A bedroom in Samode Mahal
A bedroom in Samode Mahal

Around India in 40 hotels

  • A new book by Roli takes a leisurely look at some of the most outstanding and storied properties across the country
  • The curation is both eclectic as well as diverse

Joan Didion, in her 1979 essay In The Islands, wrote, “Of course great hotels have always been social ideas, flawless mirrors to the particular societies they service. Had there never been an Empire there would not have been a Raffles." This idea holds true for the 40 properties showcased in publishing house Roli’s recent book, Glorious Hotels Of India. Each hotel offers a singular imprint of the place it belongs to, drawing on the history, geography, cultural traditions, art, architecture and food.

Writers Cosmo Brockway and Harriet Compston teamed up and travelled across the country seeking hotels that had a “unique spirit". Their slow travelling style and languid descriptions are accentuated by photographer Karam Puri, who turns his lens on subtle details—an antique rattan armchair silhouetted against the setting sun at Ahilya by the Sea, Goa; a staff member arranging symmetrical serviettes for a brunch at The Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra; a magic-realist mural on the wall by artist Shilo Shiv Suleiman in the village around Alsisar Mahal in Alsisar, Rajasthan; a resplendent family portrait of designer couple Muzaffar and Meera Ali and their daughter Sama on the terrace of their family home and boutique hotel, Kotwara House in Lucknow.

It is details like these that transform each excursion to a new hotel into a snapshot and a travel story. There are no clinical guidebook descriptions of rooms, prices and deals; rather, there is atmosphere, history and art. The Bujera Fort hotel in Udaipur, owned by friends Richard Hanlon and Trish McFarlane, is a case in point. The moody description of the East meets West minutiae that make up the charming property transports the reader to it: “The airy, high-ceilinged rooms blend princely India with English country house. Every possession tells a story—chintz, toile and ikat are given free reign, and linen that was once Hanlon’s grandmother’s curtains now covers sofas. A baby grand piano is cloaked in silver foil and topped with banks of family photographs…. A fire crackles in the handsome fireplace of the book-lined library during winter months."

The Alila Fort Bishangarh in Rajasthan
The Alila Fort Bishangarh in Rajasthan

The curation is both eclectic as well as diverse, covering everything from a three-villa hideaway in a riverside Goan village to sprawling luxury hotels in historic palaces in Rajasthan. A sumptuous Ritz Carlton in Bengaluru is equally at home in this selection as it creates a new benchmark for contemporary design and collects 1,240 artworks—at the time of its opening, this was believed to be the single largest collection owned by any hotel in the world. A very different aesthetic infuses the cedar and teak-panelled Sukoon, a houseboat on Srinagar’s Dal Lake. Design, food and furnishings are all inspired by Kashmiri traditions and hospitality.

And then there are the hotels that cannot be left out of any list cataloguing the country’s grandest hotels. This includes the 560-room Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, a hotel that is “worthy of Mumbai". Freedom fighters were housed here for free during the independence movement, and, in a symbolic move, this hotel (more specifically its steps) became the place from where Earl Mountbatten gave his farewell address before leaving India for good in June 1948. In 2008, the hotel was the site of a terrorist attack during which 31 people died and large parts of the property were destroyed. Just like the city, the Taj too has rebuilt itself for every new decade.

And then there are the properties which derive their identities and penchant for hospitality from their charming owners. Belgian designer Loulou Van Damme had a simple idea for her home—“It has to be mad and it has to be beautiful"—and this translated into Loulou’s Land, a two-bedroom colonial bungalow perched on the edge of a cliff in Dindigul in Tamil Nadu’s Palani Hills. The fragrance of raat ki rani fills the air and a wonderful hotchpotch of textiles, objects and art imbues the place with perfect imperfection.

A similar eccentricity drives visitors to Kandadu House. French designer Jean-Francois Lesage’s ties to India were firmed up with his purchase of a 19th century manor house in a village between Chennai and Puducherry. Sheltered behind striking boundary walls, the beautifully designed Kandadu House and its owner have become the stuff of local curiosity as well as legend. He is often considered the “eccentric firangi raja with a fabled menagerie" and the many dogs, peacocks and exotic birds in his home just help perpetuate this myth.

 Kandadu House in Kandadu, Tamil Nadu
 Kandadu House in Kandadu, Tamil Nadu

Erstwhile royals Abhimanyu and Sanyukta Singh indulge guests with desert hospitality at their 10-acre family home, Alsisar Mahal, while Meera and Muzaffar Ali use their restored palatial home in Lucknow as a space to showcase the traditional crafts of Awadh as well as a wonderfully unique cuisine influenced by the family’s diverse history.

Perhaps the greatest insight to be gained from this book is the very home-grown idiom of hospitality and luxury that is channelled through all these properties. As James Jayasundera, founder of London-based luxury tour company Ampersand Travel, writes in the Introduction: “The (India’s) hotel industry has matured. Standards have risen beyond all recognition, and there is a breakaway from the cookie-cutter approach to hotel design, with a growing appreciation for individuality and beautifully restored heritage properties…. Another development is an increasing pride in Indian culture and the confidence to create genuinely Indian hotels."

And that is what makes each of these hotels truly glorious.

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