Making history

Making history

The crumbling, never-completed Tijara Fort-Palace has now become a stunning, full-service heritage hotel

Mridula Gandhi
June 20 , 2014
12 Min Read

It had been a smooth ride so far. The gentle sunshine of a promising spring dawn had rendered me practically comatose in our comfy SUV when I was abruptly jolted back to life. We had hit a dirt track, a ribbon of red potholed earth. We bounced along for what seemed like forever (three kilometres, I was later informed) when, gradually, an outcrop crowned by a handsome fort jostled into the frame.

From afar, access to this forgotten relic appeared unthreatening. Up close, however, at the foot of the mound from which the fort rose, the path we were leaving behind suddenly seemed an easy ride. The way forward was on a steep road strewn with large jagged stones. We laboured up the incline and, fifteen minutes later, arrived at the summit-a wind-whipped vantage point that overlooked acres of unpopulated farmland. Clusters of palm trees swayed in the distance under a gorgeous blue sky. It was a beautiful setting for a hotel. And the nineteenth-century fort-palace of Tijara in Alwar had fallen into most excellent hands-the Neemrana group of hotels.

I was with Aman Nath, co-founder of Neemrana along with Francis Wacziarg, and whose fondness for restoring historic monuments has resulted in some of the country's most popular heritage hotels. But while it's easy to check into one of their properties and live like royalty, it's near impossible to visualise what it takes to convert these crumbling structures into full-scale hotels. How do you recapture the original appearance and ambience of a fifteenth-century fort? What kind of money does it take? How does one work in a remote, inhospitable area? Do you import professionals to do the job or rely on local labour? My questions were as unending as the countryside that rolled out below me, and the only way to unearth answers was to start at the very beginning.

"The beginning was, in fact, fourteen years ago," said Aman, as I trudged about the site with him, struggling to catch his words over the sound of bulldozers grinding against stone. All around, the eight-acre landscape was scarred by deep excavated pits and scattered rocks. There were workers everywhere, digging, breaking, hammering, amid a bizarre assortment of materials-massive ornate door and window frames, hundreds of stone pillars and archways, gigantic doors adorned with carvings and stained glass, stacks of antique furniture "from Bhuj and Ahmedabad". "This is a public-private partnership and it took seven years for the tendering process. Another seven years went in the road conflict," said Aman, referring to our ride up. After Neemrana won the bid, Aman approached the government to fix the dirt track; the government, instead, tried to convince Neemrana to buy and repair it at the company's cost. Evidently, they refused. The bigger problem, however, was the shorter but rockier road up the knoll. Again, the government denied aid, driving Neemrana to buy the one-and-a-half-kilometre stretch along with the immediate surrounding land just below, for the boundary wall. "Once the sixty-year lease is over, the fort returns to the government, while the direct access to it along with the land on which it stands remains ours. So how will they enter it?" joked Aman.

Work was first initiated on the fort-palace of Tijara in 1835 by Balwant Singh, the maharaja of the portion of the divided territory of Alwar that had Tijara as its capital. It was intended as a dedication to his Muslim mother, and the king allegedly spared no cost, recruiting master masons from Kabul and Delhi. Unfortunately, his early death prevented him from seeing the monument to its finish. And so it remained-an incomplete masterwork (essentially three separate palaces within a half-fortified wall) till Neemrana took over.

Work finally recommenced in 2009 with a twenty-five-crore-rupee budget. And nothing was simple. "There was no water, no electricity. And you don't get water connections, not even for a public-private partnership," said Aman. On the government's suggestion, Neemrana dug their own tube well. "But then we couldn't pump any water as the connecting land belonged to the forest department. So we had to buy that too." For electricity, they were reliant on Tijara village and generators.

There were other, very different, hurdles. "Some villagers believed that we had leased Tijara only to dig for hidden treasure. They tried to convince us that this was not a safe place and that I should hire a gunman for myself. I told them I carried my own gun. One night, a man in a black cape stole his way up with a sword and threw some green chillies and a lemon at one of our employees. Our employee slipped and fell, fractured his arm, following which some workers left thinking spirits resided in the ruins. I said I would come and stay there to convince them that this place wasn't dangerous or haunted. But most of our people gathered courage and stayed on."

Already, big grills and fences were being placed to keep interlopers out. "But where and how do you begin the restoration work?" I asked, puffing out questions as I tried to keep up with Aman. "The existing edifices [Mardana Mahal, Rani Mahal and Hawa Mahal] will be repaired, while newer constructions will be built to match," he explained. "The Hawa Mahal will house the reception areas and one restaurant and the Rani Mahal will have twenty guest rooms. Eventually, there will be sixty to eighty rooms, a pool, spa, two restaurants (one of them for vegetarian Jain food) and an alfresco bar [‘On the Rocks']."

The ‘newer constructions' will comprise the boundary wall, three gateways and underground buildings-explicitly the kitchen, spa and laundry rooms-to be hidden below terraced gardens, which will extend from the Mahals to the edge of the cliff. The pool, too, is being created from scratch and will be sunk out of view, a few levels below. "For the new structures, we will use stone and lime mortar, as well as RCC beams and cement in areas such as the pool. Bricks will be used where we don't want the weight to be too heavy. In the end, it will all blend in with the original colour and finish," Aman explained.

And how will they restore the fort to its original colour and finish? When it comes to fixing the floors and walls-weathered by time and vandalised-Neemrana keeps it simple. "These are lime plaster (chuna) and mortar surfaces and we don't want to change that look. First, we roughen them by making little holes. Then we fill them with a substance known here as lep-I don't know the English word for it. Wherever chuna was used, we apply only chuna. Nothing more. In certain areas, such as the bathroom floors, where we want a glossy finish, we employ ivory-white cement to do a form of arayish-a sixteenth-century Persian technique of thrice sifting and filtering lime and applying it in layers-then burnishing it with a stone till it gleams."

