03.02.14 11:45 AM ET
Jodhpur Is an Oasis in the Middle of the Mad Rush of India
An inscription on the unassuming entrance gate to the Raas Jodhpur should read, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Rolling through the hotel’s gate after a now-routine, herky-jerky, Indian car ride—this time through the labyrinthine streets of old Jodhpur—and entering what is an oasis of calm in a country of chaos, felt like one big sigh of relief.
India is a land of breathtaking historical monuments, amazing food, and fascinating people, but it can also be incredibly overwhelming in a way few places in the world are. Major cities like New Delhi and Mumbai—the two cities I visited before and after Jodphur on a recent trip—can leave a traveler feeling a bit beleaguered from the relentless hawking of goods, the air pollution, the smells that are hard to place, the constant vigilance against con artists, the traffic that is heard just as much as seen, and a crush of people that makes a rush-hour subway ride in New York City seem like the most private experience on earth.
While these characteristics (which are as much positive and invigorating experiences as they are exhausting) can be daunting, one of the best ways to ameliorate their effects is a stay in a place like the Raas, located in the heart of Jodhpur in the Rajasthan Desert. Jodhpur is an historic mid-sized Indian city situated about halfway between New Delhi and Mumbai that is dry and sunny this time of year, and, most importantly, relaxing.
The city is dominated by a magnificent 14th-century palace and fort complex of Mehrengar, built by the Rajput clan in the kingdom of Marwar, which is in present-day Rajasthan. Built on top of a giant plateau, the palace rises 120 feet in height, and, coupled with its beautiful reddish brown sandstone, inevitably calls to mind the Red Keep in Game of Thrones.
As the capital of Marwar, which means “land of death,” the fortress was once the home of the maharajahs of Jodhpur, but is now a well preserved museum that provides an excellent introduction to life under the Rajputs, who ruled the region until India’s independence in the 20th century. The narrator of the museum’s audio guide (free with your ticket) deserves a Grammy for spicing up history with a voice that sounds like the Indian version of the guy from VH1’s Fabulous Life. But most of the credit for the comprehensive exhibition goes to the Singh family, many of whom now reside in a 20th-century monstrosity just outside the city, who has preserved so much of their kingdom’s history. The museum’s highlights are the phantasmagoric “phool mahal” (pleasure room), the captivating collection of Rajasthani artwork, and the little details about daily life in a time and place worlds apart from today. For instance, in one room there are beautiful reed blinds that seem to have floral patterns painted on them. But they were once used for so much more than just decoration. Each reed has multi-colored silk wrapped around it that, when doused with water in the summer, would cool the room as the air passed through and evaporated the water.
Looking out from the fort at the expanse of Jodhpur, one can see why it is called the “Blue City,” with large swathes of blue houses covering the town. Depending on who you ask, the houses are painted blue either for historical reasons, denoting the ownership of a Brahmin family, to keep the houses cool in the summer, or because blue is believed to keep insects at a distance. Away from the city, towards the desert and along the ancient wall unfurling through the arid landscape, the delicate cenotaph of Jaswant Thada can be seen. In the late 19th century, Maharaja Sardar Singh built the beautiful white marble monument in memory of his father. The building today is a memorial to the various rulers of the family and displays their portraits inside. It is best to visit either early in the morning or in the late afternoon when the carved sheets of finely polished marble seem to glow.
If you're missing the adrenaline fix of the larger cities, there is a popular zip line that launches from Mehrengar. It flies across the battlements and desert valleys, providing jaw-dropping views of the surrounding area, particularly when moving past the lake with the fort in the background. Or, if you prefer the clamor of the cities, you can find chaos, and maybe a few bargains, in the markets around Jodhpur’s central clock tower.
But to see obscene displays of wealth, take an auto rickshaw out to the museum at the Umaid Bhawan Palace. Built by the grandfather of the current Maharaja between 1928 and 1943, it was one of largest private palaces in the world when it was completed. While the property and its 347 rooms are certainly jaw dropping in scale, culturally and aesthetically it is a significant letdown after touring the gem that is Mehrangar. While the family says it was built as a drought relief project, the palace, with its marble squash courts and lavish Art Deco rooms, reads more like a 1930’s version of Mukesh Ambani’s billion-dollar home in Mumbai. Part of the palace remains a private residence, and the other is an incredibly expensive Taj hotel. There is a museum that is open to the public, which provides a fascinating window into the ruling family at the twilight of its influence.
Once back at the Raas, kick back and enjoy the pool with its one-of-a-kind view of Mehrangar. The Raas, which is a Design Hotel, is located in a restored 18th-century haveli, or mansion, that has been outfitted with sleek modern elements like a falis (screen barrier) of sandstone that shades each hotel room from the desert sun and the Apple-store-like glass box lobby. The attention to historical preservation and detail during the haveli’s restoration and modernization is reassuring. Significant amounts of architectural beauty in India have been lost to history, whether because of misuse, lack of maintenance, or destruction. Compared to the Red Fort in New Delhi, where the gem of the Mughal capital is in a depressing state of decay, or what remains of the various havelis in Old Delhi, the Raas stands out for its attention to salvaging the beauty of historic India while simultaneously keeping it relevant.
But the highlight of the hotel, at any time of day, is the view of Mehrangar from the top restaurant and bar. After the noise, chaos, and jostling for space that a trip to India normally entails, there is almost nothing better than sipping an ice cold Kingfisher as the nearby mosque begins its call to prayer and the desert sky turns pink and red, like the fortress piercing its horizon.