The charmed life

15 May,2022 09:01 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Aastha Atray Banan

It’s a luxury hotel that wants to be home. Bikaner’s Narendra Bhawan mixes modernity and heritage to introduce you to its original owner through memorabilia and carefully reconstructed grandeur

Narendra Bhawan was the office of the last Maharaja of Bikaner, Narendra Singh

Tour & Taste

It*s 2 pm on a Sunday, and Jodhpur is sleeping. The last time I was here, it was 1987, and I was five. My father was posted here as a captain in the Indian army. Those were the days of drives in three-ton Army trucks to picnics in the desert. Today, as I pass by vast stretches dotted with shrubs, listening to Lucky Ali, it all comes flooding back.

The pyaz ki kachori had a crisp but light exterior and flavourful filling of aloo, pyaaz, tamatar and imli

The longish, but comfortable drive, with a lunch of cheese sandwich and spicy Bikaneri namkeen, ends at Narendra Bhawan in the heart of Bikaner. The small town, with a population of seven lakh, is dusty, and laidback. The streets feature chaat stalls, mostly frequented by children at this hour. The heritage hotel (base rate of R10,000+ taxes), named after Maharaja Narendra Singh of Bikaner, who lived here till his passing in 2003, is a re-imagined and renovated version of his office. It*s not the typical hotel. In fact, it doesn*t even have a reception. They want you to feel at home anywhere on the property, and so, there are no "meal hours". Food and drinks are served as and where you like them. I walk in on a photograph of myself with my father! The frame is sitting on the dressing table (they picked it off my Instagram, I am told). A genial staffer in kurta-churidar with a flowery waistcoat, smiles to tell me, it*s so that I feel I am at home. The Regimental Suite was picked in a bid to have me connect with the military grandeur of the days of the Maharaja. It sports warm colours, and is beautifully plush. I am happy that a television sits on the panel dividing the bed and living room area. We need not have to choose between technology and heritage, I tell myself as I sip on a gin cocktail.

At dinner, I am told I will be blindfolded, and have to use my senses to guess what I am eating. The experiment is fun and embarrassing, because my spoon is mostly empty as I feed myself air. The menu is fusion fare, made tastier by the experience of eating it without seeing it. It is the next morning though, that I enjoy the food here the most. It starts with the pyaaz ki kachori - one of the best I have had - with a crisp, light exterior, and flavourful aloo, tomato, onion, imli filling. A few years ago, during a survey, it was revealed that Bikaneris eat 12 lakh kachoris daily. Well, if they taste like this, then no wonder. The methi dana sabji and papad puri, sabudana thali peeth, and jalebi make up the rest of the meal. All spectacular. The rest of the morning goes by in food coma, interspersed with some pool and spa time. After a literary lunch - where the chef takes inspiration from authors Sylvia Plath and Tennyson to design a seven-course meal, I want to sleep again, but I go shopping.

The infinity pool at the hotel overlooks the the small town, pleasantly free of high-rises

The city market is like every small town square - crowded and colourful. Check out the vibrant Bandhej sarees.

Here, they cost as little as Rs 300. Trinket lovers will like the kundan chokers.

The rooms are designed to give you a taste of the various stages in the Maharaja*s life. The Regimental Suite reflects the time he was in the Army

In the evening, I am expecting the Darbari experience. The hotel has set up a white evening near the lake frequented by deer and ducks. A flute player sits under a giant peepal. This is what the Maharaja did when he hunted, and we seem to fit right in, with a portion of hara bhara kebab and negroni. The air is still, and heavy with unwept rain. But in the desert, like in life, fortunes change in a matter of minutes. There is a dust storm, and things start to fly. The flautist plays on.

We head back to the hotel, as the driver braves a highway with swirling sand, only to be welcomed by three beautiful golden retrievers, once again adding to the homely feel of this restored property. My belongings have been shifted to the India room, inspired by the Maharaja*s brush with India*s freedom struggle, and is slightly more contemporary, with a charkha. A glass of wine is ready. Dinner is Rajasthani thali. Safe to say, I sleep well.

Colourful bandhej sarees and dupattas dry in the sun in Bikaner. Pic/Getty Images

The next morning, I head to the Jodhpur airport, disappointed about leaving a place I was getting used to. The life of a Maharani suits me well. It*s the friendly driver who insists that I pay a visit to the Karni mata mandir. It*s home to 20,000 rats, all supposed to be the goddess*s reincarnated children. The luxury has made me susceptible to suggestions, and I head there armed with chana to feed them. They are everywhere, slightly deformed, minding their own business. Their unhurried calm unlike city rats, makes me feel at peace. The driver says I should make a wish, and I say, I wish all of us get what we desire this year. Despite the storm, my flight is turbulence free. Maybe, the rats heard me.

Getting there

There are no direct flights from Mumbai to Bikaner. Take one via Delhi or Jaipur, or fly to Jodhpur, and head to Bikaner by road. Best time to visit: October to March. For reservations, call Narendra Bhawan at 7827151151

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