We knew we had left Delhi behind, soon after we left the Hapur bypass onto a track that really tested the car's suspension, Tribhuvan got out to buy cigarettes and there was no Wills Navy Cut. Of course, I hadn't believed it was possible. We had only been driving an hour and a half out of the city, and for the first half of those, Delhi/NCR gave way grudgingly, the malls refusing to end, and then for the next half an hour there was only the industrial squalor and masses of plastic waste of Ghaziabad. But then we were on a 'country road', with sugarcane growing tall on either side and a bail gaadi ambling past us, and finally we were in Kuchesar in western Uttar Pradesh, the most unlikely setting for a heritage hotel.
No walled city, no colourful turbans, no exotic desert location. Just a mud fort rising from the plains and the one buffalo village around it, and a quite refreshingly unorthodox approach to hospitality. Of course, the history of Kuchesar itself is rather upstart, so that's perfectly in tune. Kuchesar became the seat of a Jat principality in the early 18th century, in the declining days of the Mughal Empire. Chattar Singh and his sons were given the jagir of Kuchesar by Najib-ud-Daula, the governor of Oudh, to stop them from being rebels against the Empire. The mud fort is, of course, a doaba rebel classic almost immune to cannon fire and surrounded by dense canebrakes, almost impossible to take. Seven massive mud bastions of the fort are still standing around the periphery of the fort, though the moats have run dry, and the canebrakes are gone. Even weathered by almost three centuries of rain, they are impressive.
Inside the rugged mud fort, above the surrounding plain, the new rulers of Kuchesar built living quarters of exquisite refinement and luxury, the oldest part of the fort, dating back to 1734. These are havelis in the best late-Mughal style, exquisitely carved jharokha windows and galleries framed by cusped arches surrounding courtyards with fountains playing in the centre. One of the three havelis of the original complex has been turned into the guest rooms of the Rao Raj Vilas Hotel.
The havelis were lying unused and virtually derelict till last year. The family had moved to Meerut, the children were working in Delhi, Kunwar Ajit Singh, the scion of the last Rao of Kuchesar, Giriraj Singh, used to live in the fort, but only in one wing, a 19th-century addition. The decision to convert the haveli into a heritage hotel had as much to do with business as with, well, nostalgia. &ldquoAt least this way, our heritage will get taken care of,&rdquo says Ajit Singh. The whole family pitched in &mdash Mrs and Mr Ajit Singh, their two sons and the daughters-in-law, the old family retainers, and the local populace of Kuchesar &mdash and in a short nine months, starting from March 2006, they had turned a virtual ruin (there are wonderful black and white photos of the pre-restoration fort, taken by Anek Singh) back into a place fit for kings. Or at least good enough to host the wedding of the ITC Director's daughter, on 31st December 2006, the hotel's first booking.
Rao Raj Vilas is not one of those heritage hotels where an old property is turned over to a larger hotel chain. The personal, family touch is visible in everything. For one, it is quite small and intimate, there being only 10 guest rooms operational as of now. The entire family pitches in to run the hotel, and they were all waiting for us when we entered the fort. As we climbed down the stairs towards our rooms, my eyes caught the swimming pool set in the main courtyard, deep bluish-green tiles setting up a striking contrast to the carved sandstone surrounding, a marvellous change from the regulation swimming pool blue one has come to expect. Who designed this I asked Anant Singh as he led us down to our rooms. We did, said Anant, my brother and I. We didn't get anyone from outside.
When lunch was served, it managed to be an extraordinary combination of homelike and exquisite. One does not expect much from keema matar. But when the keema matar is fragrant with desi ghee, and tinged ever so subtly with dalcheeni, it becomes a thing of joy. You don't expect kadhi chawal to blow your mind. But then, you don't get the family cook preparing your meals with recipes handed down the generations. And you don't expect hand-cranked mango ice-cream to finish off the meal, and it to be so damned good. Not only is the ice-cream freshly made at home, the mangoes also come from the family's own orchards, where they grow 25 varieties.
