Celebrate a unique way of life at the backdrop of postcard perfect beauty at Suryagarh, your gateway to the Thar Desert in the Golden City of Jaisalmer.
BY NAMITA GUPTA
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had this recurring dream of getting lost in palatial palaces. After my stay at Suryagarh, that is carefully preserving the traditions of our past yet framing them in a modern idiom, I found myself. The fort hotel takes the path less travelled and discovers with you, secrets of a land that have been long shrouded in myth and legend. The stones here speak to you. There are stories you’ll never get bored of listening to – in the gardens, courtyards, corridors, pillars, arches, jharokhas and walls that are reminiscent of the era gone by. Each a sanctuary on its own, these venues allow for quiet seclusion as well as entertainment in harmony with the ambience that brings the outside in.
The royal welcome begins from the airport itself as turban-clad men wait with hot towels and trays serving water, juice and snacks. Half way through, an open jeep bearing orange Suryagarh flags fluttering in the air, joins my car with staff from Suryagarh and closer to the property, two camels join in the welcome procession. The moment I step out of the car, I spot drum rolls and Manganiyar singers and dancers regaling me in. As soon as I set foot in, I have my ‘Bahaaron Phool Barsaao’ moment with flower petals being showered from the rooftop. A moment I would want to be framed on my bedside forever. Suryagarh sits on the threshold that looks east towards the ancient city of Jaisalmer, which offers unsurpassable antiquity, and looks west to the undulating landscape of the Thar Desert with its raw natural beauty.
I take the elevator to my Luxury Suite that represents a timeless Rajasthan. Available in three categories, Suryagarh Suite, Luxury Suite and Signature Suite, these airy and bright suites juxtapose the modern with the traditional in a language that is considerate of every modern day amenities. From lavish to intimate in scale, the suites are embellished with rich local textures, and offer a calm sanctuary with superlative comforts. If you’re looking for complete privacy then there are standalone Haveli’s at the far corner of Suryagarh with private pools, large private spaces and a private butler at your beck and call. Think ultimate indulgence and you have it here, of course at a certain price. There are also Heritage Rooms, Fort Rooms and Pavilion Rooms at very affordable prices.
After relaxing in my Luxury Suite, I head to Rait, The Desert Spa and pick one of their signature treatments called Salt. Mahesh, the spa manager passes the frankincense oil that is used for the massage, through a bio disc to energise the oil. A rejuvenating spa experience with the masseur combining therapeutic salt in potlis from the Looni river that flows through the desert dipped in the infused oil alongwith her deft hands. I was wrapped on a thermal salt bed later and could feel the magic working wonders. I could lie down there forever. After sauna and shower, I was dressed for the Cultural Evening by Mehboob Khan and his Manganiyar family under the starlit sky. Mehboob’s teenage son Imran stole my heart with his rustic voice. They perform for an hour every evening at The Tulsi Aangan and leave you spellbound. Evenings are dreamlike as live desert music, dimly lit lamps, brightly coloured flowers and endlessly twinkling stars transport you to a different world.
The stately Central Courtyard, the open airy versatile space, the heart of the hotel, beckons with its spectacular intricately carved jalis and jharokhas, pillars and stone benches to indulge in the Suryagarh Thali. My non-vegetarian aperitifs were Dahi Ke Kebab, Pathar Gosht and Goat Meat Kebab hand pounded on stone with spices and served with walnut chutney, garlic and my favourite ker pickle. For the entrée on the thali there was Mohan Maas, succulent Goat meat cooked in milk gravy flavored with cardamom, Handi Murgh, Khada Lasooni Palak and the ubiquitous Rajasthani delicacy Dal, Bati, Churma. The Neembu Pani helped wash it all down. For dessert, there was Badaam ka Halwa and Khajoor Ki Rabri. Lip smacking delicious!
