When does a trip transcend a “mere” holiday to become travelling-something altogether more meaningful- something that takes you beyond the surface level experience of the casual tourist? This was the philosophy conundrum. I found myself contemplating while bouncing along the back streets of stunning Jaisalmer. Listening to a steady slap of sandals behind me I feel a twinge of nerves.
We are on the trail of a fast approaching subset-best viewed, I’ve been assured. After all, we are on a thaar detour organized by Suryagarh Jaisalmer- my latest check in wherein I have been prescribed total immersion in a joyful adventure by the hotel’s gracious staff.
Like checking in a palace.
The Suryagarh unfailing hospitality starts from the time my lovely smiling turban chauffeur-Hari Singh offers me chill drinking water, and the cold face towels. He assures me that there are lots and lots of cold drinks and munchies (think mithais, sweet and savoury chivda, cookies and more) to keep me company through the way. As our Fortuner speeds across the desert, we totally forget the rigours of the journey, engrossed in watching peacocks and blackbucks, the stunning sun-soaked landscape and the gaily attired local people. The roads were good and it took us merely three and a half hours to complete our journey from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer.
Soon an escort vehicle from the hotel received mine halfway, out stepped dashing young men just in smart uniforms and colorful turbans welcomed me cordially and promptly went back to their vehicle to lead mine. We travelled on the peacefully vacant roads as the Suryagarh’s flags in the front vehicle fluttered in the warm desert air. And soon we neared a golden hued imposing edifice – the Suryagarh building, standing alone in stark nothingness, its dignified silence seemed to command a respect that is reserved for a very few.
Right from the imposing entrance with its large doorways, water bodies and arches,
Suryagarh instantly transports you to the age of royalty. And much like the architecture, the hospitality too is grand. As I enter, rose petals gently waft from the rooftop to greet me while the rhythmic beats of large drums are almost hypnotic.
I’m received by liveried men with huge flags, sitting atop bedecked camels who led my procession to the beat of drums. The rich, rustic singing in the background welcomes with the heartfelt “kesariya baalam aaonee padharo maro desh” tunes, a song which speaks volumes of Rajasthani warmth and hospitality, something I always yield to. I walk on the red carpet as the shower of rose petals continues to the accompaniment of the priest’s auspicious chants. I’ve had the most swoon-worthy welcomes set up for me by hotels but this one was beyond it all.
At the first look of it, Suryagarh seems like a classy piece of ethnic jewelry to me. Its subdued shine enhancing the elegant craftsmanship. It occupies bluff atop a low hill. The hotel has been planned on a sprawling scale- three floors housing 62 rooms and suites, a spa called Rait, a fitness center called Akhara, restaurants, Nosh and Legends of Marwad; Draksh, the bar; Tash, the cards and billiards room; and Neel, the indoor swimming pool. All this is in the midst of lush gardens, elegant courtyards, lakes and other water bodies.
It is replete with all the royal touches you’d expect like elaborate gardens, a tulsi aangan, huge courtyards, intricately carved jharokhas, a lake, the bageecha or herb garden. Some corridors here are like photo galleries with pictures of local people and surroundings while others display ancient fossils and antiques that were procured from villages and old havelis. Interestingly, the buffalo cart outside that has thick wooden wheels is over 200 years old.
My 640 sq ft Signature Suite came with a furnished drawing room, a closet room, alongside the usual amenities, was well stocked up on fresh fruit (juicy plums, mandarins, apples) and signature sweets from the in-house halwai. Everything about Suryagarh gently whispers understated elegance. The decor is decidedly contemporary with a few traditional touches in the furniture, certainly not the typical over the top Rajasthani palace hotel aesthetic, but minimalistic and gorgeous.
Sun, sand and splendour
And the next three nights were spent in just soaking the aura of the place. Mornings would start with ‘Halwai breakfast’-something that the hotel takes great pride in. And rightly, it was the most unforgettable breakfast of my life wherein I was served the best of Rajasthani, sweets, chaats, samosas, puri bhaji, mirchi vadas and several different varieties of halwas. Sinking in my teeth in hot, piping pyaaz ki kachori, crispy, sinful jalebi and badaan doodh, dal pakwan and a variety of barfis while taking in views of the majestic fountain, two lovely golden labradors—Nala and Choti, a prancing peacock and gurgling white pigeons-it was a treat to the senses. The kinda meals that make you fall in love with life. Breakfast came to an end as the sun rose higher and the man with flute too retired. The golden shades of the desert were calling.
My Thali dinner in the courtyard seemed right out of the Arabian nights. The royal experience was at The Legend of Marwar, an opulent dining room in gleaming emerald and crimson, dimly lit with candles in the enchanting Central Courtyard. The dimly lit lamps on the ground give it an ethereal look with the star filled sky above lending a dream like setting I dined from their rich “thali” with an array of delicacies like tulsi paneer, dahi kebab, anjeer kofta curry, lasooni palak, chana kadi, dal batti churma, bajra roti, jaisina pulao. Ending it with desserts like badaam ka halwa and khajoor ki rabdi, I was definitely served a food coma.
