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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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Regal retreat

The Jaisalmer Fort evokes images from the Satyajit Ray classic, Sonar Kella

Suddenly out of nowhere, as the car speeds along the road through the Thar desert, a honey-gold fortress-like structure appears. Even at a distance, Suryagarh is an awe-inspiring sight. You can see bastions and turrets that might have soldiers behind them to repel invaders.

This ultimate luxury getaway, created by business scion Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, looks like a fort on the outside and a maharaja’s palace behind the ramparts. It even boasts a crest of arms — a distinctly Rajputana touch and has cannons at the gate. But it’s a new top-end heritage hotel — the first of its kind in Jaisalmer.

Suryagarh’s USP? Incredible opulence. Within its array of 62 rooms in the hotel, built out of famed Jaisalmer sandstone, the plush tone is set by the sprawling Jaisalmer Suite (billionaire Paul Allen, who with Bill Gates started Microsoft, stayed in this room recently). It has a jacuzzi fitted into the massive bathroom and a private plunge pool on its terrace that offers great desert views. It costs a hefty Rs 75,000 a night, but if that makes you blink, don’t worry — the hotel offers some other beautiful suites at lower-down the price scale.

If you’re heading there for the weekend, like I was, you can easily spend a couple of days in the hotel without even thinking about setting a foot outside. The place offers plenty of bespoke experiences.

I, for instance, luxuriated in the hotel’s Rait Milk Spa which made me feel like a certain Egyptian queen, known for her weakness for milk and honey baths. The hotel also offers an array of massages to relieve city stresses and has a dazzling pool, built indoors, to beat the sandstorms in the desert and a gym with all the latest get-fit facilities.

The Suryagarh fort hotel aims to transport you to a bygone era

When you do feel like venturing beyond the hotel, you can go for a camel ride along the sand dunes. We set out on camels for a special evening high tea in the desert as the sun was setting. At the end of our rather unsteady ride, we reclined on fat bolsters under a latticed canopy and listened to the lilting notes of a flute player and watched as the stars appeared in the purple sky.

You can also take a trip back in time to Kuldhara village, home to the Paliwal Brahmins who are reputed to have vanished from the place in a single night nearly two centuries ago. Local lore speculates they may have disappeared from the town because the residents were unwilling to allow the reigning dewan to marry the chief’s beautiful daughter. A frail man guarding the entrance to the village, 75-year-old Sumer Ram, is now the only individual who lives in the vicinity of the ghost town of crumbling mud houses.

Suryagarh’s Jaisalmer suite epitomises opulence
Pic by Arundhati Basu

And of course the chief attraction of the area is the golden city of Jaisalmer. There is a sense of déjà vu when you first see the city — that is, if you have watched Satyajit Ray’s Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress), which was largely shot inside Jaisalmer’s huge fort. The scorching glare of the desert sun lends an almost shimmering glow to the limestone walls of the structure built in 1156 by Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal. Unlike most forts, it’s inhabited, though only Rajputs and Brahmins can live within its ramparts.

Outside the fort, you can wander among the havelis — the mansions of the wealthy merchants of yore — of which the grandest is the five-storey Patwon ki Haveli. built in the 19th century by gold, silver and brocade trader Guman Chand Patwa for his five sons.

While Jaisalmer is full of lanes and bylanes, the city is small which makes it pretty hard to get lost. A few words of caution: While wan- dering through the cobble-stoned narrow alleys of Jaisalmer, keep your smart phone in your pocket — you definitely wouldn’t want to find your- self eye-to-eye with one of the large cows that roam the city or be bumped into by one of the many bikes that compete with the cows for right of passage. Also, beware of tour guides who charge a hefty sum to take the unsuspecting to the Desert National Park and pass off the park’s fences as the international border with Pakistan.

TRAVEL TALK

lGetting there: The closest airport is in Jodhpur. While Air India flies direct from Jaipur and Udaipur, Jet Airways flies direct from Mumbai and New Delhi to Jodhpur. The drive from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer is 330km. There is also a train to Jaisalmer from Delhi.

lWhere to stay: Suryagarh (www.suryagarh.com), obviously, if you want just

luxury. Phone: (+91) 02992 269269. Room Rates: Rs 16,000 (Palace Room)/ Rs 75,000 (Jaisalmer Suite)/

Rs 25,000 (Signature Suite). If you want to stay within the Jaisalmer Fort, opt for Garh Jaisal that is a hotel within the fort (www.hotelgarhjaisal.com). Phone: (+91) 9414149304/ Fax: (+91) 02992 253836

Room rates: Rs 6,415 per night.