India: Castle of dreams

By Paul Rush

Sequestered in the battlements of Castle Mandawa, Paul Rush dreams of his best exotic marigold hotel

Castle Mandawa tower suite is as high as one can go. Photo / Paul Rush
Castle Mandawa tower suite is as high as one can go. Photo / Paul Rush

I ascend the narrow stone steps inside the round tower with some trepidation.

Candles set in niches cast a dull, flickering light over curving walls that seem to be closing in on me. At last I reach the highest point of the great castle - the final refuge from the rampaging Mughals of ancient times.

My circular suite has a presidential feel and an air of spaciousness with an intimate sitting room on one level, a tastefully decorated bedroom on the floor above with a spa bath and sun balcony off to one side. The balcony offers spectacular views over Mandawa City's temple cupolas and domes, fort parapets and ornate havelis - the original homes of wealthy merchants.

Like many of the historic homes of Rajasthan, India, Castle Mandawa is a fascinating blend of the old and the new. It's a family-run heritage hotel where tradition still runs strong. A huge brass gong at the entry gate is struck every hour by the resident timekeeper. The 70 rooms comprise Royal Suites, Luxury Suites and Standard Rooms. All have different designs and are full of surprises like antique murals, ancient armour, marble statues and family portraits - a heady mix of gilt, marble and mirrors.

Archaic grandeur and contemporary style blend together in a fascinating way - an eclectic blend of east and west.

I begin my stay with a leisurely drink in the elaborately decorated bar on the colonial verandah. Later I examine the antique cannons and battle arms and relax in the cosy comfort of the Diwan Khana, the formal drawing room. I enjoy an alfresco dinner under the stars, entertained by Rajasthani folk dancers and singers - simple pleasures that leave a lasting impression.

Climbing up onto the roof in the evening is a magical experience. The city lights are spread out below and the exotic sounds of Indian music drift upwards in the still air. My pale yellow crenellated tower stands like a great medieval monument shimmering in the moonlight.

The scene engenders a feeling that time has stood still. I'm learning what it was like to live in a desert palace stronghold in the late 18th century. Later I drift into a dream-filled sleep imagining a past life as a Rajput prince, something of a novel experience for a Kiwi traveller.

A stay in Castle Mandawa is akin to being transported back to the days of the Raj. You are greeted by turbaned staff on entering the castle portico and horses and camels are often on display. The restoration work has maintained the authentic character of a medieval fortified castle. The compact and busy market town outside the gate is interesting with its tiny shops and vividly painted havelis.

I walk amongst the street vendors, dodging energetic rickshaw drivers and languid Brahmin cattle who both own the road according to some unspoken law.

The men on the soup and chai stalls are roughly dressed in colourless shorts and shirts. The sari-clad women shoppers are draped in a rainbow of dazzling silk.

I join the resident Maharajah, Randhir Vikram Singh, for English high tea on the terrace.

He tells me that the castle was built in 1755 and his family occupied it from 1790.

'I'm the eighth generation to own the castle. We had a war with Jaipur in the early days. They fired cannon balls at the walls but fortuitously ran out of gunpowder. Our cavalry attacked their camp at night and drove them away.'

The Maharajah lives in a haveli attached to the castle with his wife and son. Two married daughters live in Delhi. Half the castle is owned by his younger brother and is still to be restored. 'The government has no funds available to renovate castles,' he says. 'The only thing they can offer us is an increase in taxes.'

All the Rajasthan princes were stripped of the grand titles inherited from generations of Rajput clans in the 1970's. Like many others, the Mandawa Maharajah has exchanged his life as a royal socialite for that of a modern hotelier.

He is very happy in the new role, being solicitous of his guest's needs and gracious as a host. Guests are offered camel and horse rides, jeep safaris, puppet shows and folk dances, turret dinners and heritage walks.

The venerable old castle is full of character and has the feel of the ancient Rajput era.

Lazing by the magnificent swimming pool amongst strutting peacocks gives me the feeling that I'm enjoying the comforts of sumptuous antiquity with modern style. The castle and its opulent rooms make you feel special, as if you're staying in the Indian equivalent of Windsor Castle, an enchanting place of luxury and extravagance.

It feels like I'm on a treasure hunt when I set out to explore the tiny passageways that evoke nostalgic feelings of an earlier time. Both the restored and derelict parts of the castle ooze history and tradition. All the mystery and romance of this desert stronghold is captured in the quaint architecture and a host of legends are expressed in murals and frescoes. This is incredible India in its most intriguing guise.

I enjoy a candle-lit dinner in the atmospheric restaurant while shadows dance on the frescoed walls and my wine glass is regularly refilled. Then my lonely ascent to the castle ramparts begins. The silent tower has an eerie glow as candlelight leads me to the comfort of my bed. The night sky is ablaze with brilliant needle-sharp stars, the air is still and humid at the tail end of an Indian summer. Once again I succumb to dreams of ancient times and exotic places.


FACT FILE

Getting There

Cathay Pacific has daily flights from Auckland to New Delhi. From there it is 265km by road to Mandawa township.

Getting Around

Adventure World organises small group tours around Rajasthan in modern vehicles with local guides at each city to show you the sightseeing highlights such as palaces, forts, temples, gardens and produce markets. Carry a good supply of lower denomination currency (10, 20 and 50 rupees) as tipping is widely practised in India.

Websites
india.com
adventureworldindia.com
adventureworld.co.nz
cathaypacific.com

Paul Rush travelled to India courtesy of Adventure World Tours and Cathay Pacific.

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