Jon Favreau’s latest adventure fantasy film is scoring with critics for capturing both imagination and reality in the same fell swoop. Kudos to its setting – indeed, there’s nowhere in the world that lives up to its tagline quite the way Incredible India does. Certainly, she, in all her guises, much like the avatars of her legion of cosmic deities, enchants and enthrals every second, every moment, one is privileged enough to be traversing this remarkable land.
Undoubtedly, one of the most sought-after destinations in India remain the princely state of Rajasthan – the ancient ‘land of kings’ – but few know of a secret, serene Rajasthan – one that conjures up real-life images straight out of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, as well as deeper, darker tales set against the backdrop of the region’s famed Aravalli Hills, with a sinister tantric magician thrown in for good measure.
IN SEARCH OF SHERE KHAN
There is a traditional bedtime warning across the land – Soja beta, nahin ti sher aa jayega – admonishing little children to go to sleep lest the tiger comes. But, I must confess, tigers were all I had on my mind when I made the long journey from Delhi to Ranthambore National Park, a dedicated wildlife sanctuary since 1955 in the Sawai Madhopur district of south-east Rajasthan.
Located between two mountain ranges – the Aravallis and the Vindhyas – it is, undoubtedly, one of India’s most well-known sanctuaries, spanning almost 400 sq km. As it used to be the former shikargarh (hunting grounds) of the Maharaja of Jaipur (the ‘pink city’ is but a mere 130km away), visitors to Ranthambore will also find it to be one of the most beautiful national parks in the world, dotted with chhatris (elegant domeshaped pavilions or cenotaphs) and loomed over by the imposing Ranthambore Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to 944 AD and which was once captured by the Moghul Emperor Akbar in 1569.
But all thoughts of tigers were, momentarily, cast aside upon check-in at the Aman-i-Khás, one of the most soothingly luxurious places to stay in while holidaying in tiger territory, as well as one of the most understated and beautiful. Perched on the edge of Ranthambore’s wilderness, I am loath to use the term ‘glamping’ (a portmanteau of the words ‘glamour’ and ‘camping’), as it somehow doesn’t quite do justice to the perfect formation of 10 luxurious-beyond-belief tents around a central fire pit encircled by black plum trees.
Every night, pashmina-swathed guests, with cocktails in hand, gather around the crackling flames to swap game drive stories, whose words will eventually be carried away into the night sky on the haunting tunes of the Langar gypsies who come to sing at Aman-i-Khás every evening. Once dawn breaks, however, tigers will once again consume your thoughts as your personal batman (butler) gently makes known his presence outside your tent, armed with a pot of tea and biscuits, to help you get ready for the first game drive of the day.
All the attention-to-detail for which Amanresorts is renowned also becomes obvious the moment you are comfortably tucked into your open-top jeep, complete with a picnic basket for chai breaks later, all the necessary gear – from local wildlife guides and binoculars – as well as a hot water bottle for the lap – a much-appreciated gesture as mornings can be nippy in this part of India.
Once you’ve entered the park, mere minutes away by jeep, it’s as if Kipling’s characters have all come to life around you. Short of spotting Mowgli himself, each moment is a call of the wild. We spot Mao the peacock, the monkey folk Kipling called the bandar-log, as well as Rikki-Tikki- Tavi, the valiant mongoose. From majestic nilgai (blue bull antelopes and the largest of its kind in Asia) to herds of sambar and chital deer, wild pigs and langur monkeys, it is virtually impossible to come away not having seen anything.
Tigers, on the other hand, are a matter of luck. Fortunately, Aman-i-Khás prides itself on the quality of its guides, and I started thanking my lucky stars when I was introduced to ‘Tiger Bobby’. With just enough time for two morning game drives, the first of which was tiger-free, I was rewarded with sightings of, not one, but two majestic Bengal beasts on my second, and final, Ranthambore outing – a young specimen walking alongside a nullah (stream) and, the other, a truly magnificent adult male, sunning himself, almost camouflaged amidst the brushwood and dhok trees, across a ravine.
