed at another family run hotel Kankarwa Haveli in a pretty Lake view room. The offered a lovely breakfast and a homestyle thali dinner on their decorative marble tables on the rooftop each day.

 The lake was very low and we could walk to the Lake Palace which I highly recommend. Udaipur is fairly laid back though in comparison to the rural placed we had visited up until then it seemed very busy. The City Palace is extraordinary and it’s hard to take in one incredible room after another. 
The Lake Palace certainly shouldn’t be missed we walked straight in…they even gave us a Maharajah’s entrance shading us with ceremonial umbrellas! We had met several people we were turned away but as I said to my husband we must be looking too middle aged or too affluent! The evening dance show was certainly of the highest quality and unmatched by the other dancers we saw throughout Rajasthan.

On the way to Devi Garh we visited Ekilingi a Jain temple complex which was incredibly lovely. We spent two nights at the hotel in one of their extraordinary Palace Suites. 
The good - The hotel is unlike anything else in Rajasthan. It is not run by the ancestral family but is a modern restoration of an ancient fort with stylish interiors an elegant green marble minimalist pool and a spa. The food was excellent. One night we ate out on the terrace next too braziers that let the evening, looked beautiful and kept us warm on the other night they prepared a private room for us in a gorgeous mirrored turret where we sat on pillows at a low table almost entirely covered in red rose petals. 
The bad - We had initially booked into one of their cheaper tent rooms, clearly I was thinking African safari tent and they were thinking something else! The main problem with the tents is that they’re miles from the hotel! Down hundreds of steps next to a beautiful organic kitchen garden the tents make you feel that you’re visiting and not staying at the hotel. We switched immediately. The Garden suites are next to the pool and spa but the true experiences at this hotel are the Palace Suites…all different and all spectacular. ..ours had an enormous bathing annex including a marble tub in a turret…all very Balinese dark wood etc.

From Devi Garh we drove to Deogarh via Kumbhalgarh Fort and the Jain temples at Ranakpur this made for a long day but it was worth it. We particularly liked the Jain temples at Ranakpur where the chief priest, a very charismatic fellow, let us in after the usually 5pm foreigners “cut off”. The complex is carved from marble and the details are extraordinary. As at all jain temples you are asked to remove all leather objects at the door. We had a wonderful tour with the daughter of the chief priest who explained the priestship has been in the family for 16 generations. The drive across from Kumblagah (with its impressive wall and spectacular views) was lovely, very rural and rather tropical with lots of interesting irrigation wells.
Deogarh is an attractive well located (off the main Jodhpur- Udaipur road) family run fort…it gets lots of publicity and seems to generally be full it is beautiful and the master suites were extraordinary. Our room was lovely with a picturesque terrace and the food was excellent. The pool gorgeous though too cold for a swim! However, on the whole we preferred the smaller properties which offer a more personalized experience. We greatly enjoyed a short excursion with a local guide (who was a barber) to a small temple which we hiked to up 700 steps…the views were lovely and the priest and his family were very hospitable. 

We stayed at another small heritage hotel Rohetgarh for two nights. The room was lovely, rather minimal with white walls, pink murals and white and rose colored Jaipur cotton linens and curtains. It overlooked a pretty lake that was behind the hotel and again the hotel was located in the town but felt miles away. At this stage we were feeling rather tired and had a quiet couple of days snoozing and reading…taking a cooking class was the height of our ambitions! They offered lots of daytrips to villages and bike rides but although others recommended them we just lazed around.

Our next stop was Jaiselmer, with a quick stop for lunch at Manvar Desert Resort which looked great. 
We spent three nights at Killa Bhawan a small, stylish hotel in a converted Haveli in the center of the fort city of Jaiselmer, it came highly recommended and was certainly the place to stay. We loved the views from the rooftop and overall the location was excellent though the constant presence of the hotel manager in the tiny lobby was a bit tedious. We visited one of the newer hotels Fort Rajwada but far preferred the location within the city walls.
Jaiselmer is lovely and we were happy to be there in the second week of December a slight lull in the tourists between the Pushkar camel fair and Christmas. I’m not sure that I would have enjoyed it when it was packed! It is very very touristy and very oriented towards backpackers. The buildings are incredible as are the narrow alleyways which reminded me greatly of Zanzibar. It’s somewhere I’m glad I saw but I wouldn’t rush back to.

