Perched on a granite hill, with stunning 360-degree views of the Rajasthani landscape, Carolyn McKay visits a remarkable 230-year-old warrior fortress of towering turrets and arched windows, which has been lovingly transformed into an utterly unique luxury boutique hotel.
For too long thought of as a backpacker destination, in recent years India has seen a tremendous growth in tourism and emerged as a destination for the more discerning traveller. With a renewed awareness of gracious hospitality and a focus on thoughtful design, a diverse range of upscale accommodation is attracting a wave of upwardly mobile visitors to this vast and diverse nation seeking a more cultural vacation experience.
In the north west of the country, Rajasthan is India’s largest state and has a supremely proud and independent history. It maintained its autonomy during the era of the British Raj, only becoming a state of independent India in 1948. Known for its warfare and chivalry during Rajput and Mughal times, Rajasthan is attracting more travellers relishing the opportunity to explore a part of India that was once known as the land of kings and ruled by a variety of clans.
All masterpieces of architecture influenced by Moghul and Rajput empires, some of the most spectacular forts and stunning palaces are situated across the famed Aravalli Mountain range, which stretches for around 300 miles from the northeast to the southwest, starting in Rajasthan and extending all the way to Delhi.
Once towering forces of protection between fiercely strong and independent kingdoms, many of these forts and palaces still dot the landscape today, in varying states of majesty and decay. Some are now guarded by legions of monkeys and open to visitors, whilst others have sadly fallen into dreadful disrepair.
Descended from Raja Shekhaji, the Manoharpur Shahpura family was one of the most prominent of Jaipur’s royal clans. Fierce and independent in their defence of the royal family, in the late 1700s the family’s knights used its spoils from previous battles to build Bishangarh Fort about 70km from Jaipur. Completed 230 years ago, purely to be the first line of defence against a possible Moghul invasion, ultimately the fort did not see a battle and subsequently fell into rack and ruin.
During the 1970s, as the political and cultural landscape of Rajasthan changed, members of the remaining royal families moved into business and politics. As a result, a number of former palaces throughout Rajasthan were converted into stylish accommodation in order to provide sources of income. But it is highly unusual for a fort to be converted, not least due to the colossal amount of work involved. To date, Bishangarh is the only Indian warrior fort to have been transformed into a hotel.
As my taxi left the Jaipur-Delhi highway, nothing prepared me for my first view of Bishangarh Fort. The sight is quite literally breathtaking. Perched atop a rocky hill, the ochre-coloured edifice is at once imposing and stark, whilst at the same time possessing a distinctive beauty in the midst of the harsh and unforgiving Rajasthani landscape. Overlooking Bishangarh Village and commanding 360-degree views of its surroundings, one can easily understand why the fort’s location was chosen.
It took an intensive seven-year restoration of the abandoned and dilapidated ruin to sympathetically transform the fort whilst maintaining its architectural and cultural integrity. The result is a simply stunning hospitality haven, offering every conceivable 21st century convenience to meet the needs of today’s discerning travellers.
Alila properties are characterised by their refreshing design, elegant feel and personal service in unique locations. Whilst Alila means ‘surprise’ in Sanskrit and ultimately describes the character of all the brand’s hotels, the word couldn’t be more apt of Alila Fort Bishangarh. On arrival, one is somewhat overcome by a heady mix of wonder and intrigue, together with an uncertainty of what may be around the corner. A distinct sense of adventure, interspersed with a multitude of delightful moments, happily punctuated my Bishangarh experience and set it apart from any other hotel stay right from the get go.
Upon checking-in, guests are welcomed into a large, traditional open-sided tent and immediately made to feel part of the fort’s revered community. The imposing lower arrival area of the property – with its inviting pool, terraces, mansion-like haveli, lush green lawns and organic kitchen garden – is not only the perfect place for a spot of morning yoga, but also provides stunning views up towards the main fort. The gym and Teen Soldiers Play Club are also located here. Roofless jeeps on call 24/7 ferry guests up and down the driveway.
Cold towels and fresh juices provide welcome refreshment in the heat of the day while I meet my host and discuss plans. Attention to detail and tailored itineraries are hallmarks of pretty much every stay at Alila Fort Bishangarh, and each staff member I meet goes above and beyond to make me feel at ease.
Each of the fort’s 59 rooms and suites – in four categories of Heritage, Royal, Grand and Regal – faces outward and has its own distinctive character. Linked by dimly lit atmospheric corridors scattered with large antiques, all are located in the main fort and obviously no two are the same.
An oversized wooden door gives way to my surprisingly light and airy lodgings, decorated in a simple yet elegant style that is both luxurious and welcoming. The furniture is bespoke and fashioned from dark wood. Cool white marble floors are laid with hand-woven rugs. Carefully placed artefacts and handmade soft furnishings provide interesting twists and colourful accents. A comfy armchair sits invitingly by an oversized bed immaculately dressed in crisp white linen. A huge TV screen is concealed by a cupboard rather than dominate the tasteful verging-on-minimal space. Common to all rooms is a window seat, filled with pillows, providing a cosy nook in which to recline or read whilst taking-in the incredible, sweeping views as well as village life below. At sunset the whole world outside the fort turns an incredible shade of pink, and there’s nowhere better to enjoy this from than the privacy and comfort of your very own window seat.
Oversized bathrooms feature massive deep soaking tubs (plenty big enough for at least two people) together with a walk-in rain shower, his and hers sinks and acres of space for toiletries. A separate dressing and wardrobe area completes the suite-like layout of even the entry-level rooms. Fit for a maharaja, the fort’s Regal suites are almost 100sqm of luxurious yet restrained decadence, complete with a circular bath akin to a small pool and enough space to host a cocktail party.
Located on different levels within the main fort’s seven-foot thick walls – which still retain their openings for cannons and guns – are a cluster of different dining options to satiate the appetite of even the most refined gourmand. All presided over by executive chef Nishesh Mani Tripathi, whose well-considered Indian-focused menus are clearly touched by a number of international influences, dishes are based on seasonally available locally-sourced ingredients and accompanied by home-grown produce. Be it a Mediterranean lunch in the haveli, an atmospheric dinner in Amarsar or supper under the stars at Nazaara, everything served within the confines of the fort is tasty, wholesome and presented with flair. Tripathi’s specialities particularly, inspired by the Silk Route, are a culinary delight. Irrespective, whichever onsite restaurant is chosen, every guest staying at Alila Fort Bishangarh eats splendidly well on food veritably fit for a king.
Carved out of granite in the old dungeon of the fort, Spa Alila provides a soothing environment in which to be indulged and rejuvenated. A range of treatments can be personalised to ease away worries and troubles from the modern world, and bring one’s mind and body into equilibrium.
For those who wish to get better acquainted with the locale, the fort offers a range of curated Alila experiences ranging from a cookery class, temple visit or camel ride through the village, to lunch with a local family in a 100-year old haveli or a romantic sunset balloon ride. By offering these experiences to guests and involving the local people, not only is the fort consciously working to preserve local traditions, but it is also putting back into the community and sustaining the environment.
There can be few better places in all of India to be immersed in the nation’s fascinating history than from beneath an original Tudor-style ogee arch, looking out through the immense walls of a centuries-old fort across the Rajasthani landscape. That Bishangarh Fort’s historic past has been so beautifully woven into the present, encompassing architectural influences from the British and Mughal eras, is testament to the incredible transformation of this unique property, the results of which will undoubtedly see the fort welcoming visitors for hundreds more years to come.