Ssh peaceful

We start our weekend breaks package in the North of India, in the nation’s favourite destination state, Rajasthan. The Amanbagh Resort is only five hours from Delhi, and it provides a luxury experience like no other. What’s more, it’s offering a 40 per cent discount to Indian nationals. Sanjiv Bhattacharya experiences the magic.

Sanjiv Bhattacharya        Print Edition: Feb 8, 2009

The Terrace Restaurant, Amanbagh
There were moments at Amanbagh of such peace and beauty that, like a child, I’d close my eyes and imagine I could capture the feeling forever. But, of course, I couldn’t. The magic of Amanbagh can’t be trapped in a bottle. The first moment came just after we arrived at the resort, a gleaming oasis near the ancient city of Alwar in rural Rajasthan, about five hours from Delhi by jeep. Pretty girls in orange marigold saris greeted us with songs and champagne cocktails, before walking us to our room, a palace of marble and soft cotton. We passed the turquoise pool, the leaning palms and pristine lawns, the reassuring expanse of creamy marble walls. And it seemed that we had the place to ourselves, a trick that Amanbagh plays by devoting 24 acres to 40 suites.

It was on our personal lounger on the terrace that I first closed my eyes and breathed deep—the chirp of birds, the breeze riffling through the leaves and the distant snip-snip of gardeners perfecting immaculate hedges. Delhi was already a memory—the traffic, the bustle, the haze. Amanbagh was working.

“The suite was a palace of marble and soft cotton?
If you live in a city, then luxury is peace, calm and simplicity—what you don’t get at home. Amanbagh is a spectacular oasis of all three. Since it opened in October 2006, without a penny of advertising, it has attracted the cream of global travellers, the likes of Prince Andrew, Chelsea Clinton and Terence Conran. They often arrive on a nearby runway, and take up in one of the suites with private dipping pools. And they place themselves in the care of the managers, Robyn Bickford and Manav Garewal, who believe in treating customers as house guests. “We greet everyone when they arrive and send them off when they leave,” says Robyn, a maternal New Zealander, who gave up a diplomatic career to run Amanbagh. “It’s about feeling comfortable. You see the same warmth here among the local people.”

All too often, a host of minor anxieties accompany the luxury hotel experience. The foyer’s so grand that sitting there, you feel diminished and underdressed. Is it OK to order tea here, or do you have to go to the café, and is the café even open at this time? So many restaurants to choose from and such complicated menus. The scale is a liability. So many staff are so busy tending to so many guests that hospitality becomes reflexive, the smiles become strained. And you see the hotel as a place of work, not leisure. It’s hard to relax around busy people.

Amanbagh is the opposite—a citadel of simplicity. ‘Aman’ means peaceful in Sanskrit, and ‘bagh’ is Hindi for garden, and the name suits perfectly. Situated in a verdant oasis within a walled city once used for hunting by the Maharajah of Alwar, it was designed as a modern palace, a tribute to the traditional designs that pepper the landscape in these parts—the crenellated arches, the minaret motifs. The design here is unfussy. The rooms don’t have televisions—Amanbagh is a respite from all that—but each bathtub has been cut from one piece of marble. And the simplicity extends to the service. Everything is available at all times— just dial 1 and speak to Preeti, your personal manager, the girl who sang you the song. She’ll fix your spa appointment around the excursions— the elephant ride in the morning or camels in the afternoon, a shikara ride on the nearby Mansarovar lake or a trip to the ancient temple in Neelkanth.

Take breakfast in the library or have a private dinner out on the roof terrace, even out at the nearby Madar Baba ki Chattri at the corner of the lake. And the menu presents no challenge—north Indian classics and continental comfort food. This philosophy of artful simplicity is encapsulated by Ragu, Amanbagh’s resident artist. Each morning he makes an extraordinary rangoli of coloured dal—a huge peacock or stalking tiger, which the squirrels or macaques nibble through the day. And during dinner, he plays the flute beautifully— a plastic pipe he carved himself.

The spa
We were only there for a weekend, my wife and I. But it was a charmed 48 hours—somehow the excursions didn’t sap our energies but replenish them. The countryside alone was fortifying in all its vivid colours—the processions of the local Meena women carrying bundles of wood on their heads, in shock bright saris of pink, yellow and red. The warmth of the locals was irresistible—everywhere we went we were met with beautiful smiles, film star teeth, children waving and running after the jeep. When we needed to stop to answer nature’s call, a family took us in and gave us tea. We chatted for half an hour on their porch.