We opted out of the camel safari stuff and instead organized permits to visit the Thar Desert National Park which is home to a large bustard (a 4ft bird) often incorrectly labeled on local signage as the Great Indian Bastard! We grappled with the local bureaucracy and after a day secured a permit to visit the area which is restricted because of the proximity to the Pakistani border. The whole thing was a bit of an adventure and a lot of fun.

We transfer to Jodhpur for one night at Inn Seasons, where we stayed in a large art deco styled suite. We had dinner at the Art Deco Umaid Bhawan which was built in the 1930’s by the Maharaja of Jaipur and after a quick flirtation with Aman Resorts has recently been taken over by the Taj group. It’s definitely somewhere to see but we found it rathen monumental and somewhat ominous. The Jodhpur Fort is very beautiful and certainly worth visiting it is very well organized and they have an audio tour that I particularly enjoyed.

From Jodhpur we traveled on to Jaipur which was one of the most touristy destination we visited. I would cheerfully have missed Jaipur which I found very aggressive, very crowded and very polluted. Jaipur could not offer the same interest for us as the small rural properties we had enjoyed earlier on our trip. We stayed at Jasvilas which was a suburban oasis and I highly recommend it’s a friendly family run hotel and they gave me lots of advice on the itinerary. We enjoyed shopping for cottons (bed linens, tablecloths and napkins etc) at Soma and Anoki but in general we we very happy to leave town after two nights…the city center attractions were not nearly as interesting as elsewhere and the sheer number of aggressive touts made for a dreadful experience. 

No wonder so many people visit India and have such a dreadful time…my advice is to miss Jaipur, or stay in a “destination“ hotel out of town.

We visited the Amber Fort on route to Shekawati. The Fort was spectacular with interesting interiors and views but again very touristy…it felt the nearer we got to Delhi the larger the number of tourists and the larger the pressure from touts on the tourists.

In Shekawati, we spent two nights at Apani Dhani a modest eco-resort on the edge of Nawalgarh. It was well located to see the painted Havelis of the Shekawati region which we found  fascinating. Wealthy merchants (who later became some of the leading Indian industrialist families) who made fortunes in trade built incredible havelis with decorated courtyards and interiors from the late 18th century onwards. Some of the havelis have fascinating depictions of Europeans and European life including boats, trains and several unflattering portraits of Queen Victoria! In Nawalgarh it was easy to walk around town visiting havelis both museums and private homes. We also went on a fascinating drive out to some of the smaller villages to see several interesting cenotaphs, wells and Havelis.

  For those who have any interest in vernacular architecture I recommend the area though it was tedious to be surrounded by children begging for pens at every turn. 
 One of my favorite photos ever, we look so young!
At the eco-lodge they recommended not giving pens or money to children as this only encourages begging, upsetting the local economy when children return home with what tourists consider “spare change” which easily may equal what their parent earns in a day. 

On our first night at the lodge though there were only six guests they arranged to have a well know local raga singer (who makes local TV and radio appearances) to come to perform for us. It was one of the most interesting cultural exchanges we had in India as we talked to him and listened to him singing and playing his accordian. He came and joined us for dinner and they explained (through the interpreter) the nature of Indian Classical ragas and gave us a large number of examples which helped us understand the points he was making. Everyone loved it. 

From Nawalgarh we took an overnight train to Delhi where we spent a week with friends. We loved Delhi and found it an invigorating city but I think this had a lot to do with staying with people we knew and meeting lots of Delhi academics who had a spin on everything! We missed lots of the usual tourists stops which I look forward to seeing another time…my entire memory of Delhi consist of talking, shopping and eating...it was wonderful!