Laveena and I were once asked by someone who knew our penchant for travel, whether we were Aman Junkies. Since neither of us were familiar with the term, we inquired as to what an Aman Junkie was? We were told that the luxurious Aman had a dedicated fan base, travelers who were loyal to the brand and who were devoted to the treasures offered by this super hospitality group to all who chose to experience the magic of Aman. “In fact, a true Aman junkie is known to plan his vacation according to the 32 resort locations around the world”, we were told. When asked what about the Aman made the experience so different from the other top of the line hotel brands like the Four Seasons, The Oberoi or the Taj, we were told that the Aman promised to help guests ‘lock away cherished memories for life’. This simple response was enough to raise our curiosity and we immediately began scouting around for an Aman property in India given that Laveena had a short weekend break in December.
In India, there are two Aman properties, both in Rajasthan. We chose the Amanbagh (peaceful garden) over the Aman-i-khas, only because of its proximity to Jaipur and the fact that we had a time constraint. The Aman-i-khas is a luxury tented campsite neighbouring Ranthambore National Park, a destination we both are keen to do when time permits. The Amanbagh meanwhile is located in the village of Ajabgarh, 90 kilometers outside of Jaipur. The valley at the foot of the Aravalli mountains is where the Amanbagh is located and this valley and the area surrounding it was once the hunting ground of the Maharajah of Alwar. The Maharajah would hunt in the dense jungles of Sariska and would camp and rest in the valley where Amanbagh is located. The property itself is a beautiful garden retreat which evokes a rich local culture and the princely pleasures of the Mughal era. The Amanbagh pays homage to this magical time in our history with taste and aplomb. The stone wall surrounding Amanbagh remains a silent witness to the golden era of maharajas and the Great Emperor Akbar.
We were met at the airport by our designated hotel chauffeur Ratan Singh who looked regal in his orange turban and crisp uniform. An hour and thirty minutes later, we drove into the garden estate of Amanbagh and were warmly welcomed by the staff at this haveli style, pale pink marble oasis among the outcrops of the Aravalli mountain range. Prateek Kumar, the impeccably dressed and charming young hotel manager, gave us a brief introduction to the property and introduced us to our personal manager Jitender who walked us to our room, one of 40 elegant suites and pavilions which made up the palatial grandeur of this mystical resort. Housed within domed cupolas and regal entrances, the Mughal era styled room was finished in rich marble and polished pink stone. We had a private courtyard which overlooked the pool and we were surrounded by a lush garden in which hibiscus, frangipanis, and fruit trees lent their natural sweet aromas to the winter air.
Once we were settled in our magnificently decorated room, we stepped out for a walk in the organic garden on the hotel grounds. Here we saw first hand, where most of the fresh greens, herbs, and vegetables used in the Amanbagh kitchen were grown. The pure underground water of the Aravalli valley and the fertile land were responsible for some delicious produce. The home-grown farm to table process was well represented in the high-quality salad we ate at lunch that day. At 4:40 pm that afternoon, we were introduced to Sitaram, Amanbagh’s prized naturalist, who was to be our guide on an evening walk to the Birkadi Hamlet.
As we walked on rough terrain through rural Rajasthan, we were amazed at Sitaram’s wide repertoire of knowledge on the local flora and fauna and on the large variety of birds in the region. He pointed out several spindly machans or lookouts in the open fields, used by local farmers to guard their crop, from foraging antelope and boar. As we neared the village, we heard in the distance, young singing voices. Sitaram said that as the sun set, the children of the village would meet at the temple and sing songs in praise of Kabir, a 15th-century Indian mystic poet and saint, whose writings influenced Hinduism’s Bhakti movement. We were drawn to the mellifluous voices and almost as if they were expecting us, the moment we reached the bottom of the steps which lead to the temple in the mountain, a sea of children came rushing down to greet us. They were so very excited to see new faces that they grabbed our hands and insisted we visit their homes for tea. We agreed only if they promised to continue to sing in their honey toned voices. The sun had set and it was getting dark. Sitaram said that we should make our way back soon. Half the village seemed to be out now as they all tried in vain to get us to visit their homes. Never before had we encountered strangers who were so genuinely warm and friendly, to the point that one lady with a child insisted we name her newborn son. After a warm cup of tea accompanied by songs sung in the silk like innocent voices of the children, we were ready to leave. But not before each of the children hugged us and waved goodbye.
Halfway down the path to our hotel, we were met by an open Aman jeep which drove us to the Barakhambi Temple. We reached just in time for the evening Aarti. The moment we stepped in, the wiry temple priest with a coloured tilaka on his forehead, handed us small cymbals which were known as taals. Taal comes from the Sanskrit word Tālà, which literally means a clap. He explained that once the devotional prayer began and the temple bells rang, we should in unison use the cymbals he had handed us as part of the ritual. The experience was spiritually uplifting and when done, we returned to our hotel and rested for a bit before heading out to dinner. The Indian spread that evening belonged to the tables of the Maharajah. A whole roast leg of mutton was served to us, vast and impressive. Dressed in Indian spices, there was lots of tender and delicious red meat with a texture that was soft and melting.
