Upon the mantelpiece stood a miniature replica of the world’s largest cannon, every inch of it made from chocolate, down to its dark chocolate cannonballs and white chocolate placard that read ‘Jaivan 1792, World’s Largest Cannon’. I recalled that Jaipur’s Jaigarh Fort did indeed house the largest wheeled cannon ever built, commissioned by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh. Reportedly, it took four elephants to swivel around the fifty-tonne barrel, which shot out cannonballs weighing fifty kilos! Popping a cannonball into my mouth, I survey my sumptuous room at the Fairmont Jaipur, the Fairmont group’s flagship hotel in India.
In a cul-de-sac off NH8 just twenty kilometres short of Jaipur, this luxury hotel shimmers like a mirage in the kikar scrub. Inspired by the imposing architecture of erstwhile Rajputana, it is part Rajput fort, part Mughal palace, topped by chhatris and octagonal towers the colour of desert sand. Massive wooden doors are crowned by a tower from where trumpeters and gongs-men herald my arrival in a blast of horn and drum. I wave to the turbaned musicians rather sheepishly, half-crouch through a short squat door and step into a frangipani-filled courtyard to the grand reception hall beyond.
This cavernous room is magnificent in its scale (the ceiling soars a storey and a half high), its edges fringed by latticed jalis and plasterwork reliefs. Its resemblance to a durbar hall is no accident. “We even toyed with the idea of announcing our guests’ names to recreate the atmosphere of a royal durbar. In the Mughal court, visitors’ names were loudly proclaimed to save the emperor any embarrassment lest he had forgotten the identity of his guests,” explains general manager Atul Lall. “Did you notice you had to bend low to get through the entrance? It’s a replica of the dwarf doors found in old forts that were devised to prevent enemies from being able to draw their swords.” This assimilation of local culture into their design is one of the brand’s hallmarks, what they call being ‘authentically local’, and no two Fairmonts are alike. Their collection of more than sixty properties include Shanghai’s luxuriant Fairmont Peace Hotel as well as artfully restored icons such as London’s Savoy, New York’s Plaza and Nairobi’s Norfolk Hotel.
It’s lunchtime and I’m ushered into Zoya, the all-day fine-dining restaurant. One section mimics a Mughal tent, its roof draped in rich fabric edged with blue tassels. Under this canopy, I eat a kingly Rajasthani meal: tomato- mint- and pineapple-flavoured golgappas served in shot glasses; methidana murg; kairi wali bhindi (okra spiced with green mango); Bikaneri sev parantha and lal maas, stained a deep red from the flaming red chillies at its heart. I’m drinking a soothing glass of buttermilk when the creator of this feast, senior sous-chef Mridul Bhatt, joins us and promptly orders dessert: classic dal baati churma, kulfi and gond halwa.
Several of these dishes are Mridul’s creative twist on family recipes gathered on a culinary road-trip across Rajasthan. The trip was the brainchild of executive chef, Anurag Bali, who is passionate about exploring lesser-known regional specialities. “Our chefs’ team of four arrived epochs before the hotel opened, so Anurag whisked us off to explore local food in Jodhpur, Bikaner and Jaisalmer,” says Mridul. “We ate our way through Rajasthani kitchens and learned so much, it was fantastic,” he adds. The chefs sampled gond halwa, the original Bikaner bhujia, haldi ki sabzi and, amazingly, gulab jamun ki sabzi. My introduction to Rajasthani cuisine thus complete, I flop into a chair in Anjum, the tea lounge, with its array of quality teas and coffees including the quintessential masala chai and metre coffee (named for the metre-long distance between pouring and receiving cups). I settle for adrak chai in the hope that it will help digest lunch, and meet the executive pastry chef, Lloyd Desouza, the mastermind who cunningly crafted the exquisite chocolate cannon in my room.
As soon as he arrived in Jaipur, Lloyd began searching for a leitmotif for his confectionary. “I was trained in a modern-art style, but one look at the hotel’s sixteenth-century-style decor and I had to switch my thinking,” says Lloyd. He finally hit upon the idea of fashioning a line of ‘chocolate jewellery,’ a treasure trove of edible baubles almost too beautiful to eat. I peer longingly at the glace-icing kundan and meringue meenakari, Lloyd’s tribute to Jaipur’s famed jewellers and craftspeople.
A tour around the premises reveals that the hotel comprises ten sculpted acres of unabashed opulence. Hand-painted murals fringe the ceilings. Walls are patterned in tree-of-life motifs. Twinkly lights mimic a starry constellation. Multifoil arches abound — in window frames, bathroom doorways and even mirrors. Scattered around the pool are sunken guftgu (conversation) pits for the evenings. The gleaming gym houses its sauna, steam room and whirlpool in a zenana-like labyrinth. Finally, a colossal 60,000-square-foot convention centre encompasses a lush ballroom, a grand staircase, two small ballrooms and seven meeting rooms. Two storeys up, we find ourselves on the Fairmont Gold Floor. One of the group’s hallmarks, the Gold Floor offers an exclusive lounge, butler service, private check-in/out, cocktails, canapés… the whole nine yards. The idea is to enable customised service, which sometimes gets lost in a large hotel. I peep into one of the Gold rooms, decked in indigo and gold, a king size four-poster and a maharaja-size hammam scented with roses.
The evening passes with fine company and even finer fare: railway mutton curry (born in first-class railway cabins during the Raj) and chocolate in five heavenly textures (solid, cake, mousse, crunchy and sauce). I walk through the cigar diwan, a smoking room glittering with thikri mirrorwork; Aza, the stately library bar that serves Mediterranean cuisine and is dedicated to single malts and whisky blends; and the soon-to-open Indian restaurant Zarin, where visitors will trace the Mughals’ gastronomic journey as they travelled from the Northwest Frontier into Kashmir, Lucknow and Delhi, while gorging on gallant dishes such as the talwar kabab. Amply fêted and fatted, I slide into bed while the punkah whirs. The décor is elegant in beige and white, but my eyes are drawn to the tendrils of a hand-painted vine that adorns the wall. Early next morning, I’m greeted with an astonishing view. The burnt-brown ramparts are fronted by sparkling white cenotaphs that house the Willow Stream Spa, and beyond are the rolling Aravalli hills. In the charbagh below, whirling swordsmen leap and twirl — the hotel’s own royal guard. Flocks of pigeons swoop past my window, unperturbed by the presence of a Unesco-registered falconer, who visits with his lady falcon each day at noon.
Like a skilled method actor, the Fairmont Jaipur effortlessly manages to stay in character. From the dwarf door at her entrance to the rang mahal where sitarists play, she is part Mughal palace, part Rajput fort. She even has a mascot, the ceramic parrot that keeps me company from its ringed perch. I am Jahanara. The illusion is complete.
Where: 20km from Jaipur’s city centre and train station, 28km from Jaipur International Airport; 253km (4hrs) from Delhi via NH 8; the New Delhi-Ajmer Shatabdi takes 4hrs 30 mins.
Contact: 0142-6420000; fairmont.com