The Suryagarh Thali is an elaborate multi-course meal inspired by bhattiara cuisine. The bhattiara community in Rajasthan arrived with the invading Mughals in the 16th century and were traditionally innkeepers. Unlike the fiery Rajasthani cuisine laced with red chillies, bhattiara cuisine is more mellow allowing the ingredients to shine through. From the staple dal batti churma to a lesser-known, more kingly counterpart of the laal maas, the Mohan maas—a delicately cooked mutton, in a rich, silky milk gravy lightly flavoured with cardamom, let me just say that this was one of the finest Rajasthani meals I have had. And let me tell you that’s just a hint at what Suryagarh can do for you. They know the knack of pleasing all your senses and not just your taste-buds. You can have breakfast in the desert at sunrise with peacocks around you. Well, it doesn’t end here, for you can also have picnics in the desert oasis and dinner on the dunes.
Another particularly memorable experience was our dinner in the dunes. It was approaching sunset as we drove past the village and arrived at an oasis. A white shamiana stood near the pond, lanterns lit the way, and candlelight flickered on the table. A local musician sang folk songs nearby as we raised a glass of bubbly to the warm hospitality of Suryagarh Jaisalmer. There was incredible food to match the fabulousness. The Laal maas’, a typical Rajasthani meat dish is not to be missed.
As the sun set, the sky took on stunning pink and purple hues and the cool Thar breeze picked up. It was a night to remember.
For all my meals, Suryagarh ensured I dined like a princess. With candles, rose petals and their wonderful heady aromas transporting me through the reverie and these huge dinner setups in the middle of nowhere with an army of staff at service just for my intimate dinner.
That’s not all, it was a delight to tuck into my queen bed every night after eating the chef’s special mithai lying on the bedside table, while a quote from W. B. Yeats wished me goodnight on behalf of Suryagarh Jaisalmer.
Being the spa connoisseur that I’m, I was ready to be pampered at their spa, aptly named “Rait”, a reverent tribute to the desert sands. The spa manager-Mahesh was extremely knowledgeable and hospitable. He recommended me Suryagarh’s unique thermal therapies like Salt and Stone.
Using hand-harvested salt from the banks of the Luni River that is known for its therapeutic qualities I was covered from head to toe in the river salt, and then wrapped in a muslin cloth as part of the Thermal Salt Therapy. This was followed by an hour-long massage and I was left awestruck at the treatment’s ability to nourish not just the skin but the heart as well.
Another day I tried the Sand therapy wherein heated poultices were used to open pores, releasing a deep medicinal heat that pervaded the muscles to relieve tension. This was followed by an enriching concoction of a fragrant spice scrub, followed by an hour-long massage using small, hand-held heated bundles of Jaisalmer rait (sand) helping to relieve stiff muscles. I could feel those knots of pain slowly, but surely, disappear into nothingness. This treatment uses the natural healing potential of heat that is imbibed by muscles and joints. The heat helps the body naturally release toxins thereby helping the body to return to its natural rhythms and enabling better metabolism. The Thar lies just outside, what better way to experience the silent vitality of its all-encompassing rait?
The treatments here reveal their own meaningful surprises. These are rituals of restoration, delicately and subtly executed and vibrate with an incredible wisdom and sensitivity. Nothing in my experience matches their ceremonious mood, nor their positive effects. Hear it from a spa junkie: they are designed to help you get back to your blissful natural state of being, swapping stress and tension for a return to self.
Moreover, what’s most fascinating about the hotel is its eco-consciousness. They have a lake filled with rainwater; a sewage treatment plant (STP) recycles water for gardening; the roof has been insulated using the age-old technique of upturning terracotta pots and packing them with broken tiles; and almost all rooms have windows that open into the courtyard, which ensures that they receive indirect sunlight, significantly reducing the heat. And, local materials have been used wherever possible.
My hardest goodbye
When I looked around and I would feel the magnetic pull of the landscape. The scene moves to its own rhythm: birds, swooping and soaring, the volume of their call increasing as the taintless orb of the sun sets and they seemingly own the skies. This is no secret hideaway; it is an open heart and all the richer for it. Suryagarh to me is an intimate immersion into a theatrical and primordial dreamscape.
I just happened to mention to the gracious Front Desk Manager-Mohammed Ammar that I loved the gulab barfi prepared by the property and to my surprise when I bid farewell to the property, he ensured I was left with loads of it in my car. From start to end, Ammar ensured my stay was nothing short of magical and that there were enough surprises and stories to keep me regaled throughout. Thanks to him and the army of ever-gracious and smiling staff of Suryagarh, I had a sense of being lost in a delirious soup of cosmic consciousness.
It was impossible to stop smiling. Especially when you add in serene halwai breakfasts to the rhythm of nature, glistening detours of Jaisalmer, other-worldly spa escapes, candle-cocooned private dinners and bedtime sweets and poetry. A sort of beauty overdose floods through you.
There is an incredible natural high that comes from being surrounded by the great spirit of the palace. It is being polished, primed and opened up with reverence; so too are you.There are few better places on earth to be rocked into your whole and most exuberant self.
And certainly nowhere in the world right now is as riveting – rooted in the deep heritage of the land but with a seductively hip and stylish outlook. I lie on my back under a vast and spectacular Indian sky and watch shooting stars burst into being. Time, space, energy, alchemy, serendipity: everything mystical and magical is alive and palpable here, thanks to the Suryagarh experience.
Note: The critic was invited by the hotel. But opinions are her own.
Room rates start from INR 7200/USD 96 for a Pavilion Room
Where: Kahala Phata, Jaisalmer – Sam – Dhanana Rd, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan 345001, India
Phone: +91 78271 51151