While the culinary experiences are curated to perfection at Suryagarh, special attention is also given to the other experiences they offer. The next morning after an indulgent and delicious Halwai breakfast in the company of princely peacocks, sparrows, donkeys named Romeo and Juliet and a Manganiyar playing Algoza or the double flute, perched atop one of the jharokhas in The Central Courtyard, we set off on our Silk Route Exploration. In the aegis company of Nakul Hada, the charming General Manager, Suryagarh, who drove the SUV himself and kept us rapt in attention with many interesting tales. “From the 16th to the 18th century Jaisalmer was well established on the Silk Route as tradesmen favoured a southern route through India and Pakistan over the treacherous Pamir of Central Asia heading towards the Indian hinterland. And so the city prospered, a city of caravanserais in which the merchants took shelter as they came to trade or barter their exotic goods. Suryagarh remembers this journey with its interpretation of the Silk Route trade,” stated Nakul. Our Silk Route Trail started from Suryagarh to Khaba Fort (20 kms), overlooking the ruins of an ancient Paliwal village. This fort at the frontier also called as the Sarai Fort was the first pit stop for the night when the traders entered Rajasthan via the Silk Route trade and only after they paid taxes they were given the permission to venture ahead for trade. There are different stories why Paliwal Brahmins abandoned this place 200 years ago. Next we drive around 17 kms ahead to the Kuldhara Oasis and then to the Wells of Mundhari, 8 kms ahead, where the spring well dishes out pure, cool and naturally sweet water. Joshida water reservoir is next after a 7 kms drive and looks like its straight out of chronicles of Ibn Battuta complete with parasols, orange turbaned waiters and cold drinks, sweets and fruits.
We drive back to Suryagarh for another culinary experience – a Western lunch that served a delicious Quinoa tabbouleh, Hummus platter, Chicken cabanas, Grilled chicken breast with caramelised chili sauce and a Macadamia brownie with homemade ice-cream. After some siesta and evening tea with Kaki in the Courtyard singing songs of valour and love in her deep guttural desert voice, we were ready for the Thar Dinner at the Celebration Garden that pays homage to the culinary traditions of travellers who crossed the Thar to Jaisalmer. This sit-down mattress style comfortable dining experience is curated to mark the end of this journey in a celebratory feast served in a communal setting under starry skies and tasselled canopies with the Manganiyars in performance. Over wines and cocktails, we tucked into Meat Kaleji, Gosht Resham Tamge, Tulsi Murgh Tikka, Chana Daal ki Shaami, Sangri Salad, Khichiya Papad followed by a Thali serving Dum Pulao, Bolito Khargosh, Handi Murgh, Lasooni Palak, Pithod Curry, Khamiri Roti and Naariyal Boondi and Mawa Samosa for dessert. Firework display at the end of the Thar Dinner raised the bar a few notches higher.
The next morning I woke up early to catch the stunning sunrise from my suite. A Stay Well breakfast was served with Beauty and Immunity boosters, Ragi Dosa, Granola and Yoghurt and fresh fruit juices. We set off again to explore the hidden gems of Jaisalmer driving across villages, ancient watering holes, ruined serais, ancient cemeteries and some of the most magical and dramatic landscapes around Nabh Doongar, Bhil Settlement, Jaziya Talao and Kuldhara Ruins. We also took out time to explore the Jaisalmer Fort or Sonar Quila (Golden Fort), one of the largest living forts in the world, with gleaming golden sandstone walls, built in 1156 by King Rawal Jaisal. There’s a thriving city inside with shops, thousands of residents, temples, palace complex and a few spots that offer the best view of Jaisalmer from top. We also stopped by a few Havelis in yellow sandstone that feature different types of architecture like Rajputana and Islamic with painstakingly carved facades and oriel windows. The Jain Temple and Badabagh are also worth a stop – Jain temple for its beautiful structural designs and Badabagh for its royal cenotaphs, or chhatris of Maharajas of Jaisalmer. If you have time, also visit Dr Bhang at his Bhang Shop selling Bhang lassi, cookies, chocolates and candies. He has received visitors of the likes of Anthony Bourdain and many others. We returned to Suryagarh for an Indian lunch of Tandoori Chicken, Maans ka Salan, Aloo Gobhi Adraki, Pindi cholle and Keema naan followed by Rasmalai and Moong dal halwa for dessert.
