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Suryagarh's Manvendra Singh Shekhawat Unveils Narendra Bhawan, A Palace Hotel and Design Showpiece in Bikaner

Bikaner's Narendra Bhawan is the brainchild of Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, who turned Jaisalmer into a luxury destination after he created the fort-hotel Suryagarh five years ago.
Bikaner's Narendra Bhawan is the brainchild of Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, who turned Jaisalmer into a luxury destination after he created the fort-hotel Suryagarh five years ago.

NARENDRA SINGH, who ascended the gaddi of Bikaner state and became its titular maharaja after his illustrious father, the ace shooter, Arjuna Award winner and Member of Parliament, Karni Singh, passed away in 1988, is a somewhat shadowy figure in the contemporary history of the old royal family.
A Mayo College-Shri Ram College of Commerce alumnus, Narendra Singh was described to me as "a global bon vivant who turned his back on royal privileges and lived like a commoner" in the company of dogs and cows. Such was his love for animals, that he donated a palace to Bikaner's now-famous Rajasthan University of Veterninary and Animal Sciences. Survived by his wife (Padma Kanwarji Sahiba) and two daughters (one of them being the Bikaner East MLA and founder of the Pracheena Museum at Junagadh Fort, Siddhi Kumari), he passed away in 2003 at the age of 57.
The forgotten maharaja has just got posthumous immortality with the opening of Narendra Bhawan, an 82-keys boutique hotel, at the site of his old bungalow at a distance from the royal palace. A brainchild of the model-turned-hotelier Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, the young man behind Suryagarh, the fort-hotel that put Jaisalmer on the tourist map, Narendra Bhawan is a design statement, where Bombay Art Deco meets Raj Mandir, Jaipur, and the Chevron Weave meet Rajputana architecture dramatically highlighted by latticed screens -- all pieced together by the hugely talented Ayush Kasliwal. And the man conducting this creative symphony is the consummate host and raconteur, the lungi-clad Karan Singh, formerly of The Fullerton Hotel, Singapore, whose unusual choice of dress for a hotelier belies his sophistication and hawk-like eye for detail.
I asked Shekhawat, over kachoris I instantly fell in love with, why he is investing in hotels in places that are not yet on the tourist map. His answer was instant: "What more can I add to Jaipur and Udaipur? Why should people even care for me in established destinations?" (His next big hotel project is scheduled come up in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, home of the white tiger, where he proposes to re-develop fort-palace languishing on a river island.)
Shekhawat's grand plan for Rajasthan is to create a second Golden Triangle consisting of Jaisalmer, Bikaner and Nagaur. I looked up the locations of the three districts on the Rajasthan map and they form an inverted V, like the Chevron patterns that are all over Narendra Bhawan, and there's also Jodhpur that you can add to this triumvirate, although, with Jaipur and Udaipur, it is part of the original Golden Triangle. Jaipur, too, is not outside Shekhawat's line of vision. He is developing a sprawling residential neighbourhood on its outskirts, which he proposes to turn into a food and events destination.
Shekhawat and Singh believe that a hotel can create a destination by offering experiences that are unique to the location. At Bikaner's Laxmi Niwas Palace, a 114-year-old architectural spectacle designed by Samuel Swinton Jacob, builder of Jaipur and creator of the Indo-Saracenic style, and managed by Shekhawat's MRS Group, guests are invited to discover the town with knowledgeable people hired by the company. You could have camel milk ice-cream at the National Research Centre on Camel (NRCC), or buy camel leather bags embellished with Utsa work, along with the original Bikaneri bhujiya, or book a session with the redoubtable astrologer, Munna Maharaj, or visit the Junagadh Fort, or check out the rats nibbling away the evening prasad at the Karni Mata temple in Deshnoke.
