Luxe India: Bengaluru and Rajasthan

A luxe tour of India serves up a masala of delights - from revamped royal palaces to discovering curries fit to grace a Maharaja's table.
Aerial image of Suján Jawai luxury accommodation

Suján Jawai five-star hotel in desert Rajasthan.

It’s just before dawn and I’m shadowing a red-turbaned Rabari herdsman who’s come to collect me for my leopard safari. As our feet scrunch on the gravel path, clouds of insects take wing from the long monsoon-fed grasses, drawn by the lamp he’s carrying. The churr and thrum created by the crickets and katydids build such a hypnotic wall of sound, I feel I’m in a waking dream. This dreaming-awake state is one I’ve been happily dropping in and out of since landing in India.

I flew in as a passenger on the inaugural Qantas flight from Sydney to Karnataka’s capital, Bengaluru. It’s the first time the national carrier has directly connected to southern India. I’d been advised by seasoned India-goers I’d experience sensory overload. Everything about India would be louder, more vivid and possibly more confronting than anything I’d experienced. And they weren’t wrong. Not yet halfway through an eight-day trip I’ve already lost count of the times I’ve stopped to ask myself – is this actually real?

It’s the natural drama of India that creates these magical, high-definition moments and the spell-casting reaches its zenith at far-flung Suján Jawai, a luxury safari camp in the heart of Rajasthan. We arrive in the Jawai wilderness after a three-hour drive from Jodhpur, an easy two hour and forty minute flight from Bengaluru.

Our welcome party at the gates to the Relais & Châteaux property is the opposite of low-key. There are five traditionally attired tribal musicians, drummers loudly drumming. Five members of the Suján equestrian team, one of whom is brandishing a sword, sit astride magnificent Marwari horses done out in red polo wraps to match the riders’ intricately tied turbans. We’re handed cold towels and sip rose tea cooler as we greet property managers, Avis Rodrigues and husband Amit Vivian Richard Gowli, with an impressive line-up of staff, most of whom are local, from six nearby villages.

It’s an unforgettable arrival and just as memorable is the first scan of Jawai’s post-monsoon landscape. A sea of native grasses and scrub stretches out before us interspersed with hills and rocky outcrops featuring the pink-hued curves and swoops of wonderfully weathered 850 million-year-old granite. It’s the perfect hangout for leopards.

Unbelievably we spot our first big cat, the impassive Fenella just five minutes after we arrive. The powerfully muscled mother of three cubs is sunbathing on a granite outcrop. Yusuf Ahmad Ansari, our host, vice president at Suján and director of experiences, explains it hasn’t always been so easy to find big cats at Jawai.

When Ansari stumbled on the land that was to evolve into Jawai in 2013, he’d already inspected 46 other sites, often camping out of his Jeep. The site was intensively farmed, with dense fields of mustard, sesame and wheat. And yet he was instantly struck by the beauty of the place. “I lost my way and found a site for Jawai,” he says.

The team’s subsequent rewilding efforts are being repaid handsomely. A guest conservation contribution of $40 per night, included in an all-inclusive tariff, helps. At Suján Jawai more cash flows into land and animal conservation, and to fund local community projects, than is spent maintaining this spectacular camp. As a result, the property now boasts one of the highest concentration of free-roaming leopards in the wild found anywhere in the world.

Thirty species of mammals have been recorded and 282 birds – including flamingos, which visit the mirage-like Jawai Bandh dam. In 2018 cameras filmed four adult leopards crossing the same territory in less than 90 minutes – an unheard of event. The relationship between Rabari herdsmen, villagers and leopards is also surprisingly harmonious. It’s close to 180 years since the last leopard kill – a young village girl Ansari says may have been tragically mistaken for a monkey. While Jawai feels secluded, the area is dotted with hamlets and villages, and leopards regularly wander through. They’re also seen around the 12 “tents” that make up the accommodation. As a misty dawn breaks, wild peacocks screech, and we rumble along in one of Jawai’s go-anywhere purpose-built vehicles. We’re receiving messages about leopard sightings, via Ansari’s two-way radio. But Ansari’s listening out for other clues. Peacocks honking like geese rather than screeching, is one indication leopards may be present. The peacocks’ honks are so loud and relentless they can simply annoy leopards away.

“You start to recognise the alarm calls of the prey species,” says Ansari. “By interpreting them you know if there’s anything suspicious going on.” We keep our eyes peeled, binoculars at the ready. “Leopards tend to manifest out of nothing,” Ansari explains. “You can look at a spot for five minutes, see nothing. Then you look back – and a big cat has manifested.” Later on, one of Fenella’s stunning cubs manifests, camouflaged by dappled foliage and speckled granite. She’s also just metres away from our now stationary vehicle. We’re warned to stay quiet, keep down and ensure limbs stay inside the ATV. I’m sitting right next to her and our eyes meet. It takes time for my heart rate to settle as we slowly drive away.