The best was saved for the last and the Dinner on the Dunes in the most magical of all settings, was a true representation of a Nomadic Hunt Menu and topped the entire desert experience. Set against the backdrop of mesmerising Manganiyar folk singers, the ambiance was majestic as music floated and the drinks flowed under the stars around the sand dunes of Sam. We drank and ate like there was no tomorrow. Some of the interesting dishes on the Dinner on the Dunes menu included Khargosh Masala, Hunters style Hare roasted on wood fire, Tawa Bater, Quails rubbed with Chillies & Garlic and Sangri Kebab followed by a lavish thali serving Junglee Maans, Murge ka Mokul, Chana Kadhi, Hare Tamatar Sev ki Subz, Kumatia Saag that was mopped down with the Bajra Roti. I was too full to try the Lauki Halwa and Anjeer Barfi for dessert that night.
The Silk Route Trail and the Thar Trail were conceptualised by Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, the endearing and erudite managing director of the Jaipur-headquartered MRS Group, while he was building this 5-star boutique fort hotel, Suryagarh, at this 40-acre property. The tall and dapper MD went on an exploratory mode to delve deeper on the legacy of the surrounding areas of his property. He left no stones unturned to offer the experiences and services you get at Suryagarh with attention to every detail. No two experiences are the same here and each one of the trails and culinary creations are special in their own unique manner.
I had my secret dream of living the life of a Maharani fulfilled, if only for a couple of days. I can’t think of a better way to explore Jaisalmer than spending a few days at Suryagarh to soak in the quintessential Rajasthani royalty at its best while immersing completely in its regal culture and heritage.
Glance around Suryagarh
Legend of Marwar – This speciality restaurant celebrates the storied culinary heritage of Marwad, bringing the legendary fare of medieval hunts, court kitchens and the zealously guarded trade secrets of Maharajas’ kitchens to your table.
Draksh – The bar beckons the thirsty traveller with its cooling white walls, speckled with gold. Unwind under amber lights and indulge in the finest spirits from around the world.
Nosh – Nosh, the all-day dining room is an airy, welcoming space where idleness is a virtue and indecision, a delight.
Rait – The Spa is named in reverence to the sand and pays homage to the setting, the sea of rait upon which it has been fashioned. It is conceptualised using a plume of history and fashioned on native wisdom and lore; built on the sifting yet regenerating rait, indeed the sands of both tradition and modern insight. Their treatments are designed to deliver radiance, healing and a quiet sense of inner and outer well-being.
Akhara – Akhara is the traditional Indian name for a sports centre, and is a state-of-the-art gym equipped with weight training as well as cardiovascular equipment.
Neel, the swimming pool – Neel’s vivid blue of the native peacocks is the design inspiration for this covered indoor pool. Built in the style of a bygone age of leisurely indulgences this pool offers quiet seclusion.
Taash – Taash is the Cards and Billiards Room opposite the main entrance of the hotel. It entertains with many board games, a card table for four, and a well-lit billiards table.
The main areas include the Central Courtyard, Tulsi Aangan, Sunset Patio, Lake Garden, Celebration Garden, The Bawdi, Champa Garden, Mehendi Terrace, The Fossil Hill, The Spa Garden. There are many beautiful flowers growing like the fragrant frangipani, Champa, bougainvillea, scented vines and more in the well-manicured and cultivated gardens, besides an organic kitchen garden.
How to reach: There are many flights already operating from the Jaisalmer airport and Airlines are now launching many more flights. It is also well connected by road and rail.
Where: Suryagarh, A unit of The MRS Group, Kahala Phata, Sam Road, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. Call +91+91 78271 51151 | firstname.lastname@example.org, www.suryagarh.com