Jodhpur is where the mighty gather. Or that is the cliché, burnished into the world’s imagination by photographs and videos of magnificent parties at the royal palace, Umaid Bhawan. Sting has performed there. Elizabeth Hurley got married there. Supermodel Naomi Campbell brought a planeload of people to celebrate her boyfriend’s birthday in 2012. Artists such as Dayanita Singh and Anish Kapoor are regular visitors to this beautiful city in Rajasthan, as are cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and industrialist Mukesh Ambani.

But the city is more than the playground of the global elite. Jodhpur bursts with beauty and history, the famous blue quarter only one aspect of it. The city’s backstory as a major kingdom and trading post of Rajasthan has bestowed it with a unique, home-grown culture that grants to the visitor an architectural experience like no other.

Now, a new project that is reviving and renewing significant parts of old Jodhpur aims to challenge the clichés that surround the fortress city. “People just can’t get over the red sandstone, the Blue City and the turbaned man driving an Ambassador," says V. Sunil, one of the three principals of the JDH Urban Regeneration Project, which kicked off in 2014 but has intensified its work this year. “That’s a lazy person’s idea of Jodhpur. There’s more to this city and more to this project."

We are sitting in the poolside restaurant of Raas, a boutique hotel in Jodhpur. Sunil, a former creative director of the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy India and the creative vision behind the multifaceted branding of Kochi Muziris Biennale, is keen to rebrand the city. He is aware that in this 15th century walled city, like so many other Rajasthani locales, there is a tendency to overplay the romance. His focus lies in finding the balance between the old and the new, in an attempt to create a sustainable model of development. The JDH Urban Regeneration Project combines real estate development and architectural restoration, creating retail and cultural spots within the walled city.

The grain market, which is being redesigned as a food experience centre.
The grain market, which is being redesigned as a food experience centre.

On a rainy July day, Sunil and one of his partners in the venture, hotelier Dhananajaya Singh, a cousin of the erstwhile prince of Jodhpur, walked us through the narrow lanes of the historic walled city; we sat on the steps of a newly restored 18th century step-well and watched workers engaged in the arduous, complex process of repair, restoration and renewal. Nostalgia has its place in the new branding for the city but it is being polished to perfection.

Not built in a day

To understand the scope of the JDH Urban Regeneration Project, it is important to consider the cityscape. The walled city lies on the eastern edge of the Great Thar desert, with the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort framing the backdrop. Built by the Rajput chief Rao Jodha in 1459, Jodhpur is older than both Jaipur (1727) and Udaipur (mid-16th century).

The recently restored 18th century step-well, Toorji Ka Jhalra.
The recently restored 18th century step-well, Toorji Ka Jhalra.

As a tourist destination, Jodhpur gets fewer visitors than the state capital Jaipur, for instance. According to the Rajasthan tourism department’s 2016 report, Jaipur has over 2.1 million domestic and international visitors, while Jodhpur was host to only about half that, just over 1.1 million. But this helps its image of being a discerning tourist’s destination. Some travellers, in fact, barely move beyond the manicured grounds of art deco Umaid Bhawan, built by maharaja Umaid Singh, and now one of the Taj group’s most luxurious hotels in India.

Jodhpur is most famous for its walled city, an incredible 2 sq. km maze of streets, bazaars, public tanks, and homes that seem to be stacked on top of each other. Like many medieval cities, the walled city, consisting of the historic old quarters, is densely packed. Its streets are so planned as to remain shaded for most of the day, when the sun beats down mercilessly, also providing protection, for the common folk, from the vast desert that surrounds them. The famous Blue City, or Brahmapuri, is the Brahmin quarter, where the houses are painted powder blue with the locally found natural dye of indigo. “It keeps the homes cool in the summer, and it’s a bug-repellent," says Singh.

