It has been a while since I took the early morning Shatabdi from Delhi to Ajmer. And I had a long-forgotten but strangely familiar sensation of butterflies in my stomach. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not afraid of train journeys—it was just that this train was heading to Ajmer where I spent my school years at Mayo College. I’m probably old enough to be done with back-to-school butterflies but my inner little girl clearly hasn’t quite grown up.
Anyhow, upon alighting at Ajmer railway station I see that nothing much has changed—same quaint little station, the same narrow and charming lanes, the Ana Sagar Lake brimful, the Aravali range a lush green after a good monsoon lashing. But wait, there is something new after all! The latest offering by the Taj Group of Hotels in Rajasthan: The Gateway Resort Pushkar Bypass Ajmer.
The sound of the nagadas is echoing in the valley, which is often the case in these parts. Except this time they seem to be getting amplified as my chariot (a chauffeur-driven Innova) takes a turn towards the grand stone entrance of the property. As if I wasn’t already feeling sheepish with this welcome, with perhaps just one foot out of the car, when the skies begin showering rose petals on me. Ah, but now I know for sure I am in Rajasthan. An ostentatious welcome befitting a land of erstwhile royals. Taj has always led the way in upping the ante in hospitality and this was just a glimpse of what they had in store for this trip with General Manager Nagendra Singh Hada leading his troops.
“You must be hungry,” said Hada, hinting he might have a surprise in store. To most people, Rajasthani cuisine is limited to dal-baati-choorma combinations or some less-than-fabulous versions of laal maas and safed maas, perhaps even a thali. But like so many regional cuisines the real flavours are hard to come by unless you are invited to a local home. I have been fortunate enough to have sampled some of the most delectable Rajasthani preparations at the homes of extended family that lives all across Rajasthan. That doesn’t make me a connoisseur but I like to think certainly a little more discerning than others. So to be on the safe side and to avoid any disappointment, I keep my expectations fairly low. But am I in for a surprise! The aroma of tempered red chillies or jhaans hits me as soon as I enter the restaurant Aravali. Tailing the aroma I excitedly hurry to the buffet spread and lift each cloche to discover the origin of the exciting aroma, only to turn around and find Himanshu, the Guest Service Associate, holding up a dish of the devilish jungli maas. “Ma’am, would you like to try?” My eyes light up. The moment marks the point of no return for me.
After that what followed could lend itself to a culinary sojourn. The next few meals at the Gateway are nothing short of a feast: maas ka sula, dungar maas, khad murgh, doodhiya keema (no, it’s not keema with lauki, as Google suggests), all served with a variety of authentic local breads—khoba roti, jowar roti, bajra roti and more. There usually isn’t a sweet tooth to be found inside my jaw, but I too couldn’t resist a small helping of the ghee-laden laapsi for breakfast. There was also a khaas kheer on the menu, a preparation with an unusual and unlikely dessert ingredient. I could tell you what that is but then it won’t really be ‘khaas’ any longer, would it? If you find all this just too overwhelming, the hotel also has an ‘Active Menu’ designed for diet-watchers (but I’m afraid I can’t give you a first-hand account of that).
Entering my large Standard Room a couple of things instantly struck me—an attached balcony and the absence of wall-to-wall carpeting, both pleasing to people who enjoy a guilt-free puff without the pressure of leaving behind traces of stale smoke. Late afternoon, I head to the pool for a relaxed dip with the sun settling behind the Aravalis and a few peacocks prancing about near the boundary wall for company. These ‘being with oneself’ moments I most cherish, so private, so serene, but dinner commitments beckon and being in water does help me work up an appetite.
Even if it were for just two days, this life of a princess is addictive. Under the supervision of Hada, the Gateway Pushkar had pulled out all the stops. From a temple round-up at Pushkar, a visit to the famous Ajmer Dargah, a tour to Kishangarh Fort with lunch at their palace by the lake, a sundowner in the wilderness, to an under-the-stars dinner with the sounds of manganiyars and even a charming bagpiper from Bikaner. It might be time to beat my retreat but I’m certain to be back soon. For now I have a few secret recipes to keep me nostalgic.
Location: Village Hokra, Pushkar Bypass Road, Ajmer, Rajasthan 305022
Accommodation: 81 rooms: 58 Standard Rooms, 16 Superior Rooms, 2 Junior Suites, 4 Executive Suites and 1 Deluxe Suite
Tariff: From ₹6,500 to ₹18,000