I am standing at a precarious spot along the wall of the 12th-century Ahhichatragarh Fort in the north Indian state of Rajasthan, overlooking the pastel-painted city of Nagaur. As the sun sets, boys fly kites from rooftops, groups of teenagers in skinny jeans and flip-flops ride scooters and women covering their heads in chunaris (georgette scarves) gather weathered pots to prepare desert beans, lentils and mutton for dinner.
I wave at one young woman who is standing on the concrete balcony of a house a few hundred metres away and she waves back so vigorously that her green dupatta (long scarf) slips off one shoulder. An older woman on the balcony – presumably her mother – scowls, yanks the young woman’s hand down and leads her back inside the house. It’s only then that I realize how I must look to all the people in the city below.
On my side of the fort’s 1.8-kilometre-long sandstone wall is a compound built by an 18th-century maharaja, Bakht Singh of Marwar, that is currently owned by a present-day maharaja, Gaj Singh II of Jodhpur. My residence for two nights is Ranvas, a hotel composed of impeccably decorated havelis (mansions) that Bakht Singh erected for each of his 16 wives. It dawns on me in this moment that I’ve been here for 24 hours and still haven’t left the compound. I haven’t had a need to.
I have travelled to Rajasthan to explore the great Mughal architecture of the state: the finely detailed golden stone forts, the elegantly arched doors, the airy havelis. But I didn’t just want to stand cheek-to-jowl with other Birkenstock-clad visitors, all jostling to take the same selfies in front of the same architectural treasures the guide books recommended. I wanted a taste of life inside.
It turned out that there was no shortage of accommodations that were marketing just that. Srinath Suras, a resident of Jaisalmer, the haveli capital of India, told me that many of the intricately carved sandstone balconies that protrude from the older homes in his neighbourhood were sold off long ago to hotels looking to add history to their façades. There are also five-star joints that have used new tools but old materials to imitate the aesthetic of centuries-old forts and havelis. And then there are the true heritage properties, such as Ranvas, whose crumbling structures have been rehabilitated over the span of decades.
I was intrigued by them all and, for a week, I traversed the Thar Desert, trading in my thrifty-traveller identity to live like a modern-day maharani.
My first stop is Jodhpur, where my husband and I have been circling the same tangle of narrow, winding streets for so long that I am certain we have already passed the same pair of sari-clad grannies trading gossip on their stoop twice.
“I think we should just get something to eat and look for it later,” I tell Anis, who is glancing down at Google Maps on his phone, trying to find RAAS, a haveli-turned-hotel. With the city’s famous tangy cashew-filled samosas and so-thick-you-need-a-spoon sweet yogurt lassi in our bellies (and, more important, the help of a tuk-tuk driver), we finally find the hotel. Although it is close to the two biggest tourist magnets in town – the clock tower and the Mehrangarh Fort – RAAS seems to pride itself on being hidden. It doesn’t advertise to the domestic market and more than 90 per cent of its guests come from overseas.
While some of the havelis we have seen on the rest of the trip (such as Jaisalmer’s famous Patwon ki Haveli) are saturated with colour and busy design – Indian rococo carvings, gilded door frames, muralled ceilings – this one is a study in restraint. The clean pink sandstone structure is complemented by the same sky-coloured paint that covers most of the homes in “the blue city,” allowing it to disappear into its surroundings.
Only the select few who get past the nondescript gate and the small floating plate-glass check-in desk get to glimpse the compound that a thakur (a noble, a sort of mini-maharaja) had built here in the late 1700s as a home away from his village. At its core is the haveli where the thakur slept, a space now converted into an outpost of British spa chain Ila, as well as the hotel’s three heritage suites.
The renovation has been dramatic, but there are still signs of the life of the original owner here. On the hottest Rajasthani summer days, a sheet of fabric was threaded through the large, round iron hooks that pierce the ceiling and a pair of servants would tug the fabric back and forth to create a Mughal-era fan to keep their master cool. The thakur’s horse stable is now a posh lounge area with starched canvas seating and copies of Jodhpur Polo stacked on the coffee table.