Thehavelis have courtyards, facades with intricate carving and gorgeous jharokhas, the overhanging enclosed balconies that were once popular in Rajasthan. The chowk is surrounded by temples, mosques and schools. All this lies within the pols, the old city’s six gates—all still standing, and named after the cities they face. The bazaars are segregated by wares: spices, cloth, jewellery, grains, an entire betel-and-nut lane. The Sadar Clock Tower looms above.

It is this 2 sq. km area that is the canvas for JDH’s grand urban plan. “The project is ambitious, but it’s doable at this scale. If you ask me to think of all of Jodhpur, I can’t even get my head around it," says Singh.

An archival image of the grain market. Photographs by Priyanka Parashar/Mint
An archival image of the grain market. Photographs by Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Water in the Ground

The process has been rewarding. In the old city’s north-eastern quarter is Toorji Ka Jhalra, a step-well built in the 1740s. Until 2014, it was filled to the brim with toxic water owing to years of waste being piled up. In 2015, then district collector Preetam Yeshwant, the Nagar Nigam (Jodhpur’s municipal corporation), public health engineering department, volunteers and local youth, in collaboration with the JDH team, cleaned it up, revealing the architectural wonder buried underneath, all at a cost of “about Rs15 lakh", says Singh. “We did most of it with manual processes, avoiding dredgers that would scar the stone, only sand-blasting in the last stages to clean the inch-thick white toxic layer on the surface." Today the step-well is a vibrant space, even the setting for religious ceremonies for Hindus as well as Muslims, with a separate shed for evening prayers. And as the local boys dive into its 180ft depth, tourists try to capture them on camera.

“While we were cleaning, we discovered that stumbh in the rubble," says Singh, pointing to an installation at the far end of the step-well. “Every water body has a presiding deity, like a foundation stone. We used to wonder where it had gone. Then we found it last year."

Perched precariously at the top edge of the step-well is the new Step Well Café; its balcony opens to the depths of Toorji Ka Jhalra on one side and the heights of Mehrangarh Fort on the other.

Next on the team’s clean-up agenda is Gulab Sagar Lake, another garbage-filled water tank, about a 10-minute walk from the step-well. “In Jodhpur, water tanks and step-wells are our parks, you see," says Singh with a smile.

Leaving the step-well square, we enter the surrounding havelis, built adjacent to each other and often interconnected internally. The JDH team has acquired or leased these properties and is in the process of converting them into boutique stores, rooftop restaurants and bars. “We’ve invited brands that have a strongly Indian, artisanal essence, but are contemporary and designed well, brands that can sit comfortably anywhere in the world," says Sunil. Each brand is building showrooms in its individual style—but with a distinct Jodhpur inspiration.

One haveli, now called the Moon House, has a front porch that invites you to pause and look up at the intricately carved façade. It is home to three stores: There is Andraab, a Kashmiri brand that sells handwoven pashmina; a narrow staircase leads up to the Nicobar store, nearly complete with the signature wanderlust feel the brand aspires to capture in its clothing and interiors; and adjoining this is the Good Earth store, still under construction, a lone floor-polishing machine scrubbing its terrazzo surface. There is 700 sq. ft of Pichwai art on the walls and ceilings of the store. “It’s an expression of contemporary heritage in a whimsical, Indian style," says Beenu Bawa, director of special products at Good Earth. “We engaged Udaipuri artists from multi-generational Pichwai families." For this project, Bawa has collaborated with Mumbai-based architect Rooshad Shroff, known for his minimal, conceptual approach to interiors and design.

Across the street is the Forest Essentials store, an intimate space well-suited to the gold-capped bottles of luxury Ayurveda. A little way down is Laxmi Niwas—the first haveli to be acquired—which houses fashion designer Rajesh Pratap Singh, leather furniture maker Portside Café, local accessories store Forty Red Bangles, jewellery store Gem Palace, JDH’s in-house brand Royal Blue, and the design store Play Clan, among others. “We want to mix it up with luxury brands and mid-level brands. Even the local paanwala should have his stall," says Sunil.

