Back in the nineteenth century, when the shikar-loving Thakur Lakshman Singh of Raipur surveyed the seventy villages in his fiefdom, looking for prime hunting country, he zeroed in on the hamlet of Haripur, with its scrub-covered hillocks dotted with great rocks, teeming with nilgai, hare, quail and partridge. There, on a rocky outcrop, he decreed two stately pleasure domes — an airy pavilion with a room at the top, affording 360° views of the surrounding countryside as the Mardana Mahal; and a larger structure, complete with scalloped arches and jharokhas, as the Zenana Mahal. Then, since duck shoots were de rigueur if one wanted to keep in with the grandees of the British Raj, he had a deep lake dug, flanked by the hunting lodges on one side and the boulder-strewn plateau on the other. Over the decades, the twin shikar mahals fell into disrepair, but last year they rose from the rubble, reborn as the Lakshman Sagar Resort.
As we approach Lakshman Sagar after a two-and-a-half hour drive from Ajmer, two things become clear — that this corner of Rajasthan is well off the tourist circuit, and that the wild and rugged landscape of Haripur has remained pretty much as it was in the days of Thakur Lakshman Singh. Gnarled khejri trees dot the land on either side of the dusty road, partridge scurry into the scrub at the sound of our jeep and a hare darts for cover as a shikra swoops down from the sky.
Then suddenly the twin towers of the newly reincarnated hunting lodges loom into view, and for me it’s instant enchantment. A delightful fusion of Rajasthani tradition and Mediterranean chic, they are chuna-washed in stark off-white, the graceful lines of their arches, windows and niches picked out in blue and pink, and hung with lime green chiks. This is a hotel without a reception lobby, and you aren’t greeted with tikas, garlands or aarti. Instead, you are ushered straight into the Mardana Mahal pavilion, with the Lakshman Sagar lake shimmering below you, the rocks and hillocks in front of you, and fields stretching out behind you. It is three in the afternoon when we reach, we are ravenous, and a sumptuous Rajasthani lunch of lal maas, gatte ki sabzi and ker sangri is laid on even before we have checked into our rooms. In fact we don’t bother to see where we’re going to sleep until darkness has fallen. It’s such a mesmerising spot that we stay there watching the birdlife on the lake, a tortoise sunning itself on the rocks, a family of nilgai grazing on the banks and peacocks and parrots perched in the giant banyan tree beside the pavilion. The silence is broken only by the soft plop of ducks diving and fish jumping in the lake.
The two shikar mahals, their rooftops and stone-flagged terraces are used for meals, and for guests to just sit around, read or birdwatch (binoculars and bird books provided). The restoration hasn’t tried to recreate the ‘heritage’ look, so they don’t have embellishments like carved sandstone, marble floors or mirrorwork-studded walls. Instead, designers Sarthak Sengupta and Sahil Bagga have decorated the interiors to display what they call ‘Zero Kilometre Design’ — everything is locally sourced and made. The Zenana Mahal floors are tiled with a mosaic of blue pottery shards, the furniture is made of babool (acacia) wood from trees on the estate by the village carpenter, the stunning chandelier is fashioned of mango leaves dipped in silver. It is all charming, inventive and quirky, though never self-consciously so.
The rooms, when we finally get to them, are equally enchanting — spacious, 900 sq ft cottages of mud, stone and thatch, the mud walls and floors a perfect foil for the explosion of Rajasthani colours — orange, pink, green and yellow — in the furnishings. Designed by architects Vasant and Revathi Kamath, they were constructed by local villagers, who come in regularly to repair and maintain the mud plaster. There’s a paddling pool in front of each cottage with a newar bed to lounge on. But the rural touch stops there — the fittings are ultraluxe: the hot water never runs out; the mattress makes you feel like you’re floating on a cloud; even the coffee maker in my room is a Nespresso. Luxuriating in bed the next morning I get a panoramic view of sunrise over the lake.
There are no fixed mealtimes at Lakshman Sagar — you eat when you want, and also where you want. I’m offered a choice of breakfast on the rooftop, at the lakeside or anywhere in the countryside. So I set off on a walk through the fields, accompanied by Gajendra Singh (like the rest of the hotel staff, he is from the area). Fields of henna stretch out all around us — it’s the main crop in Haripur, renowned for its quality, and once harvested sent off to a factory in nearby Sojat to be processed for export. Along the way Gajendra, an expert on local fauna, flora and folklore, points out a family of spotted owlets in a neem tree, and recounts the myths and legends embedded in every large rock. Half an hour later we stop at a farmer’s hut in the middle of the fields, where a charpoy awaits, a chulha is lit, and I breakfast on piping hot bajre ki roti slathered with white butter, garlic chutney and adrak chai. After breakfast, we carry on through fields of saunf and zeera until we reach the next house, where a herd of woolly sheep is being taken out to graze. The shepherd’s family invite us into their kitchen for tea made with sheep’s milk (very creamy), and the women exclaim in mock horror at my drab clothes and lack of jewellery. Displaying their own gorgeous silver girdles, pendants and earrings, they order me to go immediately to the nearby town of Raipur to get properly kitted out.