Among the first things taking shape is the main entrance-an enormous, rugged archway, which, like the rest of the new buildings, employs rocks quarried from the hillside. "When we began excavating the area for the main gate, we uncovered an existing wall that matched the line of the gate and instinctively it steered us in the right direction," said Aman, as he deliberated the width of the entrance with the workers (it was imperative that it be wide enough for a Volvo bus to turn in easily).

Aman's diligence was pervasive. He pointed to a hoard of broken, stone half-arches ("from a palace in Bikaner, older than Tijara, that was being torn down"). He had managed to retrieve seven truck loads of what, to my eye, looked like rubble. But that's the genius of Aman and Francis-they know precisely where every bit will fit. "The half-arches are all left-facing, so we hope to join them in a way that half an arch will be carved outside and the other half on the inside. They will then be used to create a pavilion with twenty-seven arches to be incorporated in the al fresco bar area."

We hiked across the site to the Rani Mahal-a cool, high-ceilinged space with shadowy corridors wrapped around an inner courtyard. On all four sides doorways led into sunless cells that were reinventing themselves into guestrooms. "Those used to be storerooms. We will integrate windows and jharokhas to open them out," said Aman.

"But let me show you the pool area," he exclaimed, leaping up a dizzying flight of steps and to the edge of a quadrangle, from where we could view a mammoth pit. "I plan a waterfall tumbling down those rocks. And along this side, there will be carved archways, which will open out on to the pool. Oh, and do you see that open space there? Those will be the terraced lawns and the outdoor bar with unobstructed views of the countryside. And those troughs running alongside? We'll fill them with bougainvillea …" No matter where he pointed, all I could see was earth and rubble that morphed into one vast gouged-out terrain. He whipped out his blueprints for clarity. It was no use. To understand him better I would have to return.

August 2011
Six months later, the monsoon had rendered the dirt track into a pool of sludge. And this time I was in a puny hatchback struggling desperately to rescue itself from the gluey mess while, ahead, Aman's SUV powered through. We made it to the mound, even quarter-way up the stony climb, accompanied by a steady grumble from our cab driver, when the car collapsed. Yashas, who was here to take photographs, and I walked the remainder, rewarded with breathtaking views all the way to the top. We were greeted by an impressive main gate. "It's from Jodhpur," said Aman, who too had a companion along, artist Naynaa Kanodia who is among the twenty artists, both past and present, to have a room devoted to their work. ("I wanted themed rooms, and I thought why not celebrate our artists?") Amrita Sher-Gil, Anjolie Ela Menon and Bharti Kher are among the names whose individual artworks you'll find decorating the walls.

A lot had changed. The main entrance door ("from Punjab") was in place. The boundary wall was coming up nicely. "We always keep an eye out for old havelis, such as those in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan that are being destroyed, and collect and recycle as much as we can-doors, windows, brackets, jharokhas and especially the stone. That's why our restoration looks authentic-because it is."

On the way to the Rani Mahal, the expansive terraced lawns, beneath which the spa, kitchen and laundry rooms lie hidden, displayed freshly planted grass on a few levels. In the middle, a pavilion was being erected, with the left-facing half-arches. Within the Rani Mahal, the inner courtyard was showing encouraging signs of a budding vegetable patch. Four of the storerooms on the adjoining ground floor had sunlight pouring in through newly added windows. On the quadrangle above, two suites seemed complete (Anjolie and Bharti). They were massive and asymmetrical, integrating cosy nooks for an intended quaint appeal. "One of the biggest problems we had was installing ceiling fans. We didn't realise that we would be dealing with two-foot-thick ceilings." They also tried to keep bathrooms of adjacent rooms side by side or one on top of the other, so that the pipes run easily. "But when that isn't possible, we do what we can to give minimum bends in a pipe."

Further down the quadrangle, Aman indicates one of the rooms being restored. It was previously the Rani's storeroom, which had thick shelves running along the walls for her dowry. "We removed the shelves and, look! The space is generous enough to be converted into a guestroom. That's Neemrana's philosophy-restoration for adaptive reuse." To further illustrate his point, he directed me to a dank shaft. "This used to be an old stairwell, but it's the perfect spot to install a lift."

Another major transformation was the pool. The mud pit had been replaced by a cemented surface bordered by plastic pipes. Stone steps spiralled down the hillside from which the pool had been carved to a vaulted corridor that faced the pool. "The entire base of the pool will be glass-tiled, so that sunlight goes right through it and refracts," said Aman. "The effect will be spectacular."

There's something Aman has been bursting to show us since we arrived, and Yashas and I allow ourselves to be dragged downstairs, across to the Hawa Mahal. Up a flight of musty stairs, along a chilly corridor, Aman stops at the mouth of a dark, yawning cave. He shines a torch and a wall painted across with the distinct strokes of Anjolie Ela Menon catches the spotlight. "It's one of my favourite aspects," said Aman happily. Ultimately, this will be a sun-drenched seating area centred around a water fountain and water channels.

March 2012
The ‘soft launch' of the Tijara Fort-Palace has taken place. The government has agreed to a sum of money to mend the entire dirt track. The three floors of the Rani Mahal are nearing completion. Its inner courtyard on the ground floor is a thriving vegetable garden. The terraced lawns, lush and manicured, bear no resemblance to the barren ground they once were. Bougainvillea is in bloom. History has very nearly been remade.

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