A walk through these havelis, in the process of being reincarnated into contemporary stores, offers the feel of an excavation. Each is connected with narrow staircases, windows and doors opening into each other. The low ceilings, brass doorknobs and latches create a tactile impression of an ancient world. Guided by the constant commentary of Sunil and Singh, on matters ranging from folklore to architectural details—“we had to scrape off layers of cement and paint to uncover the original stone underneath," says Singh—and Sunil’s exhaustive mental list of people who might be invited to participate, it’s a retail experience vastly different from a shopping mall.

V. Sunil (left) and Mohit Dhar Jayal.
V. Sunil (left) and Mohit Dhar Jayal.

Flying High

The Jodhpur Flying Club was set up in 1924 by maharaja Umaid Singh, who also built the famous art deco palace that bears his name. Jodhpur has a long tradition of aristocratic pursuits acquired via the British, from flying to polo and other equestrian sports.

The JDH model is keen on building on the city’s cultural heritage. “As a more ambitious plan, we are in talks with the airport authorities and the erstwhile maharaja of Jodhpur, Gaj Singh, to revive the flying club," says Singh. “We had the first international airbase in India. The first London to Melbourne flight landed here (to refuel) in 1931," says Singh. Polo continues to this day, “but outsiders hardly have access to it, unless you know someone in Jodhpur," says Sunil.

In the pipeline is a concierge service that will provide access to all these activities. “So if you check into any one of the hotels, you can play golf, go boating, join the flying club or watch polo," says Sunil.

Another ground-floor space at the step-well has been allocated to a library and book store. A 10-minute autorickshaw ride from the step-well leads you to the local grain market, at the centre of which stands an exquisite shell of a building. “It used to be the historic bourse, where traders would buy and sell their grain," says Singh, who leased the building from the government in 2015. “We’re planning to redo this as a food and cuisine experience centre," says Sunil.

A short ride away, the recently acquired Ram Singh ki Haveli will become a luxury boutique hotel. However, the quaintest—“and possibly oldest", Singh says—of these properties involves a ride all the way up to the fort. This is Victory House, tranquil and serene, away from the hustle and bustle of the city below. “We’re thinking of putting a spa and wellness centre here," says Sunil.

The Good Earth store being constructed in Moon House.
The Good Earth store being constructed in Moon House.

All this requires a significant upgradation of infrastructure—electrification, air conditioning, plumbing—to equip these havelis for the modern-day cultural and retail experience. Akshat Bhatt of Architecture Discipline, a New Delhi firm overseeing some of the reconstruction, points out the dual nature of work: “In a project like this, there is, of course, the work of memory, of history. But one also needs to create new memories," he says in a phone interview. So, in addition to the local materials, some new materials like corten steel have been introduced in some places. There is some clear glass, “which nicely distinguishes from the bulkiness of the sandstone", says Bhatt.

The JDH team is working with the support of local government bodies to modernize the electric system. “This step-well square was a maze of electric wires crisscrossing the entire area, most of which have been shifted underground." As part of a clean energy initiative, the first batch of five electric three-wheelers called Zbees, run by the “lean engineering" Swedish company Clean Motion, are on the way. Water and waste management systems are next on the agenda. “A project like this can’t be carried out without the help of government bodies," says Singh.

“When you have the right kind of partnership," Sunil adds, “especially when it’s with the government, with all its might, you can think of ideas with ambition and scale." He should know, having worked with the Union government on the Incredible India! and Make In India brand campaigns that were led (on the government’s side) by Amitabh Kant, CEO of Niti Aayog. Kant, who has not seen JDH’s restoration work yet, says: “Building the cities of the future, and rebuilding the cities of the past, is a national imperative. Ideally, it should be a collective exercise, driven not just by the government but also by the passion and energy of socially minded entrepreneurs."

The Step Well Café.
The Step Well Café.

