In a classic role reversal, an Indian fortress built to guard against threats from outside now welcomes travellers from faraway lands to experience Rajasthan’s hospitality, cuisine and traditions.
Words & Additional Photography by Belinda Jackson. Hotel Photography Courtesy of Alila Hotels & Resorts
It’s 500 steps to the Kalka Mata temple in the foothills of the Aravalli Hills, which swing in a wide arc across India’s most colourful state, Rajasthan.
‘Mother give us strength. Mother give us strength,’ an old woman mutters with every step, as we few pilgrims climb toward the Hindu temple. I’m happy she’s calling on the invincible goddess Durga – our progress is watched by a band of stone-faced monkeys which are, unnervingly, the size of small children. Occasionally, one leaves a long, silvery tail across our path, taunting us. I hope the woman is praying for me, too.
You have to work for your blessings at Kalka Mata. But at the top, the priests smile at our faces, red and glistening in the monsoonal heat. I receive a thread on my wrist, a tika on my forehead, food in my mouth, and I toll the temple’s heavy bell to let the gods know I’ve arrived.
To escape the crush of humanity in beautiful, busy Jaipur, Alila Fort Bishangarh is an hour north on the road to Delhi, a 230-year-old fortress that took seven years to be transformed into a luxury hotel, and which has already drawn the eye of Bollywood’s glitterati, who zip in from Delhi or Mumbai for a weekend in the country.
The repurposed fort, originally built by the local gentry to guard the kingdom of Jaipur from northern invaders, is visible for miles. Standing in a field of vivid yellow flowers, the sandstone walls of the new Alila hotel tower over us, watching the horizon for any threat to our rustic idyll.
Although my room is high in the hilltop fortress, the village below makes itself known: its peacocks herald the dawn with an obvious malevolence that makes me ask my soft pillow, ‘Why blemish a beautiful animal with such a hideous voice?’
Rising is made easier by a cup of fine, bright tea delivered to my door, and the morning is spent with my personal concierge, Sachin, cycling the quiet byroads around the village. Like a queen, I wave at women working in the fields, Sachin and I listen to children chanting their English lessons – ‘banana, b-a-n-a-n-a’ – and we let flocks of sheep wash past our stationary cycles, their collective mind focused only on greener pastures.
The afternoon is spent kneading paratha dough and cooking the flatbread over an open fire in a villager’s house, to much praise for my neat rounds of dough. ‘Not at all like a map of India,’ says my Goan friend Edra, laughing as she plays interpreter for the exchange between Rajasthani and Australian women.
Back at the hotel, executive chef Nishesh Tripathi knows I like a culinary challenge – I want to eat Rajasthani cuisine only. So the journey of my stomach begins with the thali breakfast. The Rajasthani paratha, made from millet, is dense and dark brown, its edges crisped and tasty. It’s washed down with buttermilk spiked with fennel and fresh coriander, salt, chilli, cumin and fenugreek, which cleanses the palette and sharpens the mind.
One evening, Edra and I climb to the starlit restaurant, Nazaara, on the fortress roof, where the kitchens take a fiendish delight in feeding us. ‘Try this sil batta lamb kebab,’ orders Nishesh. ‘It’s a specialty.’ Fortunately for me (although unfortunately for my waistline), everything is a speciality, with the food sourced locally and prepared in the local style, from the fish masala to the seeded roti and their signature dahl (lentils).
The dessert of my stay is an unusual beetroot halva, the vivid purple root vegetable dug from the hotel’s own organic gardens in the cool of the morning, then cooked in milk spiced with cinnamon and cardamom. It is nursery food, it nurtures and feels as though it could heal anything from a scraped knee to a broken heart.
And my heart is broken – I will miss the infinity pool, cool and smooth in the early morning, the yoga platform jutting out high above the village, the mysterious spa set in the fortress’s former dungeons.
I will miss the stone jali screens and the white marble arches of the Kachhawa chai salon, all ensnared between the fortress’s vast, sandstone towers. I’ll miss the elusive monkeys that gambol along stone fences in the early light, and the long-eared goats blocking the village streets. I will even miss the peacocks.
Alila Fort Bishangarh, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India alilahotels.com – a 59-room hotel set high on a granite hill in eastern Rajasthan, Alila has kept the austerity of the former fortress while adding discreet touches of luxury – the bona fide dungeon is now the Alila spa, the former campaign planning room is the library, and eyries and lookout posts have become spa platforms, secluded dining nooks or refuges for daydreamers.
Rajasthani cuisine is derived from the state’s harsh desert regions and influenced by its Rajput warrior clans. Meat features heavily: try the uniquely local laal maas, a deep red mutton curry infused with a healthy dose of chilli; or the warrior’s breakfast of kaleji masala, lamb’s liver served on paratha bread, is a stand-out, albeit solid, breakfast choice.
Make like a local and get a chai habit. Tea is infused with spice blends that may include cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper and fennel, then brewed with milk and a hefty serve of sugar. Drink standing up at Jaipur’s omnipresent tea stands – Sahu ki Chai is considered the best – or order a pot to be waiting after your morning swim at Alila Fort Bishangarh’s infinity pool.
Bishangarh is an hour’s drive from Jaipur, which along with Delhi and Agra – home of the Taj Mahal – form India’s ‘Golden Triangle’.
Jaipur is encircled by hilltop fortresses. The grandest sight is the vast Amer Fort. The ‘tiger fort’, Nahargarh, is popular for sunset drinks on its terrace.
The centre of Jaipur, dubbed ‘the Pink City’, really is pink, the cheery colour used to welcome visiting British royalty in 1876. The Instagram hero of Jaipur is the pink Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds). The City Palace offers private tours through the royal family’s mirrored salons, breakfast halls and the spectacular Blue Room, with its vast city views. Hot buys in this artisan stronghold are block-printed fabrics wrought into razais (light quilts), gemstones and mojaris – ornate, handmade shoes.
Sariska Tiger Reserve is a 90-minute drive east of Bishangarh, in hills. Other species including leopards, langurs (monkeys) and chinkaras (Indian gazelles) are found in its forests which also hide the ruins of medieval temples and a hunting lodge.
Rajasthan’s peak season is its winter months – November to February: book early. Summer gets searingly hot, while the monsoonal months, July to September, have pleasant temperatures but high humidity – counteracted by low hotel occupancy and few tourists. incredibleindia.org
Scoot Airways flies from Australia to Jaipur International Airport via Singapore. flyscoot.com
Belinda Jackson was a guest of Alila Fort Bishangarh and Scoot Airways.
Alila Fort Bishangarh
Off NH-8 at Manoharpur, Bishangarh, Rajasthan 303103, India
Tel +91 1422 276 500