April 10, 2006

(February/March 2006) Amanbagh, Alwar A five-hour drive from Delhi landed us at the new Aman resort, nestled in the Arvalli Hills in an area that used to be a maharajah’s hunting preserve. amanbaugh.JPG

The resort is stunningly beautiful, each room its own sort of house, and all set inside the walls of what used to be an estate. Now it’s Aman, and all that entails.The food, of course, is spectacular with every meal offering a complete range of both Indian and Western dishes. During lunch, a flute wafted through the air, and at dinner there was always a group, typically sitar and drums. One night we had a private dinner in a garden with our own sitar player and staff.

The area is rich in excursions, including an upland trek to Somsagar Lake on a high plateau, built in 1598, and, just below, the Meena Village of Kala Pari where 200 families live as they have for centuries.meena.JPG The villagers are now meeting Europeans for the first time and their curiosity is sincere and refreshing. Just down the road is the 60-100 acres medieval city of Bhangarh, deserted in one day within a year or two of its construction when the king decided the city was doomed after being cursed by the court magician who had been spurned by the queen.

The curse kept out all potential settlers and resulted in a pristine, unspoiled ruin which the tourist trade is just beginning to discover. We were there alone. While the Sariska Nature and Game Sanctuary isn’t alive with game, Gary did spot a leopard and a sambhar deer tried to get into our jeep. Nearby temples include the 6th century Neelkanth and the 8th century Jain Naugaza which has a spectacular temple and 25-ft pink sandstone sculpture.

Rajvilas, Jaipur This property, only 1 ½ hours from Amanbagh, is one of the first Oberoi Hotels and our introduction to the chain. The buildings are stunning, the rooms lovely and the grounds well tended and beautifully landscaped. The general manager, however, doesn’t seem to have a firm hand and some of the little things one expects at high-end hotels were missing. The restaurant, inside or outside, offered delicious Western and Indian food and evening entertainment.Because of a month-long municipal workers strike, the city of Jaipur was pretty rank, with garbage piled up along the street, riffe with wild pigs, cows and monkeys.

Dubbed the “Pink City” when a maharajah had the walls and buildings painted to welcome visiting British royalty, Jaipur is now more a “brown city,” or at least terra cotta color. The City Palace is interesting, but limited. During our visit the maharajah, his wife and daughter and a few odd relatives, total 7 people, were in residence served by a staff of 300. The life style still prevails. The Amber Fort, outside of town, is a marvel of both architecture and engineering. What impressed us was the “air conditioning” system, which consists of water dripping on dried grass curtains. As the wind blows through the curtains, the air is cooled from as high as 45 degrees (C) outside to a comfortable 20 degrees inside. The same system is used today in many local houses. The daily goat sacrifice here stopped “officially” in 1980 but continues outside the fort to this day. The meat is then brought inside, cooked, offered and then after noon, available to eat.udaivilas-ii.JPG

Udaivilas, Udaipur This Oberoi is perfection. The general manager, Henry Gray, is totally in charge and totally professional and personable. Reflecting pools, fountains and gardens appear at every turn. The rooms are gracious, quiet and well-appointed. The restaurant, again choice of table indoor or outdoor, with both Western and Indian food and evening entertainment, was superb.

Udaipur, a one-euro tuk-tuk ride away, itself is a town rather than a city and one we felt comfortable tackling on our own. The City Palace, founded in 1567, is truly magnificent, comprised of 4 major palaces and several minor ones, linked by a single façade, and stars a Peacock Courtyard with inlaid glass mosaics. Nearby is the Crystal Palace in the 1907 Durbar Hall, now part of the Fateh Prakash Hotel. It houses a collection of glass furniture and dining services ordered by Maharana Sajjan Singh in 1877 but never used. Also on display are portraits of the Mewar rulers, 76 generations of them, making them the oldest ruling dynasty in the world.

After the sightseeing in town we walked into the Ganesh Handicraft Emporium, recommended to us by GM Henry Gray. He said we might get a chance to see a private museum being built. And we did. One of the three brothers who own the store showed us around what will be a textile museum, housing their father’s collection of antique textiles. It took 3 years and 26 transactions for them to assemble the space behind their store, and 3 years to vacate the people in them. It is now into the third year of construction, but the walls are there, the marble floors are laid, and many of the ancient doors, collected from various local sources are in place.

After the tour, we did some very fruitful shopping but nothing like the Abercrombie and Kent group who swept through without the museum tour. The store, by the way, employs 22 tailors, so our duvet cover was made in the blink of an eye.A two-hour drive took us to the Jain temples at Ranakpur, all built in 1439 out of white marble. Inside the main temple are 1,444 carved marble pillars, each unique. Closer to the hotel was the 6th century temple, Nagada, set on a lake and surrounded by rich agricultural land, alive with birds and flowers.

ranthambore.JPGVanyavilas, Ranthambhore National Park Situated in a 10-acres park, this Oberoi is “village” of independent, tented suites and more substantial guest facilities buildings. The meals are served inside or in a courtyard and consist of both Western and Indian dishes. There is a small pool. We would have preferred to stay at the Aman here, but were unable to book it when we were planning our trip.The park was once home to large numbers of tigers, but poaching over the years has all but obliterated them. Our game drives, at 7AM and 2:15PM were full of blue bulls, deer, peacocks and monkeys. We did see one magnificent tiger and two generally elusive sloth bears.

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