Our drive from Jodhpur to Narlai was a leisurely affair, only 140 kms to the village that was home to only 7,000 people (very small for India!). With the population being only 5% Muslim, 10% Jain and the rest Hindu, there was only one mosque – it was the 350 temples that was the surprising number!!
Rawla Narlai was once a hunting lodge of the royal family of Jodhpur nestled in the Aravalli Hills, now a beautifully maintained heritage boutique hotel that is a must if you are indulging in a tour of ‘Royal Rajasthan.’ The fine, white gravel crunched under our feet as we walked into the pleasantly cool courtyard. Making our way to the reception area that was once the stables, we were greeted by a tall, white haired gentleman of noble bearing with sparkling eyes and a kind smile. His name was Rana, and we were soon to discover from staff that he is the ‘resident royal.’ Rana had someone bring us cool towels and welcome drinks, and chatted to us while we waited to be checked in.
This hotel is so very charming, and deceptively regal. Once you make your way through the many courtyards and corners that provide solitude for reading or napping, you discover the scale and modest majesty of the old hunting lodge; its subtle beauty in its design and architecture provide an understated sense of royalty and tradition.
Our stomachs led us to the Jharoka Café on the edge of the courtyard, and we chose a Parisian influenced outdoor table to enjoy the potted plants and shade trees. There was an interesting array of food on offer, something for everyone, and plenty of options for vegetarians. The price, as you would expect in a boutique hotel, was not cheap, but when there is literally no competition, prices are what they are. In fact, there are only two restaurants listed on TripAdvisor for the town of Narlai – this one and “Stepwell the Rawla Narlai” (which is the same kitchen supplying food for a different dining location). We had a Maharani kebab plate that contained a range of vegetarian, oven roasted treats with accompanying dal and mini naan. This was combined with a lentil salad, which we actually didn’t need, as the plate was big enough for two aging stomachs! Of course, we had to have the obligatory Kingfisher as well. While service was leisurely, the meal was worth the wait – fresh, hot and delicious.
With full bellies we decided to explore the village. As we were leaving through the front gate, a staff member in full traditional dress firmly suggested that he escort us. This seems to be a thing here. As we only had about 20min (because I had made a massage appointment in the spa), we accepted his offer of escort. So Lala grabbed his large, imposing staff and we set off (they all seem to do that at this hotel when guiding guests).
All of the men who do the village orientation walks and other ‘guide-like’ things around the place wear a red turban, which in this village means that they are of the ‘shepherds’ caste. It really felt like a petite procession with him leading the way and stopping occasionally to softly talk about something or other that was of interest to point out. He took us into a very poor home, which was basically a square patch of earth shared by the family with their goats. We gave the man of the home 10 rps and he walked over to his old father who was lying on an outdoor bed and gave it to him; a sign of respect to the man who was actually head of the household.
The next house Lala took us into was more ‘well-off’ than the previous one, but we still gave the woman 10 rps, and she was very grateful. Of course, some child had followed us in and saw us give the money, and then proceeded to trail behind saying ’10, 10, 10’. It is so hard to resist them.
Lala promptly returned us to the hotel in time for my appointment, ensuring that we were satisfied with his services. All of the staff at Rawla Narlai is from either this village or nearby villages. They have no formal training in hospitality, but according to Rana, their hospitable culture makes them perfect for this work. I would have to agree.
I left John to take photographs in the afternoon light and made my way to the spa. These facilities were in traditional looking tents with sturdy walls alongside the pool area. The masseuse, Soulac, took excellent care of us both during our stay, ensuring our much-knotted muscles were eased or coerced (depending on resistance level) into a more relaxed state.
The various wings of the residence provided many an area for solitude and reflection. Our Heritage Suite in the 17th century building had an alcove bench at the end of the balcony that gave expansive views of the entire pool and garden area. Looking out through the frangipani leaves across the freshly mown lawn to the large pool, I could see a few guests taking advantage of the sweet afternoon shade. The tweets of a range of unfamiliar birds could be heard, sounds that would become familiar during a longer stay, as well as the ubiquitous crow caw-caw. Later, we discovered that one of those ‘tweets’ actually belonged to the local squirrels. These little creatures darted across rooftops, jumped down stairs and scurried across stone railings, like hard working members of staff. It felt like they could pause in their chase at any moment and chat to me like I was in a Pixar or Disney movie.
The main view from not only everywhere in the hotel, but also the tiny village of Narlai is of the monolithic Narlai Hill (or Elephant Hill). The smooth rock face is reminiscent of the rocks at Meteora in Greece, and provides the optical illusion of being quite close when there is a bit of a walk to get to the base (not to mention the 750 steps to the top!).