While eating breakfast in the baradari, the white-washed pavilion once a site for entertaining but now used as a restaurant, we take in the pretourist-boom views of the mammoth Mehrangarh Fort that the thakur would have enjoyed. RAAS’s architects cleverly designed the block of suites closest to the fort to be just tall enough to block out the sight of most other hotels, giving guests eating fresh fruit and Rajasthani eggs Benedict (made with turkey, since Muslims, who make up a significant portion of Jodhpur’s population, abstain from pork) a clear view of the fort.
When we walk on to the balcony of our suite, we notice another layer of sophistication in RAAS’s attempts to protect its guests from the visual clutter of other hotels and restaurants’ signage. A latticed sandstone screen (a modern complement to the carved jalis on the original haveli) partly encloses the space.
When Anis figures out how to slide open the top half to open up the balcony, he exposes a couple sitting on the roof of one of the budget hotels across the way, boldly staring us down.
They are sunburnt and sipping pina coladas, probably recovering from the same sweat-drenched hike we took to the top of Mehrangarh Fort earlier that day. While I had used my trusted Indian head bob and my limited Hindi to ask for do tikat (two tickets) to save us some money on admission (in India, most tourist sites have one price for locals and a much higher one for foreigners), it didn’t take long for us to shed the imposter syndrome and embrace our new, albeit temporary, life as royals. After letting the couple gawk at us for a few seconds, Anis pulls the screen closed in one swift motion, blocking out a lot more than just the late-afternoon sun.
From Jodhpur, we make the drive nearly 300 kilometres west to Jaisalmer, near the Pakistan border. The landscape gradually shifts from fields to dunes, and the cows that block traffic as they meander across the road are joined by goats, pigs, sheep and peacocks.
As our white SUV pulls up to the gate of Suryagarh, the next hotel we are checking in to, a pair of men in matching orange and fuchsia turbans and pressed khaki uniforms stop us and lead us up the ramp to the hotel’s entrance. They’re each holding a flag that bears the hotel’s name. And they’re riding camels.
I am skeptical that, at any point in history, high-ranking mughals were offered camel valet service, but I let myself submit to this over-the-top reception, which somehow gets even more elaborate as we crest the ramp.
A man in a crimson turban is standing at the end of a long fountain, emotively singing some Rajasthani welcoming tune while a phalanx of staff members with tight grins extends trays to us loaded with warm towels, water, soda and Indian sweets. Two golden retrievers named after characters from The Lion King traipse around the fountain in what a cynical part of me believes might be a choreographed routine. I turn to shoot Anis a look that pleads, “How do we get out of this?” when, seemingly out of nowhere, dozens of rose petals rain down on our heads. It’s too late.
Unlike RAAS and Ranvas, Suryagarh is a new build, the dream of a local liquor and mining tycoon. The sprawling facility is a hodgepodge of every imaginable Indian aesthetic: a façade modelled after the famous Jaisalmer Fort, an interior that takes its cues from Rajasthani palaces, an outdoor auditorium that is a hybrid of ancient stepwells and Agra’s Fatehpur Sikri and a collection of haveli suites inspired by the dry-stacked houses the local Paliwal Brahmins lived in. The suites, while spacious, have a more neutral catalogue aesthetic, like Restoration Hardware’s Indian cousin.
Suryagarh’s courtyard is India as imagined by the Walt Disney Company: Yards of sheer saffron fabric are draped overhead, a worker fills a pool with four large sacks of bougainvillea leaves over the course of an hour, a turbaned man sitting in a second-floor alcove that faces the courtyard plays the flute while peacocks – which are usually kept in a pen outside but brought in at breakfast to improve the ambience – casually strut around the gleaming and obsessively swept marble floors.
All this careful curation and newness make us itch more than ever to see the area’s most noteworthy architecture, which is nestled in and around the 860-year-old Jaisalmer Fort. But the staff don’t make it easy. They’ve tossed out our original itinerary (royals have no agency over their own schedules, it appears) and filled our days with several decadent meals and unique hotel excursions, including a five-hour desert trail tour.
The food at Suryagarh – some of the best I’ve had in India – comes at such an unrelenting pace that it soon becomes a burden.
On our first night, we sit in the Sam Sand Dunes in front of a roaring fire, feasting on hare, quail, goat and a host of side dishes for hours.
The next morning, there is a nine-course breakfast that features every sweet and savoury treatment of fried dough imaginable alongside a cup of thickened milk that had been simmered for hours with sugar and cardamom and topped with chopped pistachios.