The people behind JDH

The JDH project’s three principal members have intertwining backgrounds. V. Sunil and Mohit Dhar Jayal together run Motherland Joint Ventures Pvt. Ltd, a lifestyle content company. They were previously executive creative director and managing director, respectively, at Wieden+Kennedy, India. The third member, Kanwar Dhananajaya Singh, co-owns the boutique hotels Raas in Jodhpur and Devigarh in Udaipur. He is an historian and the author of the book The House Of Marwar (Roli, 1994).

The idea of the JDH project originated with the Raas hotel, a 1.5 acre property with 39 rooms, built by Dhananajaya’s brother Nikhilendra Singh in 2008-09. “At Raas we felt we were confined to a pocket of greenery and architecture. The next natural step was to expand outwards," says Dhananajaya.

Singh and Jayal have been friends since school. Once Sunil was on board, they began to think about a new future for old Jodhpur. In 2014, they incorporated Blue City Hospitality Pvt. Ltd (BCHPL), with the JDH Regeneration Project as their one-point programme. It is currently funded by private investors, including Gaj Singh, Nicholas Allan and Jonathan Boyer, Hong Kong- and London-based fund managers (also principal investors of Raas hotels), and Anita Lal, founder of Good Earth. “When Mrs Lal first came to Jodhpur to see our work, she asked me incredulously, you just want me to open a shop here?" says Singh.

“My aim is to invest in and encourage projects that work towards restoring our heritage and making it relevant to today," says Lal on email. Philanthropy and passion may drive some of the participating brands and investors, but commerce, specifically real estate development, is at the heart of this model. “Consider the portfolio of investment we’ve built already," says Singh. “Some of the best areas and havelis are now part of this company."

Dhananajaya Singh at Raas hotel, Jodhpur.
Dhananajaya Singh at Raas hotel, Jodhpur.

Rising from the ruins

Standing on a half-broken ledge of Victory House, the Blue City spread out in front of us, Jodhpur resembles the rooftops of Istanbul. Over the last decade, Turkey has carried out a very visible and successful tourism-led urban regeneration programme that involved heritage, hospitality and culture. So have other cities and countries. Walking the lanes of Jodhpur could one day be like wandering the cobbled streets of Québec City in Canada, where arts-and-craft galleries, restaurants and bars dot the 17th century French Quarter. A recent comparison might be made to New York’s High Line. A decrepit railway line that used to run on the west side of Manhattan, unused for several decades, was revitalized as an elevated walkway that is beautifully landscaped, lined with street food and art galleries, and plays host to performance art. It is cited as a design intervention that is culturally and ecologically sensitive. Yet even New York is confronting the adverse effects of urban gentrification.

The JDH team is dealing with living heritage, unique to ancient cities where history and modernity live side by side. They are well aware that an urban development project can spin out of control. “I sometimes worry about becoming a victim of our own success," says Singh, as he shows us a parking area being built behind one of the havelis. “Parking is something I worry about. We are looking at public transport, at cycle renting and sharing. There is a way of life here; a lehaaz, respect and courtesy that’s an integral part of our culture. I worry about changing that."

Designed by Delhi-based firm Studio Lotus, Raas is built in traditional sandstone, though its treatment is minimal and modern. A series of slim, perforated sandstone screens make up the façade. These were handmade in an age-old technique by a team of masons who are working primarily on the ongoing restoration of Mehrangarh Fort—a separate project that is being implemented by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, established in 1972.

“These masons are, in fact, descendants of the same families who built the fort itself (in the 15th century)," says Singh. “We invited this team of stone workers to work at Raas. They were camped here, where you now see the lawns. They made those screens over many months, chipping away at the stone with their tools and all the while creating a beautiful sound that we call tanka. We say ‘tanka baje re’,and it is considered an auspicious sound, because to continue building is a sign of prosperity. That is why in old havelis construction work never stopped, because the sound was meant to go on and on," he says.

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