Ladies' chambers

Ladies' chambers
A view of Ranvas from Ahichhatragarh fort, Photo Credit: Abhinandita Mathur
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The royal life at Ranvas, once the home of Jodhpur's queens

Anita Roy
March 31 , 2014
10 Min Read

Rajasthan is dotted with heritage hotels. Udaipur, Jaipur, Bikaner, Jaisalmer… you can’t sneeze, it seems, without bumping your camel into a fort or palace that has been repurposed to boost a minor maharaja’s flagging fortunes. The Ranvas heritage hotel at Nagaur is, in some sense, no different — and yet the extent of and care with which the restorations have been carried out, and the fact that no one in their right minds would refer to His Highness Maharaja Gaj Singh II as ‘minor’, sets Ranvas in a class apart.

The unique feature of the newly opened Ranvas is that it was built specifically to accommodate the Maharaja’s queens. Ten interlocking havelis, each with a private courtyard, sit-outs and interlocking terraces conspire to create a series of spaces that combines a luxurious sense of space and a cosy intimacy. This dual perspective can best be described by starting with a wide lens and slowly zooming in. And out here in Rajasthan, you have to start with the sky and the desert. Approaching the town of Nagaur, you cannot help but be a little overawed by the sheer distance of the horizon as the land stretches away on either side of the thin ribbon of road, a dusty beige and ochre plain, dotted here and there with tough, twisted trees, a sudden flash of lime-green or tangerine sari, a rainbow swirl of a turban or a small field of bright yellow mustard flowers providing sudden splashes of colour. Zoom in from the wide bowl of the horizon and the next concentric circle is the town of Nagaur itself, a bustling maze of little lanes where dinky donkey-carts, scooters, bicycles and people elbow their way past tiny shops and subzi stalls. The autorickshaws (called ‘tuk-tuks’) here are thinner than their big-city cousins — with good reason — and sport tasselled antennae, pompoms and garlands, and buzz around the streets like mad metal insects.

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Cordoned off from the rest of the city by an eighteen kilometre-long high stone wall, up to thirty feet thick at the base, like an island in a lake, lies the fortress — Ahichhatragarh, the ‘cobra-hood fort’, perhaps a reference to the snake-worshipping Nagas who are thought to have founded the original mud fort in the fourth century CE, and from whose name the city’s own may have originated.

Unlike Jaisalmer, where the bustle of domestic life carries on within the walls of the fort, no one lives or works within the boundaries here. The moment you enter, you feel that you have stepped into another world, cloistered from the honking traffic, the narrow lanes and teeming markets: a place of regal solitude where the silence is broken only by birds—the murmur of pigeons, the sharp tweep-tweep of sunbirds calling from the shrubbery and the occasional shriek of a parrot.

The next concentric circle in, is Ranvas itself. Tucked away behind the sprawling palaces, parade grounds and audience chambers of the main palace, the queens’ havelis were intended to provide seclusion and luxury. Zoom in further and you discover that each haveli, with its two or three bedrooms and central courtyard, is a self-contained mini-palace—a perfect private retreat for today’s upmarket traveller.

It has taken just over three years for Ranvas to be completely restored and refurbished to become the latest jewel in the Royal Jodhpur Retreats and Camps’ crown. The work to restore the entire fort of Ahichhatragarh has taken far longer—over fifteen years, and counting. Apart from the ravages of time, the fort had been spectacularly ill-treated by the Border Security Force, headquartered here until 1993. The military powers-that-were thought nothing of slapping on a couple of coats of whitewash over priceless Mughal murals and it has taken a team of international experts, hundreds of local stonemasons, artisans and gardeners, and grants from Intach, the Getty Foundation, the Mehrangarh Museum Trust and the UK-based Helen Hamlyn Trust totalling over a million US dollars to undo the damage. Their efforts resulted in the fort being awarded the Unesco Asia-Pacific Award of Excellence for Culture Heritage Conservation in 2004.

The fortress itself dates back to the mid-1530s when Rao Maldeo of Jodhpur took possession of the city, razing to the ground the palaces and mosques of the previous Mughal rulers. In the early seventeenth century, Emperor Shah Jahan gifted Nagaur to Amar Singh Rathore as a reward for his military conquests. The domed red stone cenotaph marking the site of Amar Singh’s cremation in 1644—along with the sati of four of his wives—can be seen from the fortress walls. But it was primarily Maharaja Bakhat Singh, who ruled Nagaur from 1734 to 1751, who built the palaces, gardens and havelis that have been so lovingly restored today.

Although the lives and deaths and political and military shenanigans of the Rajput kings have been well documented, relatively little is known about the women who lived out their lives behind the jaalis, inside the zenana. The reality must have been different, but if the murals of the Hadi Rani Mahal inside the main fort are anything to go by, it was a life of indolence and luxury. Attended by their ladies in waiting, the noblewomen would amuse themselves plucking musical instruments, or dancing, bathing and doing their hair, and feeding the occasional peacock. Their modern counterparts today are encouraged to feel similarly cosseted: you can lounge by the pool, swing on the antique wooden jhoola in your own private courtyard, contemplate the flower petals afloat in marble bowls of your room and, in the evening, sit out under the stars while folk musicians perform for you and you alone.