And that’s where I happily spend the next few hours. A town that seems frozen in the 1900s, its twisting galis enclosed between two arched gateways, Raipur retains a resolutely feudal air. There are gunsmiths in the bazaar making wooden rifle butts; hand-cranked oil mills where you can get freshly-pressed sesame oil, made-to-order leather jootis for a fraction of what they cost in Delhi and special bartans for baking that ghee-soaked Rajasthani staple, daal-baati. At the centre of the town is the sprawling, rather down-at-heel city palace of the Thakur of Raipur, its architecture a mishmash of regal, rural and colonial.In its vast courtyard, an ancient retainer still strikes a deafening gong to mark the passing of the hours for the townsfolk.
That afternoon, we go on a forty-five-minute jeep ride to the Todgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, passing Fatehgarh Fort en route, its crumbling battlements and ramparts forming a dramatic hilltop silhouette. If we’d had the time, we could have trekked to the fort, or gone up by bullock cart. The drive to Todgarh, on winding wooded roads, is as lovely as the destination — a large, tranquil jheel with a variety of migratory water birds, surrounded by lush green forests, home to a large population of wild boar, leopard, chinkara, sloth bear and wolfs. There’s a walking track around the jheel, and the forest department has a couple of tents and a resthouse with rooms at modest rates, where the Lakshman Sagar Resort can arrange overnight stays. Incredibly, though it is a Sunday, we are the only visitors in this pristine sanctuary.
Back at the resort, the well-stocked drinks trolley is out on the lakeside terrace, the campfire is lit, so are the kerosene lanterns ingeniously hung from the branches of a dead tree, and the barbecue is sizzling. From the rooftop of the Zenana Mahal you can see the swimming pool, hollowed out of a large rock, and in the distance, the hills of Mewar, lit by a silvery moon. In the kitchen, built in the open-fronted style of a dhaba, another delectable Rajasthani meal is being prepared, with everything grown on Lakshman Sagar’s thirty-two-acre estate or in the surrounding hamlets. And while we wait for dinner, a couple of men from the village turn up to entertain us. Unlike most cultural shows at hotels, where professional performers arrive dressed up for tourist photo ops, these are men from the village who sing at all the local weddings and festivals. They’re wearing leather jackets and jeans, but their music is authentic, spontaneous and straight from the heart.
And one could say the same of the staff and the entire experience at Lakshman Sagar Resort. Inventively redefining ‘heritage tourism’ and ‘rural tourism’, it has dispensed with their tired formulas and clichés to pioneer a new concept of hospitality that combines traditional and contemporary aesthetics with imagination and élan; that demonstrates you can rely entirely on local people and resources without compromising on comfort and luxury; that makes a conscious effort to protect local culture and values from the more adverse effects of tourism (not one of the children we met, for example, asked for pens or toffee); and that takes great pride in giving its guests a real and heartwarming taste of rustic life in this off-the-map corner of Rajasthan.
The Lakshman Sagar Resort is located in Haripur, in Rajasthan’s Pali district, 120km from both Ajmer and Jodhpur. From Delhi or Jaipur, just hop on to the Delhi-Ajmer Shatabdi (departs Delhi 6am, arrives Ajmer 12.45pm; Rs 570 on CC). The resort can arrange a pick-up from Ajmer station, from where it’s two-and-a-half hours by road, via Beawar and Raipur. There are also local trains from Ajmer to Haripur, a tiny, blink-and-you-miss-it station, which is just 3km from the resort.
The resort offers twelve spacious 900 sq ft cottages, all of them overlooking the Lakshman Sagar lake. Tariff Rs 16,000 per night per couple, meals and excursions included Contact 011-26494531, email@example.com, sewara.com
What to see & do
The town of Raipur, with its palace and bazaar, is just 20 minutes by road from Lakshman Sagar and well worth a visit.
You can go on excursions in the Todgarh Raoli Wildlife Sanctuary, a dry deciduous forest sprawling over 500 sq km and home to leopards and sloth bear.
Around the resort itself, you can do some birdwatching or go walking in the surrounding countryside.
Go shopping: Raipur is famous for its leather jootis, mehndi, red chillies and sesame oil. And if you’re coming from Ajmer by road, stop at Beawar for the delectable local speciality called tilpatti — crisp, paper-thin discs of gajak — made there in winter.