While gazing at this undeniable presence in the village as the light went from the sky, we heard one of the sweetest and purest calls to prayer from the town’s one and only mosque. It was absolutely pitch perfect, which often is not the case. Long held single notes that did not waver. Lovely.
With no other dining options in the town, it makes a nice change of scene from breakfast and lunch to dine on the rooftop of the old stables. From this vantage point, if you are early enough, you can enjoy the fading light on Narlai Hill while sipping an aperitif. Otherwise, the carefully lit old manor house, courtyard and other buildings provide a wonderfully romantic atmosphere in this Rajasthani outpost.
While Rawla Narlai is a convenient base for exploring the area, we planned our two-night stay for pure relaxation and pleasure. So the next day, we made the most of the lovely morning light and ambience in the walled oasis, taking photographs and reading until breakfast.
We then went for a wander to the small temple up in the side of the Shiva rock, which was only about 150 steps, not the full 750 to the top. The village was certainly awake and residents were going about their daily routines as we wandered through the streets to the entrance of the new Temple of the Goddess, snuggled up against the side of the monolith. This was a new temple, still under construction, and was one of many new additions being made to Narlai. The resident royal, Rana, said that about 45 years ago, the children of farmers realised that they could not make a good living from farming and so left to “make their fortunes”. They have since returned, and are putting their money into the village in things such as this temple and in the building of new, and restoring of old, houses. It is heartwarming to see that those people with ambition and drive have remained loyal to the place of their birth and are revitalising the community with their altruistic endeavours.
One of the many cultural activities on offer at Rawla Narlai is the ‘Stepwell Dinner’ at the 16th century Baori. Our evening began with chatting to Rana in the courtyard by the firepit, drinking Indian wine. We were waiting on other people out on the safari who were joining us, a British family of three, and they were a bit later than expected (probably doing everything possible to sight an elusive leopard on their one evening in Narlai). Before too long our dinner companions arrived, and were sat in front of the firepit with a glass to begin their evening of festivities. We were given wise words of advice by Rana, “don’t eat too much of the starters”, so with that in mind we were ready.
We were given traditional dress to wear to dinner in the form of a veil for the women and a turban for the men. Photographs were taken and we were bundled into the back of oxen carts for our journey to the stepwell (about a kilometre from the hotel). By the time we set off, it was completely dark, and after passing a few houses with their lights on, it was soon pitch black. Had no idea how the guys steering the carts could see where they were going, but the bullocks didn’t put a foot wrong (and it was more comfortable than riding the camels in the Thar Desert!).
As we approached, our driver called out in the distance and so began the melancholic notes of a horn. We rounded the corner and there stood an older man in a loincloth and a turban next to a fire blowing his welcome notes. We rounded another corner and the stepwell was revealed. What was before us was already worth the price, even before sampling the food. All around the well on all tiered levels of the ‘step’ right down to the water, were oil lamps burning, which was completely magical. Three fire pits were strategically placed in front of our tables and blankets were handed out as the temperature dropped. A local, talented musician was one level down on the stepwell and was singing and playing, setting the scene for our royal feast.
The meal was absolutely delicious, but beyond us. Rana had warned us about taking it easy on the snacks, and we tried, but really! We got three bowls of ‘snacks’ between the two of us, which would’ve normally been the size of our meal (each had six ‘kebabs’ – like little patties). Then arrived the traditional thali plate – one per person – which had been specially prepared for us vegetarians by the food and beverage manager, Dalpat Singh; malai koftas, a local green beans dish, black lentil dal, spicy chickpeas, yoghurt and corn, rice, and three types of roti (millet, corn and naan). Dessert followed and John managed to tackle that, but it was beyond me. Rice pudding, “carrot sweetness” (like a pudding), and pineapple fritters. All delicious.
We shared two bottles of wine with our new British friends and chatted away until we realised the time; the late start with the dinner meant a quickly fading evening. So we climbed into the waiting jeep for our return to our royal hunting lodge (the novelty of the bullock cart quickly wears off and at the end of the evening a relatively speedy return to one’s bed is preferred).
The next day it was time to move on, which was such a shame when the owner and his family had only just arrived and were planning extensive Christmas celebrations, including a huge stepwell party for that night (although, I doubt I would need to eat for a week after the indulgences of our own stepwell dinner!).
We said our farewells to our new Brit friends, as well as the General Manager, Gareema, whose care of us and the attention of his staff, made our stay such a unique and memorable experience. A special farewell was given by Rana; whose calm, wise presence and charming conversation made our time at Rawla Narlai a once in a lifetime encounter. We are clearly not alone in our admiration of this man; when any staff member greets him when he is seated, they touch his knee to receive blessings from him. I couldn’t bring myself to do this, but it was tempting.
Our Indian journey continues in Udaipur…
Accommodation: Rawla Narlai
Tour Company: Intense India Tours