We had an early start the next day as the hotel had organised for us a visit to Bhangarh, a medieval town, now abandoned as the locals believe it is haunted. The fort at Bhangarh, was built in the 17th century by Man Singh for his brother Madho Singh who in turn named it after his grandfather Bhan Singh. No one is allowed to remain in the precinct of the fort at night as legend has it that ghosts roam the village. Sitaram, the hotel naturalist and our guide told us that a wizard who lived in the village fell in love with the princess of Bhangarh as she was very beautiful. One day princess Ratnavati went to the village market with her friends to buy some scented perfume. The Wizard replaced the perfume with a love potion which he believed would get the princess to fall in love with him. However, Ratnavati was a clever woman who saw through the trickery and when offered the potion, threw it onto a large boulder. The boulder immediately rolled to where the wizard was standing and crushed him. But as he was dying, he cursed the village of Bhangarh. He said it would be destroyed soon. Shortly after, the Mughals invaded the village and its inhabitants, including princess Ratnavati were killed. It is believed that the ghosts of the village people, the princess and the wizard, haunt Bhangarh to this day.
That morning, the Amanbagh had organised a lavish breakfast spread for us at a temple located in Bhangarh. After a short walk through the rugged outcrops not far from the Bhangarh fort, Sitaram directed us to a temple where Mukesh and Mayank, waiting staff from the hotel, had laid out on the temple foyer, low tables a soft mattress with cushions for us to sit on. We were served refreshingly sweet pomegranate juice and a generous breakfast of fresh fruits, cereals, sprouts mixed with Indian spices and some South Indian Idlis.
We were back at the hotel before noon and looked forward to our Maharajah and Maharani signature spa treatment scheduled for the afternoon. The Aman spa offers a wide range of treatments which are personally overseen by Dr. Sunil, the in house physician and wellness expert who selects treatments drawing on India’s 5000 year old system of preventive medicine.
After a light lunch we prepared for the Cow dust tour. It is these efforts made by the Aman that is the essential difference between it and other luxury hotel brands. The Aman helps you immerse yourself in the local culture of the place you visit. The hotel makes visitors experience nearby places like never before. We started of with a camel ride intro rural Rajasthan and as we headed out toward the setting sun, we realised why they named this the cow dust tour. For this was the time when the cows were lead home along the dusty village road, to a place which to us looked like it was unsullied by the complexities of modern urban civilisation. Life in the village may have appeared simple, but it was clearly self-sufficient with few ties to the outside world. To witness the happiness the local villagers felt was humbling and enriching. Once again we were invited to the home of a local villager whose family opened up their hearts and made us feel ever so welcome. In the courtyard, the man of the house was on his haunches, smoking a hookah and negotiating a tobacco sale with two men from a nearby village. He invited me to try his hookah. I politely declined. He went on to say that while he completed the sale, we should make ourselves comfortable at his home which he said we could treat as our own. This trait of warmth and hospitality was not unique to him alone. It was seen evident in all the friendly villagers who greeted us that day. After a drink of tea, we returned to the hotel where we had an elaborate welcome planned as a surprise for us both as a pre-anniversary celebration. The staff waited in the courtyard of our room. The moment we entered, we were amazed at the fabulous decorations made with diyas and marigold flowers. The staff sang a romantic hindi love song while showering us with rose petals. We were told that dinner that evening was a surprise.
Dressed in Indian finery, we were directed to the Library terrace where a table for two, overlooking the hotel pool was set up. Hundreds of candles were placed along the terrace while on the marble floor an elaborate flower decoration with 16 tee lights and a single candle, totalling to 17 for our wedding anniversary date, the 17th of December, were artistically laid out. Mukesh was to wait on us that evening and he did so with flair and finesse. The Murgh musallam, a dish served at royal Mughal feasts and prepared by chef Ram in the kitchens of Amanbagh, under the watchful eye of Manas, the FNB manager, was mouthwateringly divine. What strikes you as special at the Amanbagh is how brilliantly it blends the overall guest experience into the local culture and how sincere and understated their standards of hospitality are. Addressing each guest as Sahib and Sahiba, comes so very effortlessly to each staff member. Not once were we asked for our room number nor were we given a check to sign. This they believe is a rude intrusion and this is a touch we haven’t experienced at any other hotel thus far. It certainly adds a very special touch. And yes, there is something else which the Aman does very well. A majority of their staff are recruited from the local village near which the hotel is located. The staff, are put through a rigourous training process which makes it impossible for you to see the rawness which may have existed before they were hired. This is a huge advantage given their immense first hand knowledge about the area and the stories which go with it. Santosh and Sriram, who used to regularly wait on us at breakfast, are both, very well known, for their deep knowledge about the local area and we loved their enthusiasm and eagerness to share stories about their village and the surrounding areas with all the hotel guests. Only if and when asked, of course.
Another, point to note is the frequency at which our rooms were made up. Every time, we stepped out, even for a brief walk around the property, the housekeeping staff would magically appear and make up our room. Soiled towels would be replaced and our bed would be neatened to perfection. I believe that because every staff member loves what they do, they genuinely open up their hearts and let you into their world, the mystical world of Aman.
At 7:30 am the next morning, we set out on a trek to the Somsagar lake. After a brief uphill climb, we walked through two narrow gorges of white marble rocks and shrubbery. After a short 30 minute trek we arrived at a lake which we were told was commissioned during the golden era of the Mughal dynasty. After clicking a few photos on my brand new GoPro Hero 5 Black, we were ready for breakfast by the lake. The kitchens at Amanbagh had put together yet another delicious spread which was set up by the lake which served as a watering hold for wildlife and birds. A stone inscription nearby, said that the lake was build in 1590 at the time when Akbar the great, the Emperor of India, visited Ajabgarh. We headed back after breakfast and were sad to be leaving the hotel later that afternoon.
We walked around the property one last time before we headed out to the airport. At this time we discussed if after this brief visit we would qualify as Aman Junkies. And we both agreed that although the Amanbagh was far better than we had ever imagined and that it stood out above the competition based on the many nuances the group was so well known for, it would take us a few more experiences to label us as hooked and all of this would depend on the consistency of luxury and service offered at the other Aman properties.