When three people decide to take a break and land at the home of the last Maharaja of Bikaner, they get lost in the royal past and clutch on to the super hospitable present.
Words & Photographs: Ambica Gulati
It all started with chikunguniya. Yes, chikunguniya. Just before I was to join a new place of work, I had been writhing in pain for two months, hoping life would be normal one day. And then in October of 2016, I landed in the newly opened Narendra Bhawan on an official trip. Out of the jailed confines of my bedroom and into this luxurious red sandstone hotel with its beautiful pieces of art, colourful rooms, carefully kept books, well-prepared and properly served food and three handsome men smiling at me all the time. What more could a woman ask for? This was royal Rajasthan, steeped in culture, history and sharing its glory with all. Three happy days and with an invitation to return for a holiday as well as visit their flagship property in Jaisalmer, I was back to the slavish life in Delhi.
That was the beginning of weaving beautiful memories, but I wasn’t to know at that time though. Life was all about likes and smileys in the coming months, until the promise of the personal holiday was fulfilled with two journalist friends, Suman Tarafdar and Navneet Mendiratta, to the luxurious hotel in April 2017. With a rich past, Narendra Bhawan is probably a ‘dreamworks production’ by three men—managing director Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, president of the group Karan Singh Vaid and vice president Siddharth Yadav—under the banner of MRS Hospitality. The home of the last Maharaja of Bikaner Narendra Singh has been transformed into a place where nothing is left unturned to make your stay a ‘must do again’ experience. Porcelain vases, marble statues, Portugese tiles, framed designer weaves and the recent addition of two Playboy magazines in the men’s den, Narendra Bhawan spoils you with its ‘no rush’ pace and single-minded attention. It’s not just the objets d’art but the khidmatgars aka servers dressed in cotton kurtas and pajamas with their colourful jackets and turbans who add value to the pleasant stay. Balveer Singh remembered me along with my preference for food, as did Bhanwar Singh who drove us around.
Another new addition is the art gallery which houses miniatures by Mahaveer Swami who comes from the lineage of traditional Bikaner artists and has exhibited across the world. We met him the next day, but more about that meeting in my next post.
The Maharaja, born in changing India on 13 January 1946, was a man who oscillated between his royal roots, the dying European influence and India coming of age. Out of the ornate palace which is a little distance away, he is said to have lived a simple life in this home with his 500 plus cows and over 90 dogs, loved reading and taking care of the people in his own way. “The hotel is our interpretation of his life,” Shekhawat had explained during my earlier visit. Designed by a young Jaipur-based designer Ayush Kasliwal, the hotel is an 82-key property. The home had only nine rooms. While my former stay had been in the Prince room, this time I got to experience the India room which houses a charkha and a bathtub. The room, with its spacious wardrobes and a balcony where pigeons flit in and out, has a subdued décor and lots of space to walk around. There is even a desk for your laptop and the charging points for your gadgets are right next to your bed. The experience here is about handwoven things, including the jute covering on the floor. While the traditional jute blinds prevent the hot sun from coming in full force in the balcony, soft cotton curtains cover the glass doors and windows in the room. The water is RO-treated, Yadav had said the last time and I remembered, so washing your hair is a pleasure here for it shines like there is no tomorrow.
While Nala and Simba, the golden Labradors had raced through the corridors last time, Juju the graceful cat adorned the home this time. Like a queen, she walked in and out, stretching and curling on the expensive green chair.
Tail high up, she ignored our sweet calls, as we took bites of a well-curated rich Rajasthani breakfast menu, prepared by executive assistant manager Sachit Jha. Pearls & Chiffons or the P&C restaurant retained its sophisticated interiors but now had fuller tables. Delicious pastries lined the Mad Hatter bakehouse—the bakery inspired by the book Alice in Wonderland which was among the Maharaja’s favourite books.
Good company, good food, easy conversations, cameras hung around necks, feeling like tourists in a strange land, we were off to explore Junagarh fort and Gajner Palace. The next day was about seeing the architectural wonders of the merchants’ havelis, lunch at Laxmi Niwas Palace and the grand candle-lit dinner at Darbari Lake. More about this summer holiday in the next post. Till then, you can visit https://www.narendrabhawan.com/ and read about the hotel.
Address: Narendra Bhawan, Karni Nagar, Gandhi Colony, Bikaner 334001, Rajasthan (India); Contact: +91-7827-151 151, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
How to get there: The best way is by train. You can take the overnight trains from Delhi. We took the Dee Bkn S F Ex – 12457 which leaves from Sarai Rohilla station at 23:35 and reaches Bikaner at 7:10 the next morning. The hotel arranges a pick-up and sends a SMS with the details. Else, the nearest airport is at Jodhpur and then drive to Bikaner.