A PERFECT TEN(T)
Even if you’re not the safari drive sort of person, just ensconcing yourself in the Jean-Michel Gathy-designed confines of Aman-i-Khás is enough to keep you, for want of a better phrase, a happy camper. The Moghul-inspired tents, with its soaring canopies, is the perfect place in which to hide away with a good book, while your batman is only too happy to keep a steady supply of drinks and snacks forthcoming – if you’ve tired of the tipples that are replenished daily in the handsome leather ice chest at the foot of your bed, that is.I couldn’t get enough of my batman Bejoy’s customised jal-jeera – a tangy, spicy concoction featuring cumin, chilli, chat masala and lime.
There is also a tempting outdoor pool, inspired by the region’s traditional bawadi – ancient step wells – as well as a spa tent for sybaritic scrubs, massages and even henna art, should you wish to channel a zenana beauty. Dining can be quite a decadent affair at Aman-i-Khás and, if you don’t wish to dine in the large communal tent, you can choose to sup in the sublime privacy of your tent or arrange, perhaps, for a private dining experience in a jungle clearing or by the little lake nearby. And should hunger pangs strike in the middle of the night, don’t fret – simply ring for your batman as the kitchens are at your service 24/7.
Game drives aside, it is also wise to apportion part of the afternoon for rambles to the ancient Ranthambore Fort, one of India’s oldest, where there are Hindu and Jain temples to pay homage to, including the highly-revered Trinetra Ganesh Mandir, once you successfully make the steep trek up, past the numerous protective pols (gates), including the Suraj Pol (Sun Gate) and the Hathi Pol (Elephant Gate), which twist, turn and can be narrow in order to deflect battering rams, charging elephants or simply impede enemy assaults.
If the fortress seems foreboding to you, you would have rightly guessed at its bloody history, which, aside from battles and sieges, is also, according to folklore, the first-known site of jauhar (ritual self-immolation) by thousands of women upon hearing of their ruler’s defeat sometime in the 14th century. In Moghul times, the fort’s thick walls were also the site of executions, where condemned prisoners were fed opium before being hurled off the ramparts. If all these historical tales suddenly make you feel a bit chilly, count on Aman-i-Khás to, once again, brighten things up with, maybe, a surprise picnic – stealthily laid out by your batman – on one of the palace rooftops (we opted for the Dulha Mahal or ‘Groom’s Palace’), overlooking the vast green expanse of the national park, studded by the sapphire blue of its crocodile-inhabited lakes, like the largest one, called Padam Talao.
Or head back for more salubrious pleasures, including hanging out at the fire pit with the resort’s signature Ranthambore Martini in hand, or even doing a spot more exploring, this time on the back of a camel, where the journey culminates atop a little hillock, in time to catch the egg yolk-perfect sun dip behind the Aravalli Hills, and where your faithful batman awaits, once again, with hot snacks and sundowners.
THE ALLURE OF ALWAR
Rajasthan, as you would have gathered by now, is a kingdom in itself – a land mass about the size of Germany. And, although road travel can be a slow, arduous affair, it is well worth the time and trouble to make the bone-shaking threehour drive from Sawai Madhopur to nearby Alwar (do know a helicopter charter will shave two hours off the journey), where the second of Amanresorts’ glorious India properties await, in Ajabgarh.
Slightly off the beaten track, Ajabgarh is a secluded, special portal that transports you back into the past, albeit with a modernist interpretation. Located along the spine of the massive Aravalli Range, which snakes its way across several Indian states, including Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana and Punjab, you’d find yourself suddenly tumbling, Alice-like, into a rabbit hole of earthly delights upon arrival.
Deriving its name from the Sanskrit words for ‘peace’ and ‘garden’, Amanbagh is hardly a new resort, but if you’ve yet to make your way to this gem-like oasis, built in the manner of a walled Moghul mahal by none other than design supremo Ed Tuttle, you’d be missing out. Although it evokes regal palace-living of bygone days, the overall look and feel, thanks largely to the generous use of pink dholpur sandstone and rose-hued marble, is tranquil and elegant.
The main reason many travellers make their way to Ajabgarh is, in fact, to visit the lost city of Bhangarh, a short drive away from Amanbagh and bordering the Sariska Tiger Reserve. Believed to be the most haunted site in India, it is said that no one dares venture into Bhangarh between the hours of sunset and sunrise – a fact compounded by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) prohibiting both locals and tourists from entering the ruins at night.
