This month RITZ goes back in time to two places that are a few centuries old and have been restored with modern sensibilities yet keeping the aesthetics and essence of the era gone by — The Tamara Kodai luxury resorts in the historical La Providence, in Kodaikanal, built at a 160-year old monastic retreat that has been restored and added with new constructions and Narendra Bhawan in Bikaner, Rajasthan that was once the grand residence of Narendra Singh, the last reigning Maharaja of Bikaner HH. We revisit India’s magnificent past and showcase a first-hand experience…
A ROYAL NOSTALGIA – NARENDRA BHAWAN, BIKANER
Vignettes from the life and times of the Maharajas at Narendra Bhawan in the beautiful Bikaner, located in the western region of Rajasthan.
By Namita Gupta
“You’re flying to Bikaner?” asked a friend as I nodded in delight with the fact that there was now a direct flight to Bikaner from Delhi. After a flight from Bengaluru to Delhi and then another one I was in the old town of Bikaner that was founded by Rao Bika, son of Rao Jodha in 1488 AD. It was a warm day and the climate was typical of the Thar Desert area.
The welcome drink of jasmine and lemon was just what was needed as I set my foot in the eclectic surroundings of Narendra Bhawan, influenced by the Bombay Art Deco movement where motifs and design elements present interiors reminiscent of a vibrant bygone age. Modern Indian furniture, Portuguese tiles and Tribal artworks add vibrancy to the décor. Inspired by the royal patronage of the local artforms of Bikaner, The Gallery at Narendra Bhawan pays homage to its original resident – the last reigning Maharaja of Bikaner, His Highness Narendra Singh. At my arrival I was offered to relax in an extravagant Living Room with tea and a cheese platter and then escorted to my room.
Today, this Maharaja’s residence is an independent Design Hotel showcasing a set of curated experiences to preserve and maintain the legacy of the royalty. Each of the rooms have a story to tell and the theme of India prevails – past and present. The Residence Rooms is where Bikaner terrazzo floors and traditional crafts sit in harmony with Portuguese tiles, elaborate ceiling details and a distinctly English, light and fresh colour palette. The Prince Rooms reflect a youthful exuberance of the young prince on the threshold of maturity who would have designed his apartments to reflect his growing leanings towards a western lifestyle with luxe velvets, English prints and glittering mirrors and mosaic. The Regimental Rooms are stately and reflect a ceremonial order that appealed to the military man who was king with objets d’art and a rich colour palette. The India rooms are quintessentially Indian but fashioned for the cosmopolitan traveller in indigo, with a display of khadi and not-to-be-missed charkha (spinning wheel). The Republic Suites in steely blue and concrete grey are chic and contemporary and chic inspired during an era when the great architects of India were at their novel best.
After a quick change, I headed straight for lunch. Siddharth Yadav, the dashing and dapper Director at Narendra Bhawan alongwith a bevy of liveried waiters served a deliciously curated Marwari thali with a healthy and delicious aloe vera sabji (yes the same aloe vera that works wonders on your skin and grows in abundance in Rajasthan), beans, succulent lamb, bajra roti and missi roti, sprouts laddoo and Rasmalai that was devoured in no time. After a quick nap I was dressed up for a round of drinks at Gaushala, from where the beautifully lit up Narendra Bhawan took on a mystical touch with the starlit sky and lights making it a perfect ambience for a sundowner.
It was time now for the first Food Meditation – my two-day trip was all about Narendra Singh’s Meditations on food who believed that memory recalls food that has flattered its taste, mingles with all other pleasures, and remains with us forever. Unconventionally curated, these food meditations are composed of Narendra Singhji’s memories from his travels to destinations near and far. Food Meditation 1, Le diner dans le noir, a blindfold sit-down, seven-course dinner at the night room of P&C (Pearls and Chiffon – utterly elegant dining room capturing the charm and phlegmatic finesse of the graceful lady of the house where the initials are derived as a tribute to her favourite apparel of Pearls strings and Chiffon saris) curated by Chef Sunil Singh. It was a unique sensory journey, a blindfolded feast that brought out the exquisite taste of each of the dishes – Tomato cheese bruschetta, French onion soup, sea salt and salmon, Leek Fondue, Pork Belly and Lamb Wellington followed by a plate of Fried Bocconcini, Swiss cheese, Smoked Tomato and Brie and Cheddar and Lemon Grass and Passion Fruit Creme Brûlée to end the memorable meal on a sweet note.
