Tuesday, December 22, 2009



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


La Petite Gallery said...

Dear Diane,
Thank you for this tour, the house and
grounds a magnificent, a real treat.
You have so many adventures. A world
traveler and so well writen.
I have never heard of Neem Tree's.
I wish you a wonderful holiday season.

Karena said...

Heavenly, the pool is gorgeous with the seating and turquoise cushions, thank you so much for sharing. Have a wonderful holiday season!

Unknown said...

Oh my, such intense luxury and harmony! Truly trancendtental. Your words, as always, an inspiration in themselves. A book, please???

Visual Vamp said...

Intensive and fascinating post.
Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
xo xo

The-Countrypolitan said...

I have enjoyed "traveling" with you! Have a warm and merry Christmas. Here's to 2010... (where will we be going?) Terri

Daniel Hale said...

Green with envy. India has long been on my list of places I need to get to. The pool looks especially inviting this time of year. Enjoyed the posts. Thanks, Daniel

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Good Morning, Nancy and Daniel-

Thank you for your comments and good wishes.
One aspect of India--I do like to 'disappear' into the wilds and remote places. It's not hard to do...just drive two hours out of Jaipur, for example.
Amanbagh: it has the best kind of modern and intelligent luxury--very understated and very low-key. I seldom saw other guests...so it feels very private. It's very quiet (a true luxury), and you do have the extreme sense of being very much 'lost in India'.
I wish you both all the happiness in the world--and great optimism and creativity going into this new decade! I wish you safe travel--wherever your compass leads you.
very best, DIANE

Clinton Smith said...

what an amazing post!

Rajee Sood said...

Hi Diane,
Thankyou so much for dropping by my blog.Your post was most delightful.I guess, I too have a lovely new blog to add to my list of fav. blogs.
Hope you have many more such trips to India.And get to discover so much more that India has to offer than the stereotypical image potrays ... I am so happy to read about all that you do.It is indeed my pleasure.
Best Wishes

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


LOVED hearing from you. Love your blog.
I've traveled all over India--once spent three months there--and I know it well.
I am obsessed with design and architecture and textiles, history and jewels, so naturally I am drawn to Rajasthan, which is rich in history and palaces and the Moghuls and maharajas...
I adore Kerala also,and love Cochin...and found Calcutta (now renamed) very very fascinating...and went south to Pondicherry and Chennai as well, which I found wonderful.
I always love to immerse myself in Indian life--and will be posting more features on India--including Indian schools.
looking forward to hearing more from you.
Cheers, DIANE