Celebrate the festival of colours, Holi, with a king in the land of kings (Rajasthan, India).
Red, pink, yellow, green, purple…colours rain down and scatter in the wind. Water balloons sail in the air, bodies flail in tubs of coloured water and water gun fights are accompanied by war cries and wild laughter. Only one Indian festival turns adults into havoc-wreaking children – Holi…the festival of colour.
For most people, colours are a part of life, but for India, they are an annual cause for celebration. Every March, the country celebrates the most vibrant of all Indian festivals – Holi. For one day the earth becomes a veritable rainbow and the pot of gold is hallucination spurred by copious amounts of bhang (a traditional marijuana-laden drink).
The celebration ranges from spiritual and cultural to wild and insane. From funky beach parties and bonfires to elaborate house and foam parties, the country cheerfully goes crazy and what might normally be considered vandalism, is considered joyful celebration.
A Holi-day to remember: Mingling with a king in the land of kings
While there are many ways to experience the festival around the country, head to the Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur (Rajasthan) for a truly extraordinary experience. Guests of the palace hotel have an opportunity to experience Holi with Maharaja Gaj Singh II (current owner of the property) and his family – a truly grand affair.
Operated by the über luxury arm of the Indian Hotels Company Limited (Taj), this impressive property is one of the world’s largest living residences and can only be described as ‘magnificent’. Rising dramatically above the desert capital, the Umaid Bhawan Palace offers panoramic views of the Blue city with the Mehrangarh Fort in the distance. The stunning sandstone exterior, luxurious Indo-Deco interiors, gorgeous landscaping, rich history, indulgent cuisine and superlative service make this authentic palatial beauty a living fantasy.
Besides the grandeur, the Umaid’s heritage, heart and hospitality set it apart. Originally commissioned to provide a source of income to famine-struck villagers, the Umaid Bhawan Palace embodies the caring spirit of its commissioners. The palace hotel’s welcome folk dance sets the tone for this one-of-a-kind hospitality experience that is a combination of its royal heritage and the legendary Taj ethos.
Over the years, the Palace has not only played host to numerous dignitaries, glitterati and other A-listers, but also formed the set for many incredible weddings and events. The Umaid, and more importantly, the Maharaja (or Baapji as he is well known) know how to throw a party. Not just ‘a’ party…a royal party.
In keeping with tradition and its inherent grandeur, Holi at the Umaid is a once-in-a-lifetime experience – complete with celebrity guests that may include the likes of Sting and Chelsea Clinton.
Come Holi, the vast lawn transforms into a backdrop for a glamorous and colourful fete. Pretty white tents adorn the lovely lawns, while a bright sprawling tent features a fabulous feast and dining tables with festive centerpieces. Colourfully dressed elephants add a royal touch to the event. Plates of colour and tubs of water are spread across the lawns for guests to soak, splash, spray and paint each other.
Dressed in traditional Rajasthani attire, folk dancers and musicians entertain guests and villagers alike as they line up to put gulal (coloured powder) on the Maharaja, maharani, prince and their friends.
Guests are given the royal treatment. From breakfast to lunch, the party continues and all senses are completely overwhelmed: the brilliant colour against the sandstone palace is a visual treat while folk music and musical laughter set the rhythm; delicious food and drink indulge the taste buds and the perfume of sunshine and fresh grass fills the air as joy overflows all around.
A colourful embrace
Covered in the colour of joy
Onlookers oversee fascinating festivities
An alternate reality exists for those that choose to indulge in some customary bhang-laden food and drink. If the world suddenly appears too bright, or you question your existence or cannot stop doing whatever activity you are doing, or doze off into deep slumber, know that you are probably experiencing the effects of bhang.
Colours of life…
Holi at Umaid Bhawan Palace is as much about celebrating an age-old tradition in a timeless setting, as it is about the royal treatment. For some, this celebration may seem a bit contrived, but for the fortunate, it is a great way to experience the festival in a glamorous, safe and extraordinary manner.
For one day, royalty and normalcy merge till it is impossible to differentiate where one begins and the other ends. Reluctance gives way to total loss of inhibition as grown adults embrace their inner child and celebrate the colours of life.
