Heritage Stay | A Royal Recluse in Jaipur
Dusk creeps up on the Aravalli hills like a secret, chiding the skies to go from orange to mauve, casting shadows on the foothills. I sit up straighter in the recliner by the pool; Amanbagh is stirring from the afternoon lull to stretch its arms. Pinpricks of yellow light up the courtyard’s colonnaded walkways, langurs cackle and chase one another on the onion-domed Mughal roofs of the pool pavilion; lush baritones of the singers invoke Mohammad Rafi and Jagjit Singh on a tabla and harmonium in the lawns.
Amanbagh sits in Ajabgarh village, near the buffer zone of Sariska National Park, with no trace or memory of the touts and tourists of Jaipur which is 95 kilometres away. The Mughals and the hunting parties they’re believed to have brought here might long be gone, but the resort’s villas and cupolas, built in blushing sandstone, carry the memories. I reckon that it is the tricks of the safeda, date palm and bougainvillea trees that make me feel like the only one living here, cooling feet on green lawns. My suite is the size of a home I dream of building someday in the mountains. It has three sections: a convex-roofed bedroom that has a glass-backed, pink marble bed; a glass corridor topped with a cupola, and a domed structure that houses a bathroom built in bottle-green Udaipur marble, large enough for a toddler to lose her way in. Add to this a private courtyard with a swimming pool that dares me to spend another minute in my pants. But these are just details. What instills warmth is how the staff leaves little souvenirs like candy on my pillow, a rudraksha bookmark one evening, handprinted cards on the next.
The tail of Balveerji’s jaunty yellow turban flutters in the wind, while his ghost stories get wickeder by the minute. We arrive at the “haunted town” of Bhangarh, a 15-minute drive from Amanbagh, where women in vermilion sarees walking past its 16th-century ruins suck out any spookiness the bazaar walls and stone arches might exude by night. Temples and fort walls are spread out, and framed by chocolate-hued hills. Balveerji keeps a close eye on monkeys streaking across banyan trees, tells tales of a local king who hired a magician for a wingman and paid a dear price; of queens frolicking in pools now used by skinny teens to show off their dives.
Later that night, I walk through the resort’s hushed lawns, up to the roof of a chhatri where candlelight blinks from corners. I start dinner with a yoghurt-based soup slowly poured over a ball of creamy water chestnut and cashew. The Manglorean Kozhi Sukka—peppery chicken cooked in tamarind and coconut, served with the fluffiest of Kerala parottas, brings the coast to this desert. I lap up the eggplant dish cooked with ginger and tomato, even the accompaniments—sumac yoghurt, and smoked tomato, gongura and chickoo chutneys.
Like any resort near a reserve that’s worth its salt, the people at Amanbagh love speaking about close brushes with Sariska’s wildlife. Coffee at breakfast is served with a side of leopard tales; the adrak chai in the evening comes with cookies and a strong belief that hyenas and caracals are prowling close by. Sitaram, who takes me on a drive around Ajabgarh one morning, worked as a guide in Sariska until 2004. Stories of tigers and safaris are as dear to him as those of the dargah and streets he points out. We pass sleepy kids plodding towards school, ‘Beti Bachao’ signs, and chat with women about their day.
On my last night, I have a late dinner by a pool deeper into the resort. A feast of laal maas, pumpkin apple soup, and chicken cooked in green chilli is served amid safeda trees that look ghostly at night. There’s that feeling of being alone again; except an occasional hushed footstep or distant laughter in the courtyard. Lights begin to go out in the villas, but the musicians at the other end of the pool don’t stop playing. Even the hills lean in to listen.