After a meal like that, there was only one thing to do. Sleep. I awoke in my massive room, cool in thick stone walls through the heat of the afternoon, not even needing to use the AC (and this was one of the smaller ones), to the sound of peacock calls coming in through the window.
Anant took us for a tour through the property. Through the Paeen Baagh, supposed to be named because it is the quarter (pao) of the area of a standard issue garden &mdash and is still rather large. We walked up to one of the bastions, and looked out far to the horizon, over orchards and seemingly endless swaying seas of sugarcane. We walked through a thick little keekar forest growing inside the fort, in which Anant said they were planning to start conducting a nature walk. We walked to the two whitewashed temples on one edge of the fort, the Shiv Parvati Temple as old as the fort itself, dating back to the 18th century. We visited the rooftop bar and open-air terrace, which is operational in winter, and saw peacocks perched atop the buildings, silhouetted by the setting sun, calling their plaintive calls. We wallked down into the tehkhanas, currently empty, but with great potential to become a lounge space.
And then, nothing. Suddenly I realised that that is the whole point of Kuchesar. Nothing. After the constant madness of Delhi, it is the most refreshing thing to be able to have seen and done everything to 'do' in a couple of hours. Oh sure, we could play billiards, or even table tennis. We could potentially arrange a conference in the conference room, with its modern chairs and tables and projection screen, comfortable under the huge old ornately brocaded punkah. But that would be missing the point.
In Kuchesar, far from the madding crowds, you sit with your wonderful hosts, as the evening breezes blow, and listen as they tell stories of Kuchesar's past. You sit by the poolside, drinking beer, watching the moths circle the shamaas, and soak in the silence, and the distant calls of night birds. You marvel again at the cook's subtle and wondrous skills as you tuck into a dinner topped off with lauki ki kheer. And then back to your large and airy and tasteful room to lie down on your authentically king-size bed. (All the furniture is original).
In the morning, it was pouring buckets. Anant had made plans for us to drive to the mango orchards for a picnic, but the rain put paid to that. But it was still an incredible morning. I sat on a lounge chair on the verandah as the rain poured down, watching the cool wet courtyard through cusped Mughal arches, reading a book.
Doing nothing in Kuchesar &mdash that could be a book. Doing nothing in Kuchesar, except making amiable conversation and eating incredible food (breakfast had everything from missi roti to baked beans, and even the blandness of the baked beans had been jazzed up with ginger). Just when I had convinced myself that things couldn't be more perfect, Anant compensated for the abortive trip to the mango orchard by presenting us with big packets full of mangoes, plucked from the trees. And yes, they were as satisfying as a day of Doing Nothing in Kuchesar.
Kuchesar is not much more than about 70km from Delhi, most of it along NH 24/Hapur Bypass, and only the last 7km on an authentically rural road. But even this is tarred. It's all a very comfortable two-hour drive from Delhi, and less than one and a half from Noida.
Rao Raj Vilas has 10 guest rooms available at the moment, but it is planned that more will open soon. (The hotel functions out of one of three havelis that make up the fort complex &mdash there are still parts of the sprawling property that are waiting to be restored.)
There are currently three categories of room on offer, and the tariffs range from Rs 6,500 for the King Suites to Rs 4,500 for the Prince Suites, and Rs 3,000 for the single occupancy suite. The room tariff includes breakfast for two persons, morning tea and evening tea. For lunch and dinner, delicious fixed-menu meals are offered at Rs 400 per person per meal. Between May 1 and August 31, the property offers a 20% discount on all room categories. The hotel also provides accommodation for chauffeurs. For reservations or enquiries, contact Charu Singh at 9350965541, 9837643761 or email kuchesar firstname.lastname@example.org
What to see and do
It's most luxurious to do nothing in this perfect escape from Delhi's madness. But if the mood takes you, all you have to do is ask &mdash you could have a picnic in the sugarcane fields or mango groves, or go on a boat ride on the Ganga flowing nearby, or make good use of the billiards room and perhaps even play some table tennis. By the time better weather rolls around, you should also be able to go for a nature walk in the surrounding keekar forest. The excursions will be arranged at an additional charge. If you're visiting to conduct some quiet business, Rao Raj Vilas also has a small conference room facility.