Zorawar Singh Gate, held up with scaffolding, does not look like a very promising sight. Nearby, a movie hall, also coloured the regulation pink, albeit in a lurid shade, looks even less promising. Yet, just as you’re thinking that you’ve left the ‘old Jaipur’ behind, somewhere in the vicinity of Tripolia Bazar, you’ll be taken on a series of rapid twists and turn, and lo and behold, you’re in an enormous courtyard, where the cacophonous cries of the city are an eternity away. You’re in front of a gargantuan façade of a wall pierced with tiny windows. You’ve not seen anything like this, for scale, grandeur or architectural style elsewhere in the pink city: this is the Samode Haveli, one of the grandest private residences in town, next in rung only to the royal palaces.
Samode Haveli has the most unusual entrance among all Jaipur’s heritage hotels. Raj Palace, right on the main Amer Road, has a frontage that can be spotted from miles away, and Narain Niwas, Bissau House and Alsisar Haveli all can be seen as soon as you enter the gateway. Only Samode Haveli remains resolutely hidden from sight even as you climb the stairs of the outer courtyard: the wall you see first is merely an outer one. After a couple of sharp turns of the staircase, you’re face to face with the imposing haveli itself. That the first glimpse of it occurs when you’re ten metres away is a trick of conceptualizing that Rajput builders had mastered. I was a breathless tourist, stage-struck at the sheer scale of the edifice before me, but in the times when Samode was built, the cunning concealment of the haveli until the last moment, was meant to confound enemies and overwhelm visitors.
I was brought down to earth with a thud by having to sign myself in at Reception. The room itself may have been 150 years old, but the front office software was state of the art. It is the key to Samode Haveli, and to varying extents, that of the other heritage hotels itself: redefining the parameters of how to blend in the modern with the ancient for a unified whole. Samode isn’t just a single mood: that would be too predictable. It’s a medley of many moods: if the first glimpse of its massive cream coloured walls, rising to the sky across the courtyard is humbling, the courtyard and verandah itself is informal and charming, the view of the swimming pool is achingly poetic, and the two most popular suites, collectively called Sheesh Mahal, takes you back to history books.
Most of the hotel’s guests have their own special place to while away the hours. For some, it was the blue and turquoise expanse of the swimming pool, surrounded by oriental pavilions, created by Pradeep Sachdeva. For others, it was the central courtyard, a mosaic of tiles and tiny pools of flowing water. For me, it was the private terrace outside my room: every time I’d draw the bolt on the grill door, I’d be in a private haven, with a gurgling fountain before me, as I reclined on the stone lounge set with a mattress and cushions.
Young Yadhavendra Singh of Samode Haveli, Samode Palace and Samode Bagh (the last two outside Jaipur) is the opposite of Sanjay Singh of Bissau House. While Samode Haveli has a certain regal quality about it, aloof from its surroundings, Bissau House is a much more integral part of its neighbourhood. Where the owners of Samode Haveli have left their imprint only in the carefully chosen furniture and furnishings of the rooms, Thakur Sanjay Singh personally interacts with all his guests. You won’t get meticulously chosen custom-made block printed curtains and bedcovers in Bissau House, the way you will in Samode Haveli, but you will be surrounded by that family’s history in the plethora of swords, daggers and family portraits in the deep verandahs, library and living room.
None of Jaipur’s haveli hotels have had the touch of an interior designer or architect in them, save Pradeep Sachdeva’s seamless touches at Samode Haveli. It is simultaneously good and bad. Good because the heritage hotels are as far as you can get from a uniform, boring, impersonal look of a modern box-like structure with its wall-to-wall carpeting and piped music. On the minus side, however, what you get is the owner’s personal taste, and budget. To put it politely, it’s a mixed bag. The truly tasteless and the to-die-for original are juxtaposed side by side. Bissau House has an old guest room that is accessible by a brand new stone staircase. On the other hand, the faded glories of the library and the once-grand living room make the perfect backdrop for visitors to pretend that they’ve moved back in time to a feudal era.
Says Sanjay Singh about the vivid wall paintings that adorn his courtyard, “One positive thing about tourism is that it has revived ancient crafts. It’s not a nightmare to get wall mural artists or stone carvers any longer. Without the big bucks of tourism, these crafts would have died a natural death.” Of course, you have to know where to look: I hunted all over the city for block printed cushion covers and curtains of the type that adorned my room in Samode Haveli, but was unable to find even a close approximation. Obviously, in Jaipur even plagiarists know where to draw the line!
Ask the owners of Jaipur’s heritage hotels about a grading system, and immediately voices and blood pressures begin to rise. “Cows are also running, donkeys are also running,” was the acerbic remark of one of them. Passions run high: according to the Heritage Hotels Association of India, your property can only be listed if 60% of the construction is 50 years or older, and it is the contention of a few members that not all the competition is that old. There are whispers of one member having built his entire property from the ground upwards a mere eleven years ago, but given Rajput feudalistic traditions, no competitor is going to publicly unmask him!
I myself tried to do a mental grading of my own, but gave up soon enough. Samode Haveli gives you the best all-round package, with beautifully maintained rooms and public spaces, but Raj Palace has grounds that are far larger. In fact, according to Arun Puri, Managing Director of the property that he runs on behalf of his wife, Jayendra Kumari of Chomu, the largest erstwhile thikana around Jaipur, it has a larger built up area than Rambagh Palace! Peppy, friendly female staff at Reception (the only heritage hotel in Jaipur to have this distinction), and magical corridors, passages and hidden staircases make it a magical place to wander about.
