Wanderlust

A PALATIAL EXPERIENCE

By Vir Sanghvi

Complete with red sandstone fort, torch lit ramparts and ‘Haveli’ mansions, The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur is an amalgamation of traditional Rajasthani heritage with modern amenities, bringing you closer to the nature like never before

At first it was just him. Shortly after we had checked into The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur, a solitary peacock, magnificent and regal, arrived in our garden. As we marvelled at his beauty, I could not fail to notice how comfortable and unperturbed he seemed. He wandered close to the table where we were having tea and eyed us with open curiosity.

It was when he was so close that I could reach out and tap his crown that I began to wonder: does this guy think I am going to offer him a cup of tea? It certainly seemed like that, judging by the familiarity he was exhibiting. I clapped my hands loudly to indicate that while we agreed that yes, he was stunning in his proudly majestic beauty, we would now like to get on with our tea. Nothing happened. I clapped loudly again and waited for him to retreat. Once again, nothing happened. Finally, as though he was slightly amused by my attempts to frighten him off, he turned around and with great dignity, slowly strode away to bask in another part of the garden.

When we checked in, The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur team had told us to keep the door leading from our room to the garden tightly closed. This is not unusual. In many tropical countries you are warned that mosquitoes may enter your room if you don’t keep your doors and windows shut. But at The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur, it wasn’t the mosquitoes they were warning us about. It was the peacocks.

When I first heard that, I smiled. That would be fun, I thought to myself, to have so many peacocks in the garden that we had to worry about them coming in to inspect our room.
But it was no joke. As the first peacock flew off, it became clear that he had only gone to organise some kind of party. In another 10 minutes, he was back with a friend. And they brought four peahens with them.

Though the peacocks strode confidently around the garden, the peahens were shyer. If we came near, they flew off. Even so, there were enough members of the peacock family in my garden for the whole thing to seem slightly surreal and yes, completely delightful. After the larger contingent of peacocks arrived, we relaxed. It was clear they meant us no harm. And so we got our iPhones out and began shooting videos; we knew that none of our friends at home would believe us unless we had photographic evidence. Who had ever heard of a hotel where you could sip tea in your garden while all around you, peacocks and other exotic birds (there are at least 300 different kinds of birds – some of them migratory – at The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur) pranced, danced, skipped, sang songs, whistled and played all around you? But The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur is that kind of hotel. When it first opened in 1997, I went for a weekend and knew at once, that hotels in India (in Asia, even) would never be the same again. It was not that we didn’t have luxury hotels in India. Many old palaces had been converted into hotels – The Oberoi group had taken the lead decades before The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur opened with the Oberoi Palace (a conversion of the Maharaja’s residence) in Srinagar. But all too often the palaces were not run to high standards (by the time The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur opened, the Oberois had given up their Srinagar hotel). Some of them were conversions of 20th Century palaces and were not particularly historic. None of them had been built as hotels so converting them into luxury hotels proved difficult. And some palaces were just badly managed. All this struck Biki Oberoi, Executive Chairman, The Oberoi group, when he bought an old fort in Naila in Rajasthan. He made many trips to restore the fort and was always disappointed by the hotels (some of them very expensive) he stayed at during those trips. As the renovations progressed, he also saw the richness of Rajasthan building traditions and artisanship at close quarters. From that experience, came the germ of an idea. Suppose he built a new hotel in Jaipur out of the crowded touristy centre. The construction would be new (well, a little newer than the 20th Century palace hotels he was up against) but he would use the finest Rajasthan craftsmen and artisanship to create a hotel that was a tribute to the artistic and cultural traditions of Rajasthan. He would build it over 32 acres, and restrict it to just 71 rooms. But he would go with the architectural style of a fort (inspired by Naila) rather than a palace. He would build different kinds of rooms, ranging from Villas with Private Pools to two kinds of Tents. The Premier Rooms that constituted the bulk of the hotel’s inventory would be built to global luxury standards with large bathrooms and sunken bathtubs.

It all seemed super-luxurious and yet, totally Rajasthani. The average guest probably did not notice but it was the use of traditional techniques that made The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur seem like an embodiment of the essence of Jaipur. For instance, there was the lime plaster. Jaipur is known as India’s Pink City because the buildings are coated with a warm pink colour that comes from a special lime plaster that may have been developed to imitate the (more expensive) sandstone used by the Mughals. The main building at The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur was finished with the same lime plaster, applied in exactly the same way as it was centuries ago. The interior, a Rajasthani finish with a creamy ivory-like hue. There were also tiles made in the style of Jaipur’s famous Blue Pottery, which was influenced by Persian designs.