The murals are faded and damaged in some parts — oxidisation has turned some of the dancing girls’ faces coal-black—but in other places have been restored to give some inkling of the opulent colours that must have once bewitched royal eyes. The rather stately, decorous pastoral idylls in Hadi Rani Mahal give way to boisterous exuberance in Akbar’s Palace (Sheesh Mahal), where skirts swirl, eyes flash, lovers dance and feed each other with sweetmeats and goblets of wine. In the Abha Mahal — thought to refer to ab-o-hawa or water and wind—the figures take flight altogether on multicoloured wings.

Water is scarce and the Maharajas had devised ingenious systems to keep their palaces cool and their gardens green and pleasant. The guide who showed us around the fort was clearly in love with the ancient hydro-engineers, pointing out in enthusiastic detail how the water drawn from the stepwells and surrounding baolis would be channelled along the tops of the fortress walls and fed into the ladies’ bathing chamber, or directed along rippled marble sluices to cool the courtiers. The lattice-screens and shaded balconies of Abha Mahal catch the slightest breeze and there are even cleverly angled chimneys designed to funnel the wind into the audience chambers.

Each of the Ranvas’ ten havelis is named after one of the Ranis—Shekhawat, Jadechi, Ranawat, Naruki. Most consist of two or three bedrooms, except for Bhatiyani ji ki Haveli that contains five rooms, including two small singles and a magnificent first floor suite. The décor has been kept elegant and minimalist throughout. The owners have resisted plastering walls with sepia prints of stiff maharajas or pith-helmeted Brits. The stark whitewash and raw stone is softened by the dark-stained wooden furniture and panelled doors with their black iron fittings and antique padlocks. The beds are deep and warm and sumptuous and each room has an air-conditioning unit, discreetly hidden behind a screen, that warms as well as cools—a blessing on these chilly desert nights.

In the early morning half-light, I stood on the ramparts looking over the sleeping city, as the muezzin’s call resounded in the still air, grateful for the woollens and jacket I was wearing. But once the sun comes up, the heat is so sharp that, even in mid-December, a light T-shirt and cotton slacks is more than you need. The curved rooftops look like snowdrifts or sand dunes in the ever-changing light.

To get an overview of the whole complex you either have to charter a small plane and fly over it, or — more practically — ask the guide to unlock a small room off the side of the main courtyard and go into the tiny museum, where you can examine a scale-model without ever leaving the ground. There’s also a display here of the different stages of the restoration work, with a series of dramatic ‘before-and-after’ pictures, as well as a huge circular screen known as the ‘Eye of Nagaur’ that displays 360-degree panoramas of the palace and its surroundings.

Nagaur itself was an important staging post for caravans travelling from Jodhpur to Bikaner. It is also an important centre for Sufism and our stay would not have been complete without a visit to the Tarkeen Dargah and the shrine of the Sufi saint, Khwaja Hamiduddin Nagauri, one of the chief disciples of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti. During special festivals, such as Urs, the dargah is thronged with pilgrims and alive with the sounds of devotional qawwalis. On days like this, however, the only sound is the chitter-chatter of sparrows roosting in the branches of the ancient twiggy tree that shades the shrine. According to legend, so the resident priest and caretaker explained to us, the saint was so fond of birds that once, when he was kneeling, with bowed head, at prayer, he felt a bird alight on his neck. The bird started building a nest and the saint, unwilling to disturb it or its young, stayed in the same position until the nest was built, the eggs had hatched and the chicks had flown.

Each year, Nagaur plays host to a Sufi music festival that coincides with the famous cattle fair that takes place in February. We had a taster of what must be an incredible few days on our last evening. A band of Rajasthani singers from Jodhpur, known as Kohinoor Langa, performed for us in the haveli courtyard. Backed by sarangi and dholak, the singer launched into a song matching the harmony and cadence of his harmonium until you were left wondering whether the instrument had lungs or the singer bellows, and the still night air rang with notes of pure longing. Providing the percussion, Master Khasam, all of eleven years old, and his father flourished their khartal — two strips of wood, rattled in the hands like castanets—and wagged their turbaned heads in a state of ecstasy.

Like the old staging post, Nagaur, the Ranvas is still something of a stopping point, rather than a destination in itself. Travellers are usually on a circuit, travelling via Nagaur from or to more popular destinations like Bikaner, Jodhpur, Udaipur or Ajmer. And, truth be told, there’s not much to hold a visitor’s attention, once the fort has been explored and the various holy places — mandirs, dargah, mosques and Jain temple — have been exhausted. The manager reassured us that the spa — adjoining the beautiful swimming pool and sundeck — would be operational soon and that the library would be stocked with books, but when we were there, there was not much else to do but bask in indolent solitude, while smiling waiters plied us with tempting delicacies like lal maas, ker sangri and quite the most delicious rabri malpua that I have ever tasted. It’s a tough job, I cheerfully admit, but somebody’s got to do it.


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