It is the dead of night and a full moon, the colour of buttermilk, lights up a long rampart. Climbing the rising path, I enter a stone gate with two-metre-thick walls, pass through a studded timber door and wander into the warrior fortress. Past the old war council room, past a marbled salon, up to the sanctuary of my soft-lit haven: a Grand Suite.
Drama and intrigue, wealth and war are all part of the history of this fort, built 230 years ago in the Aravalli Range, an hour north of India’s Pink City, Jaipur. Today, the fort’s severe outlook toward strangers has softened and it welcomes travellers as India’s newest boutique hotel, the Alila Fort Bishangarh. Its 59 accommodations range from Heritage Rooms up to Regal Suites, which are an extravagance of marble floors, circular baths, large daybeds and expansive country views.
After lying dormant for a century, it took three years of planning and seven more years of innovative renovation to give this Rajasthani landmark a new life under the Alila brand, best known for its three Balinese properties including the edgily modern Alila Villas Uluwatu. The fort is the group’s second Indian property after its southern beachside resort, Alila Diwa Goa.
Jaipur is no stranger to luxury: the city boasts some of the country’s most lavish resorts. “But we didn’t want to create another palace hotel,” developer Atul Kapur tells me over a glass of Indian sauvignon blanc, which has me renouncing my aversion to the grape. Rajasthan is renowned for its string of hill fortresses, but Fort Bishangarh, Kapur says, is the first warrior fortress to be converted to a hotel, and it wasn’t easy.
After evicting bats, snakes and gunpowder from the imposing structure, they constructed the long ramp that zigzags up the granite hill on which the fort stands. “Before that, we used horses and donkeys to carry equipment up and down the hill,” Kapur recalls. “And we wanted to retain a sense of the building’s purpose.” True to his word, this is a flounce-free zone: the decoration comes from the fort’s own ornate Mughal windows, traditional Indian block-printed fabrics, and niches displaying beautifully shaped pots.
Inside the fort
Expect no standards: not in the room sizes – there are 22 different formats for 59 suites – and not at the reception, called a haveli, a vast, regal, open-air tent that waits at the foot of the granite hill, looking up at the fort.
The haveli (or ‘townhouse’, which also features an attached courtyard-style building) includes the gym, kids’ club and an infinity pool that peers over orchards and organic gardens. The gardens are rich and abundant, and executive sous chef Rajat Chandna wanders through with me, plucking lemongrass, pomegranates and a long gourd called lauki while he shares recipes for delicious-sounding marsala eggplant and tips on how to prepare wild amaranth leaves for healthful salads. The vegetables are the stars of the hotel’s wellness menu, one of the menus devised in consultation with Indian celebrity chef Ranveer Brar.
I’ve made the executive decision to try as much Rajasthani food as possible, and my gastronomic journey begins in my suite each morning with a pot of India’s signature marsala chai – sweet, milky tea brewed with cardamom and ginger. At breakfast in the indoor Amarsar restaurant, I taste banana-and-black-pepper yogurt lassi, and breakfast on daal with dark, crisp Rajasthani naan made from millet – I finish my meal with a salted-fennel-and-coriander buttermilk that blasts any jetlag from my system.
We order wood-fired kebabs, green bean salads with crunchy fenugreek, and rich lamb curries at the fortress’s rooftop Nazaara restaurant, as the sounds of the settling village carry on the night breeze – the last raucous call of a peacock, the complaint of a lone goat, the pealing of a temple bell. The fort serves up the comforts of a five-star hotel: Alila’s signature spa treatments in the former dungeon, whiskey blending and Indian tapas in the cosy Madhuveni bar and tea tasting and sweet cakes in the Kachhawa lounge.
Yet for me, the hotel’s true drawcard is the connection to its location and history. Set six kilometres off the frantic Jaipur-Delhi road, the fort is skirted by the villages it once defended, and the range of Alila experiences on offer help guests explore. You can visit Hindu pilgrim sites, taste and prepare traditional Rajasthani cuisine, or cycle down country lanes, past fields that sing with bright yellow mustard flowers and the startlingly pink saris favoured by the women of Bishangarh.
Rising above it all, the fort is a photographer’s dream. It changes as the light shifts, from the softness of a cool dawn to the stark heat of the day and back into a languid afternoon, when its soaring turrets turn golden in the setting sun, a sign that all is well – very well – in this world.
Expansive views over the landscape