That night we’re invited to a feast, and clamber aboard an ancient cart hauled by two bullocks to the camp Boma, a repurposed animal enclosure. It’s decked out with hundreds of paraffin lanterns and Ansari, in a velvet jacket, is busy preparing a Rajasthani royal curry called Safed Maas using a beautiful old kadai pot over an open fire. The goat meat used (in India, most mutton is actually goat) has marinated for hours in a mixture of ginger, garlic and Kashmiri saffron. Sliced onion is sautéed in ghee and then the meat is added with the “hard” spices – green cardamom, cloves and cinnamon.

It’s just one dish in a delicious thali tasting plate, which also features ker sangri, a spicy stir-fry of caper-like berries and bean-like pods zinged up with a sweet-sour kachari powder made from a dried wild melon. When I go to bed I dream of Rajputs, royal curries and leopards with light green eyes.

Bengaluru, the gateway to India

Bengaluru, the gateway to India Bengaluru is India’s third largest city, which has seen the population balloon from 5.5 million in 2000 to more than 13 million in 2022. Generations before Bengaluru became famous as an IT hub, it was renowned as India’s Garden City. The capital’s almost 100 hectare Lalbagh Botanical Garden is where botanists brought scores of exotic trees to adjust to life in India. For travellers too, it’s the perfect place to acclimatise.

We snag lunch at the famous 98-year-old Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR). A ridiculously tasty, constantly refilled thali, dotted with delicious curries as well as dosa, roti and papads, is simply called “meals.” It’s the most expensive option at 304 rupees (around $6) – a glimpse into old Bengaluru. In stark contrast to MTR, one of Bengaluru’s newest additions is MAP, the Museum of Art and Photography, due to open this month. Abhishek Poddar, MAP’s founder-patron is a businessman and collector who’s been amassing works since he was in school. He hopes MAP will inject excitement into museum going, by connecting pop culture with more classic traditions. “We have some of the most crowded cities in the world,” says Poddar. “And some of the emptiest museums.”

Jodhpur, the blue city

It’s when I disembark in Rajasthan and ride in an auto rickshaw, to navigate the tight alleys of Jodhpur old town, I start to feel I’ve really arrived.

Raas Jodhpur is an upscale oasis, in the middle of the old town. This restored haveli mansion with airy Baradari pavilion has some of the tastiest dishes of the trip, including Rajasthani signature dish Laal Maas and the region’s millet flatbread. The property blends new and old, serving jaw-dropping views of the dramatic Mehrangarh Fort. It’s just steps away from Step Well Square and Toorji’s Step Well, an intricate marvel that used to feed into the city’s water system and now acts as a spot for locals to gather and cool off.

The Banyan Tours guide for Rajasthan is Sameer Singh, who takes us through Jodhpur’s ancient Sardar Market. It’s a colourful and chaotic experience, peering into dusty booths, stalls piled with everything from exotic fruits to sari fabrics, and an abundance of spices. A sunset tour of Mehrangarh Fort provides insider access, just as visitors leave. Inside, there are intricately decorated palaces – plural – including the Pearl Palace, the Flower Palace and the Mirror Palace, where the lights are dimmed and candles lit, creating an otherworldly feel as the sinking sun streams through stained glass windows.

Mehrangarh is one of India’s best preserved forts, attracting a million visitors a year. Here, we’re high above the maze of lanes that make up Jodhpur, so it’s a chance to survey the Blue City. There are as many hues of blue as there are theories about why its buildings are painted this colour. Some say it’s to keep houses cool and to deter mosquitoes and termites. Others think it’s how high caste Hindu Brahmins set themselves apart. Whatever the reason, it’s a vibrant place to explore as we make our way back to the hotel.

Jaipur, the pink city

On the transfer to Udaipur airport I spy an elephant, groups of langur monkeys and a massive red statue of Shiva rising 112 metres above Nathdwara. These sights pale next to the tuberose-scented splendour of Rajmahal Palace Raas Jaipur, our final hotel, a revamped palace with a 1957 Thunderbird, Jaipur’s first car, permanently parked out front. Inside it’s a riot of marble, the storied walls sporting more than 40 custom wallpapers. Past guests here include Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Diana and the Kennedys.

That evening we decamp to yet another royal hotel – the Narain Niwas Palace – to drink Negronis at Bar Palladio. At the Cloud Palace we drink chai masala with women carving out financial independence through craft skills taught by the Princess Diya Kumari Foundation.

Our trip ends with a sunrise visit to Jaipur’s grittily beautiful flower market. Here I marvel at the myriad varieties of marigolds, many spilling onto wet ground as the bitter aroma sears into my brain. It’s another India experience I know will feed my dreams.

Qantas flies direct to Bengaluru in the south of India and to Delhi in the north. A codeshare partnership with IndiGo, means travellers can connect to 11 destinations from Bengaluru, including Jodhpur and Jaipur. Banyan Tours is a luxury India travel company, which specialises in the planning and operating of bespoke and creative India journeys.

Rajmahal Palace Raas Jaipur

Raas Jodhpur

Suján Jawai Luxury Safari Camp

ITC Gardenia, Bengaluru

For more luxury hotels, tours and holiday packages, check out Luxury Escapes. For luxury hotels in Bengaluru, head over here. Or, for five-star hotels in Rajasthan, head here.

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