What struck me when I first went to The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur in 1997 was that I had never seen this level of luxury before. It wasn’t just the way the rooms were appointed, it was the service. You felt more like a maharaja at The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur than you did at many real, functioning palaces.

I was also impressed by the way Biki Oberoi had respected the Rajasthani heritage. The land where he built the hotel contained a 300-year-old temple. Rather than move the temple as many other hoteliers would have done, he built The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur around it. To this day, it remains a functioning temple. Even for non-believers, it is the peaceful, spiritual heart of the complex.

And finally, I was blown away by the way in which nature and architecture had been merged to create the hotel. In 1997, The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur still seemed a little removed from Jaipur (the city has since grown) and much of the area around it was underdeveloped. The Oberois have done nothing to change that. The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur is still a calm, green hotel, full of thousands of trees and sunshine. The loudest sound you hear is birdsong.

I was right about the influence of The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur. Every luxury resort in India built since it opened has borrowed something from The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur. But the hotel’s biggest competitors are its own younger siblings. After The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur opened to a rapturous reception from the global media, Biki Oberoi went to open other resort properties that built on the learnings of The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur: The Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur, The Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra, Wildflower Hall, Shimla in the Himalayas – An Oberoi Resort, The Oberoi Sukhvilas Resort & Spa, Siswan Forest Range, New Chandigarh and The Oberoi Vanyavilas, Ranthambhore near the tiger sanctuary in Ranthambhore. Just as The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur is rarely out of lists of the world’s best resorts, the other Vilas hotels have won similar accolades. The downside of all of this is that while I went to The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur quite often in the five years after it opened, I began going to the other Vilas hotels after that. So when I went back this time, it was after a decade. And though this is hard to imagine, I had actually forgotten quite how beautiful the hotel was. It was renovated some years ago so fabulously that you can’t tell it was built two decades ago -- it retains that old mixture of timeless Rajasthan elegance and cutting-edge luxury. And the peacocks! I didn’t remember there being so many when I used to visit earlier.

But now, you have the clear sense that the land belongs to the peacocks and that we are only visitors. The term ‘peacock sanctuary’ might seem strange but that is really how I felt. I was one with nature, a guest of my peacock hosts. Every evening at around 5 pm, they would gather in a part of the hotel’s gardens for some daily congress. They gathered at around the same time (perhaps it was just before the light disappeared as the sun went down) and seemed blissfully unconcerned as guests, slightly freaked out at seeing so many peacocks in one place, went berserk shooting photos and videos with their phones and cameras. (The peahens, by the way, continued to be more bashful than the guys.) There were some other differences from my earlier stays. Though the food at The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur has always been good, I don’t remember it as being so spectacular. This time around, it served some of the best meals I have eaten in an Indian hotel. Executive Chef Jaydeep Patil set out to impress and he floored me with every single meal. One evening began with caviar and vintage champagne in my garden and then moved on to the flavours of royal Maratha cuisine, the kind of food you can’t normally find in a restaurant. (Jaydeep used his mother’s recipes.)

One dinner was designed around fresh black Perigord truffles and was truly world class. At lunch in the open area outside the hotel’s dining room, he made a Rajasthani thali with flavours that were totally authentic. (I know because I went to school near Jaipur.) Another dinner consisted of a cuisine I had never eaten before. The Muslim quarter of Jaipur has small restaurants with chefs whose families have been in the kitchen for generations. They offer their own takes on the classic curries of Delhi court cuisines, made in a style I had never encountered before. There can’t be more than a bare handful of restaurants that serve this cuisine. But Jaydeep had cooked with the chefs and discovered their secrets. And as the peacocks sang, he recreated those dishes for me.

Rarely have I eaten so well. (And so much!) You can, of course, use The Oberoi Rajvilās, Jaipur as your base and venture into Jaipur and the surrounding areas. You can drive to the Amber Fort and do the final leg of the journey on elephant back. You see the City Palace (where the Maharaja still lives), you can drive to Ajmer and visit both the ancient Brahma temple at Pushkar and the tomb (dargah) of the great sant Moinuddin Chishti.

But I had been there, done that. So this time I did not even leave the hotel. When you have your own

Gallery.

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