Bhang or no bhang, memories of Holi at Umaid Bhawan Palace continue to shimmer in mind-altering hues…
If you are upright the next day, be sure to visit the Mehrangarh Fort for beautiful views of the blue city. An architectural gem and famous for its cameo in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, the fort now features the ‘flying fox’ zip line for the more adventurous.
Majestic Mehrangarh Fort overlooking the blue city
Blue skies over Mehrangarh Fort in the blue city
Bird’s eye view of the blue city from Mehrangarh Fort
Alternatively, plan to arrive a day before Holi to take in the city, and stay a day after to enjoy the luxurious Jiva Grande Spa treatments. After the sensory overload, relaxation is a must.
Incredible fortresses, luxurious living, sumptuous feasts, extravagant celebrations, haunting melodies and haunted tours make for an experience of a lifetime.
There are some places on earth where history comes alive. Where the past and present co-exist. Where wild sands are tamed and nurtured. A land of royal palaces, imposing fortresses, mesmerizing desert sands, brave warriors, brilliant colors, vibrant festivals, haunting melodies and sumptuous feasts. The ‘land of the kings’ – Rajasthan.
No state in India is as vibrant, exotic or majestic as Rajasthan. There are some truly incredible places to explore, but vast distances and limited connectivity mean that one trip is seldom enough to see them all.
This past Diwali, the sun, moon and stars aligned for our family to explore Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer together. Timing was perfect, occasion was perfect, itinerary was set, and off we went with toddlers, in laws, nephew and Samsonite showroom display in tow. Despite the long journeys and assorted age groups (<15 months to >60yrs), we had a fabulous time and even managed to come back charmed and rejuvenated!
Here are some recommendations for how to do it:
#1: Live life king size; sometimes, the property is the experience.
Rajasthan has some of the most beautiful heritage properties in the world, so going luxe was almost a foregone conclusion. What surprised us, was how much the properties contributed to the overall experience. These weren’t simply places reserved for crashing after exploring outdoors, these were spaces that compelled you to reserve time for themselves as well.
Our first property, Trident, Jaipur, a nice but slightly older property, with the kind of service that turns a good property to great. From having a kids club and convenient garden/play area to entertaining the kids to catering to our every food whim, this property surpassed all expectations. There was the time when one of the waiters surprised us with the infamous Rawat’s pyaaz kachori when he learnt that we wouldn’t have the time to do so. Or the time when, on request, the chef prepared a fabulous and elaborate Rajasthani thali, complete with freshly made desserts.
Our property in Jaisalmer, Suryagarh, was simply out of this world. From the start, the property surprised us. An impressive feat, the ‘hotel’ is actually a massive yellow stone fortress that arises like an oasis in the desert. From the minute we saw the grand entrance, to long after we entered our lovely chamber, we were floored by the sheer size, scale and beauty.
A peek into Suryagarh
Fabulous courtyard at Suryagarh
We celebrated Diwali in style, awoke to a beautiful vista before us, complete with a peacock on the terrace. We had breakfast in a lovely courtyard surrounded by peacocks, rabbits, turtle and various charming, but unobtrusive, pets of the property. There was even a magician in traditional Rajasthani garb, a little ‘farm’ where the property grew some of their own vegetables and herbs, as well as ample space for kids to run around and be free.
The benefit of a great property is also the level of access and depth of local knowledge. We enjoyed sunset dune-bashing with Lama tours (one of few companies to have staff trained in Dubai and SUVs instead of open jeeps) at one of the non-touristy sand dunes, hotel-arranged sunset camel safari to the quieter side of touristy Sam sand dunes, ATV rides, visit to the Jaisalmer fort, the bustling market and ancient Jain temples, a haunted tour, luxurious spa treatments and amazing local cuisine prepared by in-house chefs. The boys even visited Jaisalmer War Museum and Laungewala War Memorial, where they paid homage to heroes as well as discovered military vehicles. The whole family was thoroughly fed, spoilt, pampered, entertained and very grateful.
…As we had already been to Jodhpur before, the husband and I opted to take the kids to Reggie’s Camel Camp Osian. Those seeking an exclusive luxurious experience, might want to opt for the incredible Umaid Bhawan Palace. The kids were super-excited about staying in tents as well as dancing around the bonfire at night, while listening to live traditional Rajasthani music. Since the baby was having a little too much fun driving us crazy by going in and out of the tent, we opted to head for Mihirgarh first thing in the morning. An interesting experience, but probably best done with companions older than 5.