It has 40 suites (no rooms), the grandest one of which is the Durbar Suite. Composed of contemporary furniture with real gold leaf, a master bedroom and a spare bedroom, it is the piece de resistance of Chomu House, as much for being the favourite spot of the Emir of Bahrain as for the glassed in throne and turban of the first Thakur of Chomu. The one-of-a-kind dining hall too has contemporary furniture, obviously custom-made by an international furniture maker. Overhead, an enormous crystal chandelier dominates the ceiling. However, all is not either predictable or contemporary classic in Raj Palace. Some rooms are ornate and regal, and overlook a quiet central courtyard, while others are more intimate and homely.
Though my own room was the one in which actor Akbar Khan was allotted a few weeks earlier, the one I connected with instantly was Pleasure Pavilion, the only room on the fourth floor. It’s the only suite of rooms to have the original araish flooring, the blend of slaked lime and crushed eggshell, that strengthens and improves with age, unlike cement that starts wearing out from day one. While the marble floors all over Raj Palace are a connoisseur’s delight, it is a relief to see a room whose floor is unadorned. The attached terrace (the only room to have this distinction) has views all over the city of Jaipur. The ebullient Ankur Rara, Sales and Marketing Manager confided to me that the central courtyard was where she stole a few moments each day. “It’s so silent that you can hear the blood flow through your veins.” Lucky her. All I could hear was my pulse, which sounded unnaturally loud in the surroundings.
If Raj Palace (named so, for the last Thakur of Chomu, before the abolition of princely titles) has played host to a series of international celebrities, magazine editors and television crews, and an assortment of home-grown film stars including Amitabh Bachhan, Narain Niwas, at the other end of the city, looks largely untouched since 1928, the year it was built. While most other heritage hotels have gone to town adding rooms and swimming pools till the original structure has begun, in some case, to look quite crowded in, what is so remarkable about Narain Niwas is the air of being quietly unkempt. It is by no means a disadvantage. Prithvi Singh, the youthful owner, knows exactly what his target audience is after, so the building stands in its sprawling surroundings, just the way it always has.
While Samode Haveli has a tiny curio and book shop for resident guests, Bissau House has a Willy’s Overland 1931 to take residents and outsiders alike for a night drive around the city and Raj Palace has a sound proofed banquet hall where local residents of Jaipur can party, Narain Niwas has Hot Pink, a one-of-a-kind boutique. Run by French jewellery designer Marie Helene and owned jointly by Munnu Kasliwal of Gem Palace and Jaipur-based textile designer Thierry Journo, it showcases Jaipur’s finest textiles, and no, none of them are from Bapu Bazar! Designers Rajesh Pratap Singh, Tulsi, Abraham and Thakore and Oh La La besides Journo himself contribute some of their apparel to Hot Pink. As of now, there aren’t too many home furnishings, but if Marie Helene has her way, it’s going to become Jaipur’s answer to Delhi’s many style shops. Although it is low profile right now, it’s definitely on its way to becoming as big as Anokhi or Ratan Textiles in the days to come.
You’d stay at Narain Niwas if you want to be in a quiet part of town, away from the welter of mosques blaring azan five times a day, but also from the main shopping areas. Quite the most secluded of all Jaipur’s heritage hotels, I was surprised, during a ramble round the property, to stumble upon a swimming pool. The immaculately maintained pool is about the only sign that Narain Niwas is not a private residence of some country squire, but Prithvi Singh does have a few tricks up his sleeve. One is the construction of a bar on the premises. In exactly five years from now, the bar will have acquired the patina of old age, and it will be impossible to tell that it does not date to the time of the rest of the hotel. As it is, an old out-house was re-decorated to form the bar. Prithvi Singh obviously has a keen eye for craftsmanship, because the wall paintings in the brand new bar are much finer than the 80 year old ones in the main building, the flooring, made with Rajasthani marble, have intricate designs in the margins, and a marble block that fronts the bar counter has filigree work one inch deep.
It’s the most heartening trend among Jaipur’s heritage properties, this careful planning of facilities and juxtaposing age-old crafts in mint-new surroundings. Nowhere is this in better evidence than at Alsisar Haveli. The piece de resistance is undoubtedly the grand, ornate dining hall with double height ceilings, all painted tastefully, yet it was built a mere year ago. The gloomy living room (all the haveli hotels I visited have at least one gloomy, inward looking room, whether it is the dining room or the living room) has deep armchairs in them, but all the hotel’s guests prefer to sun themselves in the open courtyard, or in the relatively small garden, grown with trees and plants. Indeed, so lush and green is the lawn, and so well-shaded by trees, that is difficult to believe that you are in the desert. Outside, traffic roars by on the main road, yet Alsisar retains its feeling of being an oasis.
None of Jaipur’s haveli hotels are run by impersonal managers, but, in varying degrees by the respective owning families. All cater overwhelmingly to western travelers. While Samode Haveli takes no group bookings, the others are filled with a mix of groups and individuals. Most of these are leisure travelers, yet a modest minority is buyers of silver, handicrafts and textiles. Still others start out as holiday-makers, get to know Rajasthan well, and return for the fifth time as group leaders. None are interested in modern conveniences except for clean toilets, yet each hotel offers televisions in every room, internet facilities on the premises and swimming pools. The hoteliers themselves are a bunch of people rich in heritage and hospitality, but with few professional skills in running commercial properties, yet their hotels are highly sought after by tourists. Large hotel chains would do well to take a leaf out of the book of Jaipur’s heritage hotels and their genial owners.