Rarely have we followed the resurgence of a fort with such interest. Some years ago, when we learnt that the Neemrana Group of Hotels was developing a hitherto abandoned fort in Rajasthan into—for want of a better word—a hotel, we decided we had to observe the process at close quarters, to sit humbly at the feet of this restoration work in progress. We first visited when the bulldozers were still vrooming. We returned a few times as construction proceeded, documenting the transformation. Later, we came to stay at the newly opened property. It was lovely but the mules were still delicately hauling supplies up the hill (actually, they still are).
Last month, I returned to Tijara and found much had changed since our second visit. For one, this is a project way more ambitious than Neemrana; after all it’s a grander canvas. For another, ideas emerge fast and furious from the fecund imagination of Aman Nath, Chairman, Neemrana Hotels. No one else could have pulled it off, because Tijara Fort-Palace, above all, is an act of the imagination.
Tijara is an ancient settlement, possibly the Trigarta Pradesh (land of three craters) alluded to in the Ramayana. The construction of the fort, with artisans from as far off as Kabul, was started in 1835 by Balwant Singh, a prince of Alwar who had been awarded the parganas of Tijara, Kishangarh, Mandhan, Karnikot and Mundawar, with the capital at Tijara, when the Alwar state was split up after the death of his father Bakhtawar Singh in 1814. Maharaja Balwant Singh was building the fort in honour of his mother, Moosi Maharani, who had committed sati. But his premature death in 1845 put a stop to the construction. When the Neemrana Group took over the project, there were only three structures on the ground: the Rani, Mardana and Hawa mahals. So reimagining was not an indulgence, it was a necessity. Honestly, if I didn’t know this, I would not have been able to tell. The new construction has integrated seamlessly with the old. Everything starkly modern is either hidden from sight or underground. What was just an ungainly slope down the hill from the Mardana Mahal has bloomed into a terraced garden (they like to call them the hanging gardens of Tijara).
The first step in the restoration was the conversion of the mahals for modern reuse. Suite-style rooms were created, all large and suited to contemplation, and plumbing and air-conditioning was introduced. A swimming pool, a classical Indian tank in conception, was nevertheless created out of view. Below the pool, a subterranean conference room is receiving finishing touches. Glass bricks at the bottom of the pool let in shimmering beams of natural light. In another section of the fort, an auditorium with theatre-style seats salvaged from Mumbai sits above some new rooms overlooking a Japanese garden conceived by Vivek Shukla, Resident Manager and gardening enthusiast. A Jain restaurant with chowki-style seating is in the works.
As if all this weren’t enough, the Tijara experience has been enriched immeasurably by the introduction of art into the equation. Each of the rooms has been decorated by an artist, architect, photographer or designer featuring original artwork as well as reproductions, and is named after them. (I stayed in Laila Mahal, with its private octagonal turret room as a bonus, and loved Laila Tyabji’s inspired selection of textiles including the intricate kalamkari fabric hung above the beds.) Some have simply contributed the art, after which the creative minds at Neemrana swung into action and conceived the interiors around it; some have, quite simply, poured their souls into it. Shukla-ji was nice enough to show me several of the rooms. The experience left me stunned.
The Surya Mahal with its modern twist on the mango motif, for instance, features installations by artists Surya and Ritu Singh, who turn waste materials into works of art. Worth observing is the way the art integrates with the room. Rohit Mahal features photographer Rohit Chawla’s quirky and meticulously crafted portraits. With some of the most venerable artists in the country represented (the likes of Krishen Khanna and S.H. Raza) Tijara can hold its own against the finest private museums in the country. The rooms themselves are all unique, with individual architectural quirks. The one I’m eyeing for my next stay is Kaleka Mahal.
Stay long enough and Tijara grows on you. You develop an affection for specific nooks and crannies. I loved the Darbar Hall in the Mardana Mahal, with its clever ikat tiles which could easily be mistaken for a carpet. I got into the habit of checking on the horse busts on the ground floor of the Rani Mahal. I adored the view from the glass lift tucked away in the Rani Mahal. But most of all I liked climbing the stairs up to the Hawa Mahal and feeling the wind on my face. Forts are all about the view. Strategically placed on an Uluru-like outcrop, Tijara offers fine views of the surrounding countryside including the date plantation flourishing next to an erstwhile dam wall dating to the British era. And the best views are from the Hawa Mahal.
My meals at Tijara were all excellent, with a healthy selection of salads on offer, and, possibly, an unhealthy spread of desserts too. But I like to maintain a balance, so…
The best part is, Tijara is also trying to make a change outside the fort walls, working for the upliftment of the nearby village of Sarheta in areas like sanitation and health for the last few years. Most recently, Neemrana Hotels, with help from artist Neeraj Goswami and a bunch of enthusiastic volunteers, painted more than 850 households, the anganwadi and two schools in bright, vibrant colours in an effort to raise awareness among the villagers and persuade them to keep their surroundings clean, healthy and happy through painting, art and colours. To pull this off, Neemrana Hotels tied up with Nerolac, who call themselves the pioneers of healthy home paints in India. They are the ones who supplied the whopping 4,000 litres of water-based, low-VOC and low-odour paint that was needed to colour the village. When I reached out to him, Peeyush Bachlaus, GM, Marketing, Kansai Nerolac Paints Ltd, told me that there were plans to introduce art therapy for the kids as well. “We are actively considering art therapy for the special needs children of Sarheta with the help of the Neemrana Group of Hotels,” he said. Who would have thought a coat or two of paint could catalyse such a change. But then that’s the story of Tijara in a nutshell too, isn’t it?
Tijara is an approximately 100km/2.5–3hr drive from Delhi, via Bhiwadi. It’s the closest such heritage property to the NCR. It’s an easy drive but do stay alert for the turnoff at Dharuhera towards Bhiwadi on NH48.
Tijara Fort-Palace (₹ 6,500 onwards, includes breakfast, GST extra; neemranahotels.com) currently offers around 70 rooms across the fort, the majority being in the Rani and Mardana Mahals. More rooms are in the works. Descriptions of the rooms are available on the Neemrana Hotels website and we’d definitely suggest you go through them before picking one for your stay. You’ll probably want to return anyway, just to stay in another room and have a totally different experience.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
Places of tourist interest around Tijara Fort-Palace include the Tijara Jain and Hindu temples, the natural spring of Surajmukhi, Jaisamand Lake, Moosi Maharani ki Chhatri, the City Palace in Alwar, Bala Qila and the Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary. The Tijara Jain Temple is dedicated to the eighth teerthankara, Chandra Prabhu Baghwan, and was established in 1956. The eerie ruins of Bhangarh are definitely worth a visit. The ASI-protected Lal Masjid is spectacular and quite close to the fort. If you go cycling in the fields surrounding Tijara, you’ll be able to view the fort from a variety of angles. Highly recommended.