An hour outside of Jodhpur, the little fortress of Mihirgarh, has been on my wishlist as it is one of few Relais et Châteaux (properties that combine luxury and gastronomy) properties in India. Owned by relatives of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, the small but beautiful all-suite property made up with room size and service what it lacked in scale. Our room was more than 1100 sq ft with a living area, large bathroom with Forest Essentials toiletries, balcony with a table for two, terrace with a jacuzzi and some lounge chairs to sit back and take in the beautiful surroundings.
Table with a view
Suite living area
To infinity and beyond
A bathroom to remember
We took a jeep safari and spotted the rare black buck by off-roading en route to the Bishnoi village (a tribe that lives in harmony with nature, uses no electricity or modern equipment and uses cow dung liberally) and experienced a glorious sunset from the sunset terrace. Food is definitely a highlight, with the menu serving as a formality: whatever the belly desires is dished up by their talented chef. For our last meal, he prepared traditional Rajasthani specialties – dal (lentils), baati (baked hard and dense round breads), churma (deep-fried baati crushed and mixed with sugar or jaggery), green tomato and papad (lentil wafers)-methi sabzis…absolutely delicious.
Tip: In Mihirgarh, ask for the upper level rooms. The lower level ones are a bit too close to the trees/flowers, so there could be some unwanted visitors in your plunge pool. For those interested in glamping, they also have another property with luxury tents nearby.
Where family time is concerned, it is as important to spend time together as have time apart. Staying in luxurious properties is a great way to strike this balance: sharing unique experiences strengthens the bond, while large rooms and superlative service ensure sufficient space, rest and relaxation. Maybe we would have seen the same Rajasthan from other properties, but probably not. We would certainly not have enjoyed the trip as thoroughly or felt as rejuvenated or loved each other as much by the end of it.
#2: Break it Up
Travelling with two toddlers to a remote place is challenging under the best of circumstances. To go from Mumbai to Jaisalmer, requires a 2.5hr flight to Jodhpur followed by a 4-6hr drive (depending on chauffeur, traffic and halts) to Jaisalmer. A whole DAY of travelling. Then, the husband came up with a brilliant idea: why not fly to Jaipur, spend a couple of days there, take the overnight train to Jaisalmer and on the way back, break our journey with overnight stay at Osian (desert camp) and Mihirgarh (a wish list property outside Jodhpur) before flying back to Mumbai?
My first thought was of course of the ‘less-than-hygienic’ train toilets, but the more I thought about it, the more appealing it became. So, armed with hand sanitizer, soap and a large toilet roll (along with our assorted bags), we took the plunge.
The plan worked wonderfully – we had a blast in Jaipur, slept through most of the train ride, enjoyed the sights whilst awake, stretched our legs at Pokaran station and stayed at unique properties.
Tip: Those who enjoy luxury rail travel, should consider the über luxurious ‘Palace On Wheels’. Also, I recommend the following – when going from Jaisalmer to Mumbai, stay overnight at Manvar tents (better located than Osian) before heading to Mihirgarh (highly recommend a 2-night stay) or skip it all and stay overnight in Jodhpur.
#3: ‘See’ less to do more
Travel with kids can best be described as a “balancing act”. We wanted to make the most of our time in Jaipur, while continuing to have happy kids. So, we planned our itinerary around them, but while ensuring our top priorities were met.
We decided against hardcore sightseeing and opted for a brief overview instead. We managed to:
Sample local specialties:we picked up some local grub from LMB in Jaipur market on our way from airport to our hotel (Trident Jaipur) – a 15 min detour that was enough to get a feel of the bustling market beautifully and brightly lit up for Diwali.
Discover a unique experience: The highlight of our trip, was the day spent with an elephant. Elefantastic (a superb option for families and animal-lovers), is of the best kept elephant farms I have seen. It was very green, clean (no visible piles of poop) and organized (on schedule). All families had an elephant to themselves. We fed ‘our’ elephant (who preferred the kids’ stuffed parathas instead of hay), decorated her using harmless natural colors, bathed her and went for a ride in the nearby village until the little one protested. The kids not only enjoyed interacting with the elephant, but also loved chasing chickens and splashing in muddy puddles (a Peppa pig-inspired fantasy).