Hours later, after an excursion through the Thar Desert, we are ushered to an elaborate picnic site, where we force down chicken kebabs, potato salad, pita, hummus, goat liver, gazpacho and biryani. After undoing the top button of my pants to make room for the plated brownies that were pushed on us, I agree with Anis that we are in no condition to do an evening tour of ancient Jaisalmer and put it off to the next day, our last morning here.
We reach the hotel at 5:30 p.m., bloated and immobile, and collapse on the king-sized bed.
Maybe what I need right now is half an hour at the gym: In Mughal times, royals would swing wooden clubs and go for long walks to help them digest after monumental feasts.
In the next 13 hours, I rise only to use the bathroom and answer the door for tea delivery. As I waddle back to bed, hearing strains of live folk music float into the suite, I wonder aloud: Can you get gout, the disease of kings, in just two days?
About 36 hours later, I wake up in a different bed 330 kilometres away within the protective walls of the Ahhichatragarh Fort in Nagaur. Our stomachs have since deflated and Anis wanders out of our suite, which is decorated with oversized Rajasthani-style hardwood chairs and indigo block-printed textiles, to fetch our “bed tea” – a tray of masala chai and biscuits – which is silently delivered to our courtyard each morning.
Anis pokes his head back into the room and whisper-hisses at me to come outside. I wriggle out of my pyjama pants and into a pair of jeans and step out to see two peacocks and two peahens curiously poking around the sweet-smelling purple orchid tree that stands at the far end of the courtyard.
Three of the birds fly away on my clumsy approach, but one peacock, which has the stride of a velociraptor, curiously ambles out and lets me follow it, Alice in Wonderland-style. It walks past two other havelis, a row of pomegranate trees, and the white baradari where we’ve eaten all our meals. It passes through the open sandstone doorway that leads to the palaces on the property, whose walls and pillars are covered with recently restored miniature paintings: scenes of ranis (queens) squeezing water from their hair after a swim in the river, of their servants carrying vases of flowers on trays. And then, just like all the staff here, the peacock quietly disappears when I turn away for a moment.
Everyone who works at Ranvas operates on a low frequency – shadows briskly and wordlessly moving to light lanterns, turn down the sheets and whisk away the dishes after we’ve sopped up the gravy from the best bowl of laal maans (goat stewed in red chilies) I’ve ever tasted.
Since the top-level suite of our haveli is unoccupied during our stay (in general, we feel like the only guests this weekend), we have the freedom to explore its maze of a terrace, which connects to neighbouring buildings. These days, it serves as a private space to sit, read or nurse a drink (there are no TVs in the suites), but one hotel employee hints with a nod and a wink that, in Bakht Singh’s day, it was probably used as a corridor that would discreetly deliver the maharaja to the door of the wife he had chosen to spend the night with.
While it looks as though only minimal modifications have been made to the havelis to modernize them, in truth, the process of turning the UNESCO award-winning property into a hotel took two decades and the financial backing of India’s Mehrangarh Museum Trust, the U.S. Getty Foundation and the Britain-based Helen Hamlyn Trust.
The buildings that are in the process of being carefully restored offer a far richer visual feast than the museum at Mehrangarh Fort two hours away in Jodhpur, but draw fewer than 100 tourists a day on average. During our two days there, I spotted only one group getting a tour.
As lean as the traffic is leading into the fort, the same is true in the opposite direction.
We’re the sort of city explorers prone to making detailed custom Google Maps that usually win either the admiration or ridicule of our friends, but in a very out-of-character move, we’ve ventured outside the walls of the fort only once during our two-day stay here for a short exploration of the local market.
An hour after we checked out of Ranvas and officially ended our royal experiment, we’re on a train leaving Nagaur. It’s a gentle transition back to our regular lives: We’re in a clean, airy and empty second-class car, one of the best ways to travel by rail in India.
But an hour into our journey across the dry Thar landscape, my stomach rumbles and it dawns on me that there will be no fireside quail, no plate of cut pineapple, no laal maans. Four hours later, we finally pause at a station with a snack cart. As we pull away, I hoover a 20-cent bag of stale chips, already nostalgic for my short life as a maharani.