There are many memorable sights in Rajasthan but one in particular will stick in the mind. This is the view from the ramparts of Jodhpur’s 15th-century Mehrangarh fort, parked on a cliff and soaring 400ft above the city’s skyline. Mehrangarh is the greatest of India’s desert forts: below it and spreading west from its heights, the old murmuring city shimmers in a blue haze, particularly around the settlement of Brahmpuri, the quarter of Brahmins, a caste that, it is said, painted their homes in shades of indigo as a mark of both distinction and segregation. The more plausible theory is that indigo, mixed into white lime wash, is an effective mosquito repellent, and that blue deflects the searing heat of sand-swept summers.
To the east, the blue houses become interspersed with red: buildings in the local dusty rose sandstone that has been mined for centuries. Standing out from the maze of alleys and bazaars below is a clock tower, erected in 1909 by a municipal-minded maharaja; while spread-eagled on the horizon is Umaid Bhawan, an art-deco masterpiece built in the early 1930s that is now an expensive hotel. And if you look directly down to the bazaar, you might just detect a pile of distinctive modernist blue cubes.
These are, in fact, part of Raas, Rajasthan’s most innovative boutique hotel. Last December, it became the first luxe hostelry to open in the heart of an Indian walled city. Snazzy blue-painted tuk-tuks ferry guests and baggage from the clock tower through buzzing bazaars; a wooden gateway opens into a calm courtyard and pillared reception; beyond rises a modern 35ft wall of rose sandstone; above it, blue cubes merge into the city’s skyline.
Behind a modern jaali, or perforated stone screen, the hidden splendours of Raas are revealed – a blue infinity pool, set in Mughal-style terraced gardens; a 19th-century pleasure pavilion for dining; and 300-year-old ornamental buildings of the women’s purdah quarter, which now include a spa – all juxtaposed against a second block of suites clad in geometric jaali-work.
Each of Raas’s rooms is a statement in cool, pared-down style, from their black terrazzo floors to the private balconies with 11ft-high stone jaalis in metal frames that roll back, like shutters, at the flick of a finger. And, suspended above the acre-and-half walled complex, rises Mehrangarh itself on its rocky promontory.
The hotel combines some of the best of traditional and contemporary architecture, and is the enterprise of two brothers from Jodhpur: Nikhilendra Singh, owner of the travel and event management company that organised Liz Hurley’s ritzy nuptials in 2007, and his older brother Dhananajaya, a Cambridge-educated farmer with a penchant for locating crumbling properties. Their father, Mahendra Singh, a kinsman of Jodhpur’s progressive current maharaja, Gaj Singh II, was a key figure in the 1980s in turning Mehrangarh around from decades of neglect into a profitable showpiece of restoration, including museums and galleries that today display the Jodhpur dynasty’s gilded treasures. (Their first windfalls, Mahendra Singh delightedly recalls, came from location rentals to Hollywood, and from selling off tons of accumulated bat droppings as fertiliser.)
Dhananajaya negotiated the purchase of Raas in 2007 from an elderly feudal chief after relocating some 60 sitting tenants; Nikhilendra found two British investors and engaged a Delhi architect, Amrish Arora, and Rajiv Majumdar, Arora’s collaborator from Bangalore. “It was my first hotel and I was nervous. But each time I saw the view, I trembled with excitement, I didn’t want to let it go,” says Arora. Referring to the density, squalor and corrupt politics that pervade the core of most Indian cities, Nikhilendra says he sees the hotel as a start in “redefining the walled city”.
When Madonna came to Jodhpur in 2007, however, she followed a sandy horse-riding trail, amid scrubland populated by black buck, Rajasthan’s endangered desert antelope, to Raas’s neighbour, Mihir Garh, a brand new fortress-style retreat perched on a sand dune. This is the creation of a remarkable couple from Jodhpur, husband-and-wife team Sidharth and Rashmi Singh, who ventured into the hospitality business by accident. Sidharth had inherited his family’s crumbling 17th-century feudal estate and provincial manor at Rohet Garh. The manor’s location, stuck in an outlying village, meant that visitors were few and far between. One exception was the late travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who stayed for six months in 1985.
Gradually, the Singhs began to restore rooms for guests, laying out gardens, adding a swimming pool in a courtyard and a tented dining room on the terrace. The old courthouse, kitchens and garages are now tastefully decorated suites, and Rohet Garh’s atmosphere, from tea in the garden with peacocks flapping down from the parapets and the host family present at meals, is part-English country house and part-Rajput nobleman’s demesne, and part literary shrine (Room 15, the room in which Chatwin took up residence, is now a point of pilgrimage for literary fans.)
Sidharth Singh’s family has a history of horsemanship, which has contributed both to Rohet Garh’s resurrection and to the development of its Wilderness Camp, a gathering of six luxury tents, 17km west of the hotel. One of Sidharth’s personal crusades has been to revive the Marwari desert breed of horse, and the stables here are his pride and joy.
It was Madonna’s yoga instructor who recommended Sidharth and his properties to her for a family holiday. “She’s amazingly fit! She rode 30km in the saddle every day … and not a problem!” the hotelier enthuses, recalling with a faint blush that the pop star planted kisses on both his cheeks in gratitude. Rashmi, Sidharth’s wife, listens indulgently.
“Madonna’s [visit] was hard work for us,” she chips in. “But on New Year’s Eve, when we invited her and her party to a family celebration, and the women of the house put on their skirts and veils to dance the traditional ghoomar, she wore the clothes, got brilliantly into the act and danced for more than an hour.”
Raas, Jodhpur: 39 single/double rooms, including seven suites. Tariffs from US $358-$515, excluding luxury tax. Tel: +91 969 4237859, www.raasjodhpur.com
Rohet Garh, Wilderness Camp, and Mihir Garh: 30 to 40 minutes drive from Jodhpur. Rohet Garh: 34 single/double rooms, including six suites. Tariffs from US $100-$188; Wilderness Camp: seven tents, from US $225-$275; Mihir Garh: nine suites, from US $3500-$840. Tel: +91 291 2431161, www.rohetgarh.com
Sunil Sethi was a guest of Greaves Travel UK. Tel: +44 (0)207 487 9111, www.greavesindia.com