India has always been a dream destination: the food, the colours, the deep traditions so very different from the West. I’d been practising yoga for the past 15 years and seven years ago on my 30th I started meditating which strengthened my interest in vedic study. Last year after a nine-month work schedule so hectic my feet didn’t touch the ground, I needed a break; physically, mentally and emotionally. In an alignment of serendipitous moments, India finally called and my partner Nick and I made a six-week break for it. We headed to Hyderabad in the south for an authentic Panchakarma – a deeply healing, holistic mind and body reset which indulged my passion for Ayurveda, the 5,000-year-old ‘Science of Life’. After four quiet weeks of getting back to basics in a sleepy township, living with an Indian family and immersed in many hours of intense traditional treatments, I was ready for some of the Indian splendour I had been reading about in the Mahabarata – one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India.
Landing in Udaipur in the north, we were picked up in a flashy car by suited and booted driver who patiently worked out how to fit our four huge suitcases into the boot (we’d had to take our own toilet paper, towels and bedding to the last place – you start to get the picture). Finally we were off and hot brows were soothed and the hustle and bustle of the airports and two flights were wiped away with cool towels as silver plated dishes of chopped local fruits were devoured. From the car window, we drank in swathes of lush, green vegetation, a deep contrast to the parched and scorched scenes from the south, and watched with wide eyes the colourful roadside scenes, every moment straight from a photo story about India. We felt the intensity of the change as we slowly emerged from our month long cocoon of Panchakarma and unfolded our wings.
As a travel photographer Nick was itching to capture some of the magic as we sped by and our driver very accommodatingly stopped, about five times. At one point the car pulled over sharply and promptly started reversing back up the motorway onto oncoming traffic. After a month in India I was somewhat acclimatised to these ‘interesting’ moments (mainly of cattle walking head on towards you, on the motorway) but still… ‘Look madam sir there is Devigarh’ he said as we came to a stop, ‘I would not want you to miss this view’, and indeed there it was. In the distance, a break in the warm monsoon rains allowed shafts of late afternoon sun to streak across the expansive purple sky. There, rising up from the lush vivid green backdrop of the Aravalli hills, majestically glowed a white palace fortress straight out of my books on Indian mythology…..
Arriving at RAAS Devigarh we were greeted by smiling faces, colourful turbans and impressive moustaches, It was nearing sunset, the light was magical and the courtyard was alive with an evening chorus of insects and post-monsoon rain birdsong. There was a warm scent of fresh blooms and a flurry of rose petals rained down as we approached the the gateway to the palace grounds. I looked straight up to see an ancient sculpture of the elephant headed god Ganesh carved into the stone archway, who appeared, in the fading light to shower us in petals from his eight arms. This was the Indian fairytale, and I used all the regal grace I could muster to elegantly swish through the entrance in the long skirts I had now become accustomed to. And so began my stay in this grand white sanctuary on the hill decked with ornate balconies and encircled with flocks of birds that sail on the winds and keep watch over the secrets of a 260-year-old palace.
The palace is made for exploring with little staircases that interconnect the different levels and courtyards, and each time a stunning new view of the palace splendour and it’s surroundings. Each room and bedroom suite is unique, and as a photographer Nick was able to access all areas, his recommendation being the Marigold and the tower room. The theatre of Devigarh is a romantic contrast to the rush for clean line, minimalist designer luxury hotels. It breathes authenticity and the history – a credit to to its highly engaging owner Nikhilendra Singh who has worked hard to preserve and enhance the character of the palace, from keeping the Maharaja’s mirrored boudoir harem room, (one can only imagine!) to making a feature of the scriptures across the palace walls and the RAM etchings of a lone monk who, along with wild animals, inhabited the palace for many years before its new incarnation as a hotel. The monkeys still roam the walls and green parakeets watch you from balconies, sitting romantically in pairs, pretty as a picture through your window, with views of the Rajasthan landscape.
The magic is completed by the first and newly launched Ila Only spa. With roots in Ayurveda, and its name from the Sanskrit (old Indian language) word denoting Mother Earth, this organic British brand sources many of its wild harvested ingredients from India. I have long been an Ila fan their ethical and environmental practices, and knowledge and passion for harnessing the power of nature. At Devigarh, they have created a unique series of mind body spirit treatments, or blessings, which draw on ancient traditions and techniques from around the world. Designed to nourish, cleanse, relax and revitalise, we were lucky enough to experience the full nine days of Devi Blessings bliss. I felt the residual tensions from the fast London pace melt away as we were taken on a sensory journey through the smoky wafts of burning palasanto, out-of-this world essential oil blends and beautifully executed rituals accompanied by surreal chanting from the Tibetan and Bhutanese therapists. Candlelit restorative yoga, feathery massage and in-room foot massages send you to the land of dreams (I think I manifested this – I’ve always wondered how fabulous that might be to have your feet massaged in bed). As a trained sound therapist, it was a delight to bathe in resonance for a full 360-degree experience; from tuning forks on acupressure points to a meditative barefoot walk at sundown to the oms and hums of crystal sound bowls and song as the therapists made music in the middle of the herb garden.
