Suryagarh at Jaisalmer: Modern with Old World Charm
By Mridula Dwivedi
When I saw Suryagarh looming on the horizon from the Jodhpur-Jaisalmer highway, my first thought was that a lot of care has been taken to build the place. In spite of being brand new, it completely merges with its surroundings and looks like an old fort.
We were greeted with garlands on arrival, which was followed by cold towels and a welcome drink.
I was shown quickly to my room by Munmun, a charming front desk employee.
This was my first trip to Jaisalmer and I was quite excited at the prospect of seeing the proper desert for the first time in my life.
I studied for five years (long ago) in the desert state of Rajasthan but never really explored much at that time.
There are direct trains from New Delhi to Jaisalmer but we were traveling by train only up to Jodhpur and then the good folks of the Suryagarh had sent two SUVs for five of us which took us to the hotel. There is an airport at Jodhpur as well.
Jodhpur to Jaisalmer is a two-lane highway and the distance is around 290 kilometers. But as the highway has very little traffic, the road transfer is pretty fast. We were there before lunch.
At the Hotel
I had a luxurious grand heritage room to myself that opened to a spacious courtyard.
Soon it was time for lunch, which we had at the coffee shop called Nosh, and we went in for a blend of continental and Chinese. I had a mushroom soup that was really well done and vegetables with rice. I had a very happy meal. It was followed by an excellent apple pie as well. We managed to meet Chef Vimal who is in charge of the food and beverages and he promised us a typical Rajasthani fare in the evening.
The Mesmerizing Sand Dune
A little later after lunch, I managed to upload a picture of my room on my blog thanks to the wifi connection at the hotel.
But it was soon time to head out for a camel safari at the Lakhmana Sand Dunes. Sam Sand Dunes are probably better known at Jaisalmer but Lakhmana is just next to it and more secluded.
This was my first camel safari and what fun it was! Getting up on the back of the camel was easy for me. I also did not mind too much the walk of the camel but initially, I was scared to let go of the wooden plank even for clicking a picture. But the real fun is when the camel starts getting down a dune, and these dunes were mild.
At every downward step, I thought I would get thrown off the camel! We were a bunch of five women and all of us were safely accounted for at the end safari.
The hotel can arrange for a high tea at the sand dunes and it is a beautiful experience. They get a local musician, a small cooking range, a good seating arrangement right in the middle of the dunes.
So we had tea and snacks along with some beautiful music in the middle of the desert. This was also the sunset time and after sundown, a bonfire was lit. It was a memorable evening
The Cultural Show, a Private Helicopter and a Sumptuous Dinner
After we reached the hotel it was time to get the sand out of our shoes and clothes and then we headed to the amphitheater. It was cold outside but there were heat towers that could be placed outdoors and it became pleasant then.
There was a group of musicians, a lady who danced the traditional Rajasthani dance, musical instruments being played, a puppet show, and a display by a group of young Sikhs.
I have uploaded the videos of dance, puppet show, Talwarbazi (swordsmanship) by Sikhs, and the musical instrument being played. You can see all the videos from one post now. As there are so many, take your pick, I am sure something would fascinate you
At one point in the cultural show, the lady invited the women in the audience to dance with her. I started moving around a bit to click better pictures. Anyway, I have two left feet when it comes to dancing.
In the process, I looked the other way, over the wall, and saw a helicopter parked at the premises.
I asked Pallavi who has been to the property before if the hotel had a private chopper! She said no and ran to inquire. She was told that someone probably from Microsoft was staying and it was their chopper.
The hotel had a non-disclosure agreement but I think I saw Paul Allen, the late co-founder of Microsoft, walking along the main corridor. So if you wish to take your private helicopter to Suryagarh, they can arrange the landing permits
Dinner was the next thing on the agenda. It was the Rajasthani thali (platter) with Daal Baati Chruma, a traditional Rajasthani dish with many other side dishes. Butter Milk was in plenty to go with the food.
A City Tour of Jaisalmer
On the second day, we had a somewhat late breakfast from the buffet and then headed out to the city. Our first stop was Gadisar lake, which is an artificial lake made by Maharawal (as the kings are addressed in the Jaisalmer region) Gadi Singh.
It has an ornate gate supposed to be constructed by a courtesan named Tilo. On the way to the lake, you can find small souvenir shops that are full of curios that have the trademark bright Rajasthani colors.
Our next stop was the Jaisalmer Fort which is also known as Sonar Kila (the Golden Fort) after a famous Bengali Movie Sonar Kella by the legendry Satyajit Ray.
The fort is massive and we hardly did it any justice in the few hours that we spent within it.
There are beautiful Jain Temples inside the fort. Then there are museums, various grand entrances and the main areas of royal business.
It is also one of those rare forts where people still live inside the fort. We also visited the majestic Havelis (mansions) of Jaisalmer and then headed back for a late lunch.
A Late Lunch and a Pleasant Evening at Kuldhara
We had lunch with the owner of the hotel, Manvendra Singh Shekhawat. He is a young man with a vision for his hotel and he talked to us about it at length, as I describe in this blog post. I was surprised to know that he left a modeling career to join his father to run this hotel.
He describes the experience as a “life-changing” one. He offered to take us to the abandoned village of Kuldhara, a few kilometers away from the hotel, in the evening.
Legend is that Paliwal Brahmins used to live in the village Kuldhara and they were a prosperous lot.
The Samant (a senior member of the king’s court) or the King himself (various people stress one or the other) was giving them a tough time by charging high taxes.
Push came to a shove when the ruler developed an eye for the Paliwal Chief’s daughter.
The Paliwals decided to vacate Kuldhara overnight along with 84 other villages in 1825 and Kuldhara is an abandoned village till date.
Manvendra knew the area very well and took us beyond the main ruins to a more secluded place. We were wondering what those abandoned structures were and he was of the opinion that they were graves.
I was saying as there are statues and inscriptions on the structures, they could be graves. We came to no conclusion other than that it was a beautiful place.
It was close to sunset time and as the sun went down we also started heading back to the car.
Manvendra proposed that he could take us to a small hillock in the morning if we promised to get up at 6:00 am and meet him at the lobby.
We girls decided to have dinner in the bar with just soups and starters as we already had too much to eat and have an early night. We followed the starter bit but not the early night.
The Drive to the Hillock and the Spa
It was our last day at Jaisalmer and Preeti and I made it to the lobby at 6:00 am. It was Preeti’s birthday as well. Manvendra joined us soon and we were off to the Hillock.
It was a smooth drive and a short climb up to the hillock. Jaisalmer is very flat terrain and from the hillock, we could see for miles around.
But the sun played truant that day and managed to vanish behind a cover of the clouds. Still it was a wonderful experience.
My last engagement was at the spa which is called Rait (meaning sand in Hindi). I had a nice Bliss Bali massage. It was a perfect end to a very beautiful holiday. After lunch, I sadly said goodbye to Jaisalmer.
I am told that there are bigger sand dunes 120 km away from Jaisalmer. If I make it to Jaisalmer again that is one thing I am not going to miss.