Strains of Edith Piaf softly permeate the public spaces. The morning light, filtered through fine jhali work, plays on the textured walls and patterned floors of the passageways and your journey begins
For a stay at Narendra Bhawan is a journey, not a moment stuck in time.
This place is a dedication to the life of Narendra Singh, the last Maharaja of Bikaner, yet it isn’t a mausoleum to history, but a celebration of a life well lived and a time which no longer exists. An era which, through the sheer brilliance in the execution of all aspects of the hotel from décor and nuance through to experiences and food, has been recreated and reinvented. With the décor one could be in London, it is chic, sophisticated, fun, quirky, cheeky, clever and elegant, think Hoxton meets Sanderson meets eclectic Rajasthan. Done away with are the norms of ‘Heritage,’ and the bland of the ubiquitous chain five star. Each aspect of his life has been considered and nuanced, elements from childhood to adolescence to the army, Empire and returning to a land then emancipated from British rule and his world dis-empowered by his own government, are brought in to create different ambiances in different guest rooms and public spaces.
This doesn’t mean that history is forced down your throat, but it is cleverly and subtly shown both in the design of the hotel and in the curation of the experiences. And this is what impresses. Art deco here, gentleman’s club there, a touch of his army days, the chiffon and pearls for his ladies in the design of the dining room, a love for animals reflected in the furniture, an extensive library, music, displays of artifacts, the list goes on… With regard to the experiences, well, we all know that I crave for travel companies, guides, hotels, the industry at large to think about how India can be sold to reflect its true potential and finally, I have found a place that does just that. Here we don’t have ‘tours’ focusing on monuments as singular entities but well thought out, curated experiences; The Royal Expedition which starts at the very beginning, Bikaner’s very beginning, the fort of the very first maharaja, through to the creation of Rajasthan’s wealthiest seat, palaces, the pomp and ceremony and the wealth that this state became, to the royal cenotaphs which mark it’s end and how the family continue in the present day. Little visited monuments, and cleverly designed storytelling, and one begins to develop a sense of the how’s and why’s of Bikaner’s existence.
Their Merchant Trail, no following a guide who points at a large, impressive building right in front of your nose and blurts, ‘Haveli built XXX, merchant house,’ as the sum total of his repertoire here. No, a walk through the area is indeed given with an explanation of the how’s and why’s but to leave it there would be far too two dimensional for these guys. One is then taken inside one of these havelis, which most people don’t get to do, and then lunch is served; a lunch which revisits the cuisine of the Marwars. One starts to live a little of their life, with the sights, smells and tastes, and let me tell you, the Murg Sabza (Chicken cooked in cashew gravy with coriander leaves) and the Angoor Ki Subzi (Grape curry) were a delight.
Which brings me very nicely onto the food:
- One word of warning, if you have the remotest concern for your waistline, this is not the place for you.
- Two words – Culinary Decadence, are the only ones that do the menus justice, they can’t and shouldn’t be avoided, that would be a crime (I know, I tried, failed, succumbed and was delighted).
- Three words – Beware Your Liver, they have the booze front licked too, from a perfectly poured martini to Hendricks and tonic and finely paired wines. Beyond that, one is unable to count.
However, there is a fourth, their four curated Meditations on Food, oh my. I only had time to sample some of them, but again, and I know I am starting to sound like a stuck record, but it isn’t just a nicely planned menu served in the restaurant, there are themes and stories and venues. For the dinner at the Darbari, white is the theme carried through the décor and food and after the sunset, continues under the stars, if it a full moon night, then it is even more spectacular.
My personal favourite was the Literary Menu, designed from meals enjoyed in books from the Maharajas collection which included Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, To The Lighthouse by Virginia Wolf, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and more. Seven courses has one delving into books long forgotten and delighting in dishes well created. I am going to steal this for a fun dinner party theme.
The Museum Lunch at the Gold Room couldn’t just be recipes from the King’s archives could it? Of course not, it has to be served in the Gold Room at the Laxmi Niwas palace embellished, it is said, with 45kgs of gold and where his ancestors would have entertained. The rest I leave to your imagination, there is such a thing as too many superlatives. I refuse to tell you about the ‘Dinner Dans Le Noir’, some things have to be a surprise, but they also snuck in a 5thfor me which was the Bikaner Breakfast, like I needed any more food. I was hoping to get away with my ABC juice and a bowl of fruit, but by now I knew that to resist was futile and yet again, I was delighted that I had surrendered; the highlights for me, Bajra Poori (Fried millet Bread with Fenugreek seeds served with Tamarind juice) and Sabudana Thaali Peeth (Sago and lentil pancakes). Indecently, they also have a tailor close by, who can run up your clothes in a larger size as befitting your requirements the longer you stay.
I have always tried to persuade people to stay three nights in any destination in India. India is overwhelming and has far more to discover than anyone could ever realise and yet most companies whizz people through on 1 maximum 2-night stays, merely pointing out monuments and then force you on, packing and unpacking daily, it is exhausting. I know that Bikaner has only ever been a one-night destination for the vast majority. I had never been before and yet I see that I have truly missed out. Narendra Bhawan aside, Bikaner’s museums are some of the best curated in the country, its fort is well preserved and showcased, I know that as a city, there is an awful lot more for me to discover and I intend to return to do just that.
I also believe that a hotel can put a destination on the map, I have seen it many times with many of my favourites over the years, including Ahilya Fort, Tranquil, Glenburn Tea Estate to name but three, and with Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner will be firmly put on the map. If this was a hotel in London or Delhi, and oh my word, how I wish it was, it would be packed to the rafters. In Bikaner it deserves to be, my word it is cleverly and stylishly done. I know there will be very few inbound operators who will be able to persuade their clients to spend two, never mind three nights in Bikaner, but they should. However, the good news for those of us living in Delhi, there are now daily flights from Delhi to Bikaner. I did the journey in four hours door to door which means we now have a new, accessible and very fun weekend destination.
Narendra Bhawan Tel:+91-7827-151 151