The next day the sky was overcast and it was a pleasant morning for a traditional Rajasthani breakfast of kachauri, papad ki puri with methi daana sabji and thalipeeth. Food Meditation 2, Literary Lunch, A magical pairing of food with excerpts from 6 literary classics was a fantastically “novel” epicurean experience. The first course was salt roasted beet, stock braised leeks, goat’s cheese and anchovy pate, balsamic, pomegranate blood based on The Bell Jar by author Sylvia Plath. The second course: Chowder shellfish extract enhanced with cognac with a crushed ship biscuit on top based on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Third course: Gnocchi eggplant caviar in Ewe’s milk cheese and herbs based on The Brotherhood of the Grape by Henry Molise. Fourth course: Charred Chicken – soya ginger marinated drunken chicken, white fungus, honey hoisin drizzle based on The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones. Fifth course and by now I was really full but I’m glad I tried it as it was the most succulent Lamb Daube I’ve ever had – braised lamb in wine, balsamic and olive oil with garlic herbs, cinnamon, orange peel and nutmeg based on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Sixth course was Baked Camembert cheese on melba based on Emile Zola’s Le ventre de Paris and finally the best was saved for the last and that came in the form of White Chocolate Pudding with candied rose petals with silver lime curd based aptly on Ulysses by James Joyce.
Food Meditation 3, Museum Lunch was at the Gold Room at Laxmi Niwas Palace – a vintage date with how the then Maharaja Ganga Singh would host his royal guests as it were in the days of yore at Laxmi Niwas Palace, a sister concern of Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner (few minutes away). We begin with a round of cocktails at the bar and then move to the hall next door called the Gold Room. One can only imagine how a lavish feast would be laid out for the Maharaja’s guests that included the likes of Lord Mountbatten, Queen Mary, King George V and others; how they would sit in this very hall with gold-laden walls, splashed with over 50kgs of intricate work in real 24 karat gold and talk about the world affairs smoking their cigars. Chef Kishan Singh and Sunil Singh presented an impeccable Museum Menu that is inspired from the year 1927; the Kings table with recipes culled from the annals of history. We begin with an amuse bouche of green apple bruschetta and then arrives the first course of Mousse Aspergas, an asparagus mousse, followed by a comforting Potage Dubarry made with cauliflower, melted blue cheese and candied walnuts. Fillet de Pomfret with Béarnaise sauce that came next was exquisite in taste and Croquettes de Canard Sauvages, duck cutlets with plum sauce was tender, delicious and divine. A four-course scrumptious meal was had, but that wasn’t the culmination yet. The best was yet to come to elevate the entire dining experience – Plat de Bikaner, the royal Rajasthani thali…an unsurpassable way to experience the royal style of dining.
I couldn’t have asked for a better way to discover the opulence of an era gone by. My weekend stay at Narendra Bhawan exploring Rajasthani royalty at its best will be etched in my memories forever.
Bikaner boasts of many forts, palaces, temples like Kolayat Temple, Karni Mata Temple, Junagarh Fort, Lalgarh Palace, The Junagarh Museum, Pracheena Museum, Ganga Golden Jubilee Museum, Gajner Palace and Wildlife Sanctuary. You can explore local miniature art with the famous miniate artist Mahaveer Swami. Also try the popular Bikaneri snacks like bhujiya, rasgullas and natural sharbats made from fresh flowers and cordials. The best time to visit Bikaner is between October and March. In January the city comes alive in preparation for the colourful Camel Fair every year.