Bhangarh was a thriving little kingdom, established by its ruler Bhagwant Das in the 1500s until, according to legend, a sorcerer fell in love with Princess Ratnavati and bewitched a potion to seduce her. Said to be a holy beauty, the princess detected black magic in the brew and hurled the contents over a huge boulder, which then crushed him to death. With his dying breath, it is said the sorcerer cursed the kingdom, transforming Bhangarh into a ghost town in a single day. The legend seems to have been captivating enough for Bollywood producers to create a horror film out of it, the result being the 2014 Trip to Bhangarh thriller.
Certainly, as you explore the ruins by day, it seems to bear every hallmark of having been a thriving, medieval town, with the remnants of a bazaar, palaces and temples aplenty. For those seeking spiritual encounters of a different kind, however, arrange for a private sunrise yoga session in the shadow of the Mangla Devi Temple, dedicated to the goddess of happiness, followed by a traditional breakfast of fruit and pratha amidst Bhangarh’s atmospheric ruins.
You’d also be pleased by the fact that few foreign tourists ever find their way here. In our morning visit, we met only wild peacocks, chattering parakeets and local village women, striking as summer flowers in their traditional brightly coloured Rajasthani dresses, balancing great stacks of freshly collected firewood atop their heads, while the beautiful bathing pools, shaded by ancient banyan trees, were a playground entirely for the bandar-log.
TILL THE COWS COME HOME
Amanbagh is home to its own camels and a fleet of shiny bicycles, encouraging guests to explore the grounds and nearby surrounds. But, the highlight excursion has to be undertaken on the back of an open-top jeep. Cheekily named the ‘Cow Dust Tour’, it’s a wonderful way to observe village life around the time when things wind down for the day: when the children are hard at play, kitchens are busy with activity and, of course, when the cows, along with goats and buffaloes, are herded home for the night.
We drive past fields of mustard, cauliflower and chickpeas, each one studded with a machan (makeshift hut) for the farmers’ night-watch, ensuring antelope and wild boar don’t menace their crops while the village sleeps. We peep into compounds drying out their tobacco harvest and, most charmingly, meet half of Ajabgarh’s children, who loved nothing more than clinging to the back of the jeep for a short, spirited ride with us. Several times, we had also to pull over so as to let camel carts trundle by.
Midway, a chai break allows you to stop and admire the rough, rugged beauty of this dramatic frontier region of Rajasthan, the landscape broken up only by a solitary chhatri or two. Those with energy to spare may also enjoy guided treks along parts of the Aravalli Range, along mountain trails made virtually of quartz and marble. Ask Sharam, the resort’s celebrated naturalist, to lead you to the King’s Throne, a limestone throne carved out of the rocks, almost a hundred years ago, so Maharaja Ajab Singh could sit and hunt in comfort.
Regardless of whether you believed in the legends of Bhangarh or not, it is almost certain Amanbagh will leave you spellbound. Spread out over 47 acres of lush gardens and greenery (it is said only four trees were ever felled in its creation), it is an equal treat to simply while the time away in one’s pool pavilion or a sunlounger somewhere. Date palms and eucalyptus provide ample shade and, during the day, the long-tailed, musical and bold-as-brass Rufous treepies are a delight to observe. Just a caveat – watch out for your drinks, nibbles and shiny belongings!
Dining in Amanbagh is also a particular treat as the resort’s on-site organic gardens and team of talented chefs ensure some of the best meals you will ever enjoy in India; and, in a land famed for its extraordinary cuisine, that’s certainly saying something. Aside from elegant thali meals taken in the comfortable luxury of the dining hall or on the roof terrace overlooking the expansive pool, you may also wish to enjoy lunch (and a culinary lesson) in the purposebuilt guwarri (family hut). Here, learn how to prepare unique dishes featuring local ingredients, particularly kair sangari, a dish of caper-like berries and desert beans, as well as Amanbagh’s winning salad of sprouted lentils called dal moth.
While the Pool Pavilions are a delight in which to sequester yourself throughout the duration of your stay, I was particularly charmed by the privacy and views which the upper level, terrace suites bordered by flaming bougainvillea blossoms, afford. I later learnt these rooms are also referred to as haveli suites, which takes its name from the old Hindustani word for ‘mansion’. Haveli? ‘Heavenly’, somehow, sounds more apt.
This story was first published in the April issue of The Peak Malaysia.