As you might imagine, the hotel food and ethos are really important for me. I always choose hotels for their food and food ethos. No only were ‘Bless you’ healthy breakfasts on hand and wake up calls of herbal teas and energy balls delivered to the room but they’ve thought of everything with afternoon juices, fresh fruit cocktails and lip smacking street food style chaat dishes in the reflective spa garden followed treatments. There is a wellbeing spa menu with a mix of cross cultural foods that is perfect for anyone who has been in India too long and needs some lighter bites and a palate changer. At Devigarh I ordered pretty much exclusively from the Indian menu during my stay (I don’t want a club sandwich when I go away) – delicious, locally sourced, seasonal with many of the vegetables grown in the hotel kitchen garden. The chefs are proud of their heritage and the diversity of Indian food plus happy to go off menu with a recipe from their childhood. The black bean dhal, morning uttapams and dosas complete with cooling chutneys and a hot bowl of sambhar, and curries made from the berries and leaves of desert plants were firm favourites. The kitchen garden is well worth a visit if you have the time, the gardeners will show you the Neem trees, the Tulsi (Holy Basil) plants and other herbs and vegetables which play a major part in the Ayurvedic and Indian medicine cabinet. Once I found out that the rose ice-cream was flavoured with petals from the organic garden rather than artificial means it became a whole new eating experience.
We pretty much luxuriated in the understated grandeur and calm of the palace: swimming in the huge slate pool that reflected the mood of the ever changing sky and pampered by day, with secret suppers and wall projected screenings on traditional sofa mattresses in the silver lounge by night. We ventured out once or twice, first with a visit to see the photo worthy lake palaces in Udaipur, and closer a field with hikes in the hills surrounding Devigarh, following the routes of the royal outings of years gone by. The tour around the local village of Delaware, epitomises the rich history of the Rajasthan state. Browse beautiful art and locally-made crafts (I tried my hand at a clay bowl on an old pottery wheel with the help of a suitably gnarled and characterful potter). Marvel at the hot oil handling of deep fried delights and visit temples galore including an ancient shiva temple for a morning puja. Delaware village was once known as ‘devkul paton nagri’ or the ‘town of gods’ – legend has it that there were once 1,000 temples in the village and it remains a centre for worship especially for Jains. Even today every street in Delwara has at least one temple and a hundred stories to tell which goes someway to explaining the serene atmosphere that envelopes Devigarh.
The romance of the place is certainly infectious: after being together for 13 years, Nick turned around mid shoot, as the sun set over the rugged hills that surrounded the fort and proposed… I was in amused shock, he was in tears. The evening that followed was sublime and etched in our memories. The hotel laid on a private dinner high up in a tower overlooking the surrounding hills, lit by candles and cooled by the evening breeze we ate a beautiful Thaali from the chefs special recipes, fragrant dhals, and gently spiced curries… After dinner we were whisked down to the Palace shrine, a place of worship for over 600 years, where we were greeted by an 85-year-old holy man, the once personal Brahmin to the Maharaja and Maharishi of the palace, who had been worshipping at this shrine for over 80 years. He proceeded with much amusement and twinkle in his eyes to bond us as eternal partners in the eyes of the Gods in a touching ceremony, all comically translated by the spa director Faraaz (a fantastic yoga teacher who patiently answered my million and one questions about Ayurveda and the history of India). Tears were shed, mostly from laughter as a number of vows swore our vows by the Brahman which included; Nick must ask my permission before taking a second wife or starting a new business, and I must wear less makeup when Nick is away. With the ceremony complete and the gods well satisfied on sweets and fruit offerings we were led to the Ila spa and settled into room, lit with candles and carpeted in more rose petals, while our eyes were gently covered. What followed was simply divine, yet more love from the Ila spa and the graceful therapists who quietly crept into the room and bathed us with sound bowls mantras and songs from their heritage, angelic voices that still give me goosebumps even today when I recall it… A very special evening to finish off the experience that is RAAS Devigarh.