There’s the beaten track. There’s off the beaten track. And then there’s Amanbagh, the Indian Elysium that’s miles from anywhere… but a million light years from care.
Taking its name from the Sanskrit for 'peace’ and the Hindi word for 'garden', this breathtaking hotel in the wilds of Rajasthan stands in ancient lands. Legend has it the surrounding Aravalli hills are the oldest on the planet – 600 million years young. From the moment we arrive, on a dusty pot-holed road passing crenulated Rajput forts, monkey tribes and lonely goat-herders, the feeling that envelops us is that here we’re being cradled by higher powers.
Amanbagh lies within a walled compound once used by the Maharajah of Alwar as a camp for hunting parties in search of the tigers, leopards, crocodiles and deer that still roam the region. Mature palm, fruit and eucalyptus trees frame the oasis, drawing water from the adjacent lake. The hotel is a re-imagined Mughal palace designed by Paris-based American Ed Tuttle using locally carved pink marble and sandstone for its cupolas and filled with high scalloped arches, each arc riven by five grooves symbolising the hands coming together in prayer and thanks.
Our Haveli Suite is one of 24 divided into Courtyard, Garden and Terrace categories. We land the latter, opening two huge wooden doors to access a sun-soaked space dominated by a king-size bed, day-bed, a scattering of armchairs and writing desk. The bathroom is so large we have to shout to be heard, and the bath tub is monumental – carved from a single slab of mottled green Udaipur marble. A terraced courtyard overlooks lush grounds and a 33-metre lap pool of the gods.
Tempting as it is to lie back and luxuriate, there’s an itinerary laid out for ‘Sahib and Sahiba Smith’ starting with a ‘Sunset Cow Dust’ tour, a rather incongruous name for an experience so spellbinding. We set out on camels, loping through a verdant valley of jungles, lakes, sunken cities and century-old pavilions. Splendid sights catch the eye at every turn: the flashing blue of a kingfisher’s wing, a smile from a temple-keeper amid a gentle din of bells and chanting, the shimmer and sway of endless patchwork fields filled with tobacco, banana and Indian gooseberry plants.
Nothing heaves at the heartstrings, though, like the people, most simple farmers tending cows, crops and wells. They rise from their fires and ploughs to wave as we pass by. And when we transfer to a jeep the children scamper from their chores to chase us, clambering onto the back for a free ride, shrieking with joy at so exotic a pleasure. Bathed in the glow of Godhuli, a Hindi word for the refracted light that catches the dust kicked up by the cows returning home at sunset, clarity climbs into our hearts.
For the locals Amanbagh is a blessing, a kindly benefactor predicted many moons before by the resident sadhu (holy man) whose vision told of a hotel or hospital. Truth is, this hotel has become both. Most of the 200 staff – from the ladies who sweep to the guys who slingshot monkeys eyeing the guests’ fruit bowls – hail from these villages. Their gift to the guests is to share tales of their ancestors, stretching back to the dawn of Hindu civilization when five exiled Pandava brothers built five forts to stand sentry over what today is the 765-square kilometre Sariska National Park.
We’re often grateful for this homespun wisdom from Amanbagh ‘family members’ – in a tour of the hotel’s organic garden, during a yoga and cooking classes, on a bizarre but very moving twilight visit to a temple for an Aarti ceremony and nightly as we dine on traditional Rajasthani dishes, evocatively soundtracked by a band of musicians harmonising on Meena songs of yore.
It’s particularly reassuring on our trip to Bhangarh, a medieval site 15 kilometres from Amanbagh. According to legend, this thriving town of bazaars, palaces, temples and gardens was deserted overnight in the 1600s after being cursed by an evil court magician with fiendish designs on Bhangarh’s beautiful and virtuous Queen. Neighbouring villagers have avoided it ever since and warn against visits after dark. We arrive around dusk, step over the threshold and our camera instantly goes bung. ‘Rambo’, our guide, looks to a peak where the magician’s eerie home still stands. Under darkening skies he ushers us on. Outside the walls, the camera comes good.
But not even black magic can break the happy spell Amanbagh holds over its guests. Bathed in the buttery light of its pavilions, watched over by panthers in the hills and lit from within by its blend of old charm and fresh inspiration, it’s more a shrine than a hotel. We leave blissful. We may not return, but we’ll never forget.