And there is history at every turn in Alwar—no end of ruins jutting out of the landscape whether forts or tombs or palaces. All that was missing were people. There were no swarms of tourists, no tourists at all, in fact. It was that Amanbagh illusion once again— that we had the place to ourselves. There’s something magical about chancing upon an empty palace in the wilderness, or an abandoned city, brimming with magic and stories.

Our guide was Sitaram, a gentlyspoken man from Jaipur with an immense knowledge of flora and fauna and local legends. At the Neelkanth temple, up a bumpy hillside, he explained that the reason we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the erotic sculptures was because gangsters had raided it over the years, selling the artifacts for vast sums. According to Sitaram, one statue of Varaha, the boar-headed incarnation of Vishnu, was stolen from this site, and of the 29 people involved in the theft, 28 had died as a result of a mysterious curse. The one who was spared was the one who confessed to police.

The next day, he took us to Bhangarh, a wonderfully preserved city constructed by Madho Singh, the brother of Akbar’s general, Man Singh, in the 17th century. Said to be haunted today, it was deserted only a generation after completion owing to a tantric’s curse. The legend goes that the tantric fell for the princess of Bhangarh, and cast a spell on some scented oil that she was using, to enchant her. But the princess was equally gifted in magic, and cast an equal spell against the tantric, crushing him with a stone, and before he died, the magician cursed the entire town. Sure enough, the next year, a battle took place, and the city was vacated.

The eeriness of Bhangarh was evident from the moment we entered. But for us and a small party of excavators from the Archeological Survey of India, the city was home to only monkeys now, the hordes of macaques and langurs, eyeing us carefully from their stoops. We entered the Maharajah’s palace and sat on the edge of the temple there, a site of impossible grandeur and beautifully preserved. Sitaram produced from his bag some hot chai and cookies. It was another of those moments that I wanted to capture.

There were so many such moments. Once when we took a ride down to the lake on the caparisoned camels, silent but for the rockabye squeak of saddle leather and the flutter of birds. Again on the shikara watching the kingfishers as the disc sun descended. And there were so many excursions we didn’t take— the Sariska Game Sanctuary, Satimata Dham, Ajabgarh fort. We’re sorely tempted to return.

On our first night, Manav told us: “People cry when they leave here, that’s when we feel that we’ve really done our job”. And I thought it sounded a bit much—who cries when they leave a hotel? But on the morning that we left for Delhi, our hearts were heavy. Something about our time at Amanbagh had been other-worldly—the peace and tranquility, the rejuvenating power of nature, and the fact that everyone we’d met, in and out of the resort, had greeted us with a smile. This wasn’t the world as we knew it. Luxury is feeling like a child again, looked after, unburdened. When the chatter has dimmed, the senses are alive and everywhere you look is kindness, it’s astonishing how quickly your rhythms can change.

As the Amanbagh team gathered at the entrance for our send-off, all standing there waving, we closed our eyes once more and held onto the moment as our jeep pulled away.

The information
Getting there: From Jaipur, return airport transfer is provided; from Delhi airport, jeep transfer to Amanbagh is $200 (Rs 9,600)
Cost: The normal rates run from $650-1,250+10 per cent service for any of four suites—the courtyard haveli, garden haveli, terrace haveli and pool pavilion. But Amanbagh is currently offering 40 per cent discount to resident Indians and Indian nationals. Book: 01465-223333

Or Alternatively… Here are a few other great options out of Delhi
A legend by now, the Neemrana Fort Palace is the premier weekend destination for Delhi-ites, located a mere 100 km from the airport. Perched on a plateau, the views are magnificent, and most rooms have private balconies. And the cultural performances on Saturday nights are fabulous. Getting there: Take the Jaipur highway, past Shahjahanpur, turn right at 122 km. Two-and-a-half hours from Delhi.

Cost: Doubles from Rs 3,000/ night
Book: (STD – 01494) or (from Delhi – 951494) 246006/7

. The Oberoi, Udaivilas
Of course you’ve heard of the Oberoi Udaivilas, one of the certified best hotels in the galaxy. But have you stayed there? Five stars aren’t nearly enough. You think you’ve been spoiled? The Udaivilas will ruin you. Getting there: A 90-minute flight to Udaipur, and the Oberoi takes you to the remaining 28 km.

Cost: From Rs 30,000/ night
Book: 0294-2433300, reservations@oberoigroup.com

. Mcleodganj
There’s always the hills. McLeodganj in Himachal Pradesh is an easy getaway. Home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile, McLeodganj (7 km from Dharamshala) offers trekking, monasteries, shopping and mountains. Getting there: 22 km from Gaggal airport

Where to stay: The old Pema Thang’s Guest House
Book: 09418398764, www.pemathang.net

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