Less than 200 kms from Delhi Airport is a tiny piece of heaven, especially for city-dwellers. Called Alila Fort Bishangarh, it was originally built 230 years ago by a member of the ruling Kachhawa clan of Jaipur. Bishangarh was just one of the forts that was strung out like a necklace around the precious Shekhavati region to engage enemies in battle, before they reached the royal family. Kudos to the present scion of the family, who spotted a chance of turning his decaying family seat into a resort for jaded Delhiites and indeed, holiday-makers from far and wide. The renovations took ten years and an entire side of a granite quarry: such was the attention to detail.
After you turn off from a state-of-the-art highway to a bucolic, winding lane, 6 kilometres long, bordered by fields and village dwellings, the fort comes into view in its full glory. It stands on a granite hillock, and dominates the modest hamlet of Bishangarh with its population of 4,000, quite untouched by the outside world.
The property is divided into two parts. It is the fort whose upper ‘fairytale’ part has been newly constructed and contains guest rooms and suites over nine floors, with three lifts. What is known as the haveli serves as the entrance lobby and has a coffee lounge, infinity pool and fitness center. You don’t have to stir out of the property during your stay, unless you want to wend your way into the village. Indeed, you barely have to leave your room, with its large windows that overlook miles and miles of verdant greenery and low hills of the Aravallis in the background.
What I found most compelling was lounging by the pool in the shade, listening to birdsong: parrots, kingfishers, hoopoes, white-eye, pied wagtails, sunbirds and red wattled lapwings while reading a book and sipping cold coffee. No sound of this century: vehicular traffic, TVs, machinery – impinges on your consciousness, so it is like being transported into another era. Just behind the pool is the orchard with fruit trees. It is here that I had my ‘Zero Mile Breakfast’: a most ingenious menu composed of local fruit – beware: there are no peaches and strawberries; you make do with what grows in the orchard and what is in season when you visit. I managed very young pomegranates and guavas but missed the custard apples, pomelo and sweet lime. There was no tea or coffee but there was chhaas, milk or lassi and bajra rotis with freshly churned white butter, garlic chutney and a rustic subzi of tomatoes spiked with fresh green chillies. Just a few meters away, by the pool, other guests were quaffing coffee and croissants and the resort’s signature lavash with toppings.
For lunch, I went to a village home in the shade of Bishangarh Fort, where two young home-makers made me lauki ki sabzi, bajre ki roti and an addictive, if eye-watering, red chilli and garlic chutney. I ate it on the rough floor of their village home, after being taken around the property to see a shy buffalo (!), the patriarch of the family on a charpai in the courtyard, complete with hookah, a modest kitchen garden with bajra, chillies, coriander, and assorted vegetables. The food was cooked with mustard oil whose aroma was rather compelling. When I asked about it, I was told that the oil press was less than 50 meters away, and for the princely sum of Rs 90, a litre of excellent mustard oil was mine.
Daya, the elder of the two ladies, has become an Instagram star of sorts, as she hosts Alila guests from around the world in her village home, supremely unselfconsciously, making rotis for them on a wood-fire, while seated on the floor. She told me that the family never actually buys vegetables: what they do not grow, they trade with the neighbours. Bishangarh seems to be a model of brotherly harmony.
Dinner on the outdoor terrace of Nazara, the restaurant, was an exhilarating experience, with a cool breeze blowing steadily in mid August and lights twinkling in the village below. The hotel has set up a modern ‘khud’ sandpit, ingeniously fashioned with a tub sculpted with space for cooking vessels and piped gas to warm up the sand to slow-cook a variety of meats. It is not quite the same thing as actually cooking a whole animal in sand for several hours, but in these fast-paced days, a leisurely dinner under the stars with someone serving you lamb chops smeared with masala to go with a glass of something chilled is magical enough, before you head back to the city.
For more information, visit www.alilahotels.com/