ONWARD TO REMOTE AJABGARH AND THE MOST ROMANTIC RESORT, AMANBAGH
Lost in Luxury in Rajasthan
Destination: Amanbagh near the town of Ajabgarh, in the region of Alwar, Rajasthan
On the first steps of my India journey, described in the previous two features, I arrived in New Delhi and spent a quiet and meditative sojourn at the Aman New Delhi.
A few days later, I am comfortably seated in the back seat of the hotel’s taupe Ambassador, the iconic Indian-made vehicle, maneuvering through camels and cows on the road back to the airport.
On the 35-minute Delhi to Jaipur flight (I’m the only Westerner aboard) we head southeast across the drought-dry hills of northern India.
At four in the afternoon, departing Jaipur, I’m buckled up in the back seat of a four-wheel drive, heading two hours north into the Aravalli Hills to the village of Ajabgarh, and Amanbagh.
This is one of my favorite road trips. Quickly we negotiate away from Jaipur, through dusty market towns and rough-and-tumble farming villages, over new toll bridges, going deeper and deeper into remote valleys and along tractor-tracks and through allees of shady trees. After an hour, we pass young girls in colorful skirts herding goats along the side of the road, around dusty gypsy encampments, over dry riverbeds, and beyond vivid green fields of flowering mustard.
Finally, from a gravel trail, we turn into the Amanbagh driveway. Over a river, and around green carpets of lawn, I see the Mughal rooflines and labyrinthine architecture of its impeccably groomed compound. Design, down to the Anglo-Indian chairs and intricate lanterns, is by the great Paris based architect Ed Tuttle (a former San Franciscan).
Amanbagh resort (the name means peaceful garden) is sited on the verdant grounds of the former tiger hunting retreat of an 18th-century maharajah. With feathery palm trees, gnarled eucalyptus trees, vivid bougainvillea, mango trees, and stands of flowering neem trees, the landscape makes a natural and graceful setting for the architecture.
Within a walled enclosure and, in monsoon season, surrounded by a lake, Amanbagh’s tranquil green setting is in dramatic contrast to the pale taupe terrain of the surrounding hills.
As my driver pulls to a halt, co-managers Robyn Bickford (who spent three decades in the New Zealand diplomatic corps) and her husband Manav Garewal, greet me. Namaste!
A young woman in a red sari gracefully choreographs the lovely ceremony of welcome. Marigolds draped around my neck, I walk in a kind of trance through fretwork archways and up and further up limestone stairways, to my terrace suite. Across the treetops I can see sunlight streaking across the hills.
I’ve stayed at Amanbagh several times, but every time it leaves me breathless. I linger over every detail. The light seems more intense. The air is fragrant with frangipani.
In the silence, I can hear palm trees rustling and parrots chattering. In the evening, a village musician plays haunting melodies on the flute and the harmonium. It’s easy to go into a fugue state.
I vow to lie in the sun, read, write, meditate, do nothing, but find myself planning a visit to the nearby Barakhambi temple for evening prayers, exploring towns in the valley beyond, tracking a 17th-century abandoned city, and inspecting the resort’s organic kitchen garden with the resort’s chef, Guy, originally from Christchurch, New Zealand. He grows heirloom lettuces and fenugreek, as well as red roses and marigolds that scent guest rooms.
I read in the library, take a light lunch. Even dishes like dhal and rice are journeys into the flavors of Rajasthan. (Indians are mystified by vegetarian Westerners. ‘Are you a vegetarian at home?’ they query, in the nicest manner. ‘Yes.’)
I gaze at the pool. I think about swimming.
Slow down, the air seems to whisper.
Days at Amanbagh take on a certain calm rhythm.
Temple bells ring out in the cool morning darkness. I could take a yoga class, but as the sun casts a pale glow across garden, I set out on a trek up-valley.