Incidentally, with Narendra Bhawan coming up, Laxmi Niwas Palace will undergo a major renovation that will turn the sprawling complex into an all-suite hotel. The Palace, according to the renovation plan, will return to its original format of having 13 or so apartments, each with enough room to house four members of a family. Bikaner hasn't experienced luxury of this kind, but Karan Singh is confident that there's a market for such luxury in a tourist destination in the making. People will buy into this luxury, he reasons, because it goes beyond quality accommodation and adds one-of-their-kind curated experiences to discerning guests.
Narendra Bhawan, meanwhile, will inveigle you with its edgy design. Ming vases; Portuguese unglazed porcelain tiles (imported from Topcer) of the kind you'll find in old Mumbai and Goa houses; a bright red pianoforte (named Ella!) strategically placed at the passage leading to the lobby-level loos; Usta decorative work (vegetable dyes and gold lining) on camel leather; "a celebration of colours" (to quote Karan Singh) -- to name some: powder blue, cinnebar, primrose and bottle green (the colour of all the tables lamps in the hotel); a khidmatgar at every floor; and a rooftop infinity swimming pool with a barbecue zone.
That's not all. Narendra Bhawan will be the only hotel in the country with a gaushala, in the memory of the animal-loving maharaja, with four resident cows of the Rathi stock. "You can have a private raas leela in this space, which will also have a herb garden," informs Karan Singh. Like everything in Narendra Bhawan, tradition meets modernity at every corner. Even the spa comes with a history. It will be the only one in the country to offer flower remedies to control negative emotions -- these were developed by the English doctor, Edward Bach, in the 1920s and 1930s. And it will come equipped with mattresses developed by NASA so that its guests improve their blood circulation by aligning the magnetic fields of their bodies with those of the earth.
The one notable highlight that grabbed my attention was the 750 sq. ft. Republic Suite, which, in another first for a hotel in the country, is dedicated to an architect -- the legendary Habib Rahman, who's responsible for just about all of New Delhi's post-Independence landmarks, from Rabindra Bhawan to the Zoological Park. Rahman is remembered at Narendra Bhawan in photographs of the Capital's Shiela cinema, the first in India to have a 70mm screen, which was among the many buildings he had designed. The photographs have been shot by the architect's son, photographer and political activist Ram Rahman.
The all-day dining restaurant -- named P&C after Pearls and Chiffon, the dress code of blue-blooded Rajput women -- also has a few surprises: a delicatessen counter from the 1950s, lovingly called the Mad Hatter, with a cold-drip coffee maker and rum balls on the menu; soorma daanis of the yesteryear doubling as salt and pepper shakers; a hibachi grill; and a make-your-own-soda-pop machine. It is Karan Singh's dream to revive the good old tradition of servers flambéing crepes suzette or a baked Alaska by the tableside at the restaurant.
All this, and more, in Bikaner? Karan Singh is confident that there's a market for experiential luxury in Bikaner as much as in the world.


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Sourish Bhattacharyya

After 28 years in active journalism, I have decided to quit the hurly-burly of daily newspapers and the joy of editing (massacring?) the copy of helpless souls, and become the master of my own time. I am a columnist with Mail Today, the India Today Group's daily newspaper published from Delhi/NCR.

Photo of the Day

  • The Iranian Halwa (in the foreground), which I photographed during my chat with Anaida at Soda Bottle Opener Wala, Khan Market, reminded me so much of the kadha parshad at the Golden Temple in Amritsar that I was convinced its recipe had been brought back to India by Guru Nanak's entourage, which passed by Iran on its way to Mecca. The ingredients of the Iranian Halwa are wheat flour, cooked with rose water in ghee, and flavoured with nuts and cinnamon. In the background you can see another Iranian beauty, Shole Zard, or 'yellow flame' saffron rice pudding made from aromatic rice flavoured with saffron and almonds.

After 28 years in active journalism, I have decided to quit the hurly-burly of daily newspapers and the joy of editing (massacring?) the copy of helpless souls, and become the master of my own time...


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