Have a lovely meal and catch the sound and light show:we wanted to see the 8pm sound and light show at Amber fort, so we planned this on the same day as Elefantastic. The kids were tuckered enough to be lulled by Amitabh Bachchan’s lovely baritone, so the husband and I managed to enjoy a fantastic Rajasthani thali at the commendable 1135 AD restaurant in the fort. Frequented by numerous dignitaries celebrities over the years, the restaurant is decorated in deep red and gold, with sparkling chandeliers, flickering candlelight, live music, and rich food that reflects its royal heritage. For a moment, we were transported to another time.
Tip:Keep the hotel car/taxi when visiting Amber fort. We let ours go and ended up on unfamiliar, unpaved, roads in a bone-jarring never-to-be-repeated auto rickshaw ride as no other mode of transport was available. Those who understand Hindi might want to watch that version of sound and light show as it is recorded in Amitabh Bachchan’s voice.
Enjoy stunning city views:The boys monkeyed around the hotel garden with the monkeys, and burnt off a suitable amount of energy, before we headed to Nahargarh fort to watch the sunset over the city. It was recommended to us as the place where locals go for the view, especially during Diwali. Though the fort itself was not very well-maintained, the views were lovely. What was truly wonderful, was the bird’s eye view of Diwali lights and fireworks across the city from the restaurant within.
By the time we boarded the train to Jaisalmer, the boys were blissfully knocked out! All in all, we had a great 2.5 days in Jaipur. I would have loved to go for tea or dinner to Rambagh Palace, take the kids to Chokhi Dhani and shop a bit, but there’s always next time!
#4: The best travel stories live beyond comfort zones (Warning: not for the faint hearted.)
In our quest for finding unique experiences, we opted for the ‘Chudail (Banshee) Trail’, a Suryagarh signature experience that took us on a haunted trail. The husband, mother-in-law and I were the bravehearts that went on this tour in the pitch dark of night with our car headlights and guide’s torchlight as the only light sources for miles around.
Our first stop, was a mysterious lake in the middle of the desert that – for unknown reasons – has maintained the same water level since centuries. Surrounded by tons of holes dug to unearth the water source, the lake has seen the death of many. I was fine with the spirits, but the thought of slithering snakes and creepy crawlies was unnerving. We hopped back in our vehicle and whizzed off to a cemetery that was far less fascinating.
Our third and final stop was the highlight of the tour – a visit to the cursed and haunted village of Kuldhara. Apparently it, along with 84 other villages, was abandoned overnight a few hundred years ago. No one knows where the inhabitants went, but they cursed the village so that anyone who inhabits it dies.
As experiences go, this was the creepiest and most unusual, making it a great story to share.
#5: The most memorable experiences might be the most surprising ones
If anyone had told me that the highlight of my trip was watching a transvestite dance, I wouldn’t have believed them. But, the Diwali celebration at Suryagarh was – like the property itself – outstanding.
What started as a simple, tastefully, handled prayer in a beautiful setting by the owner, morphed into a binge-fest of mithai (sweet meats) freshly prepared by an in-house halwai (sweets chef), which moved onto a celebration with sparklers and fireworks, and flowed into live Sufi music performance followed by an unforgettable dance performance by Queen Harish and her troop, finally ending in a dining extravaganza.
The earthy and soulful music echoing off the massive fortress surrounded by nothing but inky blackness, has to be one of the most memorable performances I’ve ever experienced. Only Wordsworth’s words can describe it: “…The music in my heart I bore, long after it was heard no more.”
I was thankful just to be there, in that space, at that time and in that moment.
When celebration of an occasion becomes a celebration of life, life is beautiful.
Whether it is the bespoke luxury of boutique fortresses such as Suryagarh and Mihirgarh, or the convenient luxury of a Trident hotel, or the unmatched royal luxury of an authentic Taj palace, Rajasthan’s heritage properties beautifully recreate the magic of a bygone era while delivering unique and unusual experiences.
The palaces and fortresses are almost as much a part of the experience as the land itself…allowing one to get into character by setting the scene. Rajasthan, while wonderful in itself, viewed from the lap and through the lens of luxury, is an experience of a lifetime.
…After all, what better way to discover the ‘land of Kings’, than to live like one?