“The Aravalli Hills are the oldest in creation, more than 6 million years old,” said Balbur, my cheerful trekking guide. We are exploring the maharajah’s hunting grounds. Friendly dogs follow us as we take pathways through wheat fields, and meet local farmers and their families, including a five-year-old rapscallion ('What is your country?' he pipes) dressed in his blue school uniform. Balbur and I stop, perch on a rocky outcrop, and survey the countryside. From his backpack he serves a flourish of chai and the most delicious cardamon-scented cookies, fresh from the hotel’s kitchen. Sweet. I’m slowing down.
It’s apparent that in the few years since my first visit, when Amanbagh opened, the region has become more prosperous. This farmer now has a tractor (an ox used to pull the plow) and mud houses have solar panels on thatched roofs. There are wells, and signs written on walls states officially that the children have been inoculated against smallpox. Scrubby fields, victims of persistent drought, are now bright green. It’s all good.
In the evening, just as darkness falls, I am driven to the remote Barakhambi temple for evening devotions. I kneel alone on the marble floor as orange-turbaned priests sing prayers, cymbals and gongs clang loudly, and a pantheon of giant brightly colored statues of Shiva and Parvati and Ganesh (remover of obstacles) gaze down, smiling. A French couple arrives, but they depart back to the hotel hastily when they discover temple rats skittering across the floor. The rats (who traditionally accompany god Ganesh) are a centuries-old part of this authentic Indian devotional scene. They’re holy rats. They brushed across my feet as I followed the priests around the central Shiva shrine, in a ritual symbolizing circumambulating the universe. I was not alarmed. I love India.
Hotel designer Ed Tuttle styled Amanbagh’s dome-topped pavilions, elegant terraces, outdoor stairways, and languid pools after the fanciful and evocative architecture of the Moghul era.
Amanbagh’s cupolas, pergolas and shaded verandahs pay homage to Rajasthan’s golden age. Tuttle’s poetic interpretation of a grand haveli, or nobleman’s palace, use of local sandstone and honed marble for the walls and floors, with hand-carved period details. The entry hall, elaborate stair-rails and lavish interiors incorporate floors of softly hued pink marble, and inner courtyards of pale smooth sandstone.
"In the evenings, the courtyards are swept and sprinkled with water and colorful carpets are spread on a raised platform. The illumination of candles and lamps begins. Poets start the recitation of sonnets, and dancers entertain the guests. The sounds emanating from the bow on the strings of the satangi are like arrows piercing the heart. The music makes guests listless with ecstacy."— Excerpted from ‘White Moghuls’ by William Dalrymple.Amanbagh is a very secluded retreat. This region of noble Alwar is the real thing, so I drive four miles in an open Jeep into the hills and climb the stairs of a deserted crenellated fort, explore deserted remnants of Rajasthan’s mythical history, and walk silently through the town of Ajabgarh. The hotel sends me off for these excursions with picnic baskets full of potato samosas, as well as lovely Indian delicacies scented with jasmine, pretty pastries, and copious bottles of water.
Along the main road, women in saffron and crimson saris, slender and elegant as Gaultier models, return from gathering dry branches for their home fires. As a stranger comes into view, they draw their saris closer to conceal their faces. Traditionally, women should not be seen by anyone but family. Stacks of fresh green grass (to feed their cows) and wild outcrops of dry twigs are perched atop their heads, posture perfect. To see these lovely hard-working women, so graceful as they go about their daily labor, is worth the trip to India.
I later return to the peace of Amanbagh, my eyes full of the beautiful present, my brain alive with images of sprightly children and timeless villages, and days of promise ahead for India.
As I leave the following morning, the hotel’s sitar player M.D. Tajkhan and Raghuveer Singh, a tabla master, are seated on the roof terrace performing repetitive, hypnotic ragas, celebrating and praising the day, thanking all the gods of creation. I am grateful for this day and many others.
"Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed. Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well." — Mahatma Gandhi
Hotel images courtesy of Amanbagh. Used with permission of Aman Resorts. For further information: www.amanresorts.com