A New Passage To India

The hotel Devi Garh

E.M. Forster claimed there are a thousand different Indias. He may well have underestimated. One indication is the country's architecture, which evinces a hodgepodge of influences: Vedic, Moghul, Buddhist, British, Portuguese, and Persian among them. The country's visible diversity is, of course, a large part of its enduring appeal. As the fever to travel to India increases, so does the allure of remote outposts filled with Raj-era palaces. In Rajasthan—part of India's "yellow brick road" of tourism (encompassing Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur)—the hotel Devi Garh is a serene antidote to the hurly-burly of urban India.

Located approximately 20 miles northeast of Udaipur in the Aravali hills, the Devi Garh Fort Palace opened last January. Originally built in 1760 by the Rajrana Raghudev Singh II, the palace cantilevers out of the shoulder of a high, jutting hillside. Singh's descendants abandoned the Devi Garh in the early sixties, and the industrialist Poddar family bought it in 1984. During an eight-year period, they poured $4 million into its renovation and added design details, like Mrs. Lekha Poddar's museum-quality antique furniture and a collection of brass bowls and urns gathered from an antique shop in Jodhpur.

It is useless to count the Devi Garh's "floors"—they rise and fall, following the hill's contour. Its limestone façade is an Arabian Nights-style fantasy, with baroque balconies and onion domes. If this were one of India's many other "heritage" properties—ancient havelis turned into hostelries—you might expect ornate silk carpets, heavy canopies, cut-crystal chandeliers, brightly colored mosaics, and intricate silver leafwork.

Instead, the Devi Garh's 23 suites are sparely designed, yet undeniably posh. Each has a unique floor plan comprising three or four rooms, some of which are elevated, others sunken. White terrazzo floors, 13 types of white marble, rustic Ghana-teakwood-and-iron doors and window shutters all contribute to the feeling of a local brand of Mission style.

Fifteen suites are in the palace proper, with eight others arrayed around a garden. The palace suites have balconies with terrific views facing down the hillside. Semiprecious stones like red jasper, lapis lazuli, and malachite decorate the inlaid floors in each suite. The most spacious suites are the Presidential, also called the Devi Garh Suite (a generous 975 square feet), and the Pool Suite—named, obviously, for the small, heated, black-marble swimming pool in a private courtyard that's shared by the two suites.

Smaller but equally spectacular, suite 42 offers excellent views, an airy layout, and an octagonal balcony. Suite 43 is the most ornately decorated—with beautiful mosaics of contoured glass edging arched doorways and delicate "three-dimensional" miniature paintings. Its gazebolike balcony has northwest views.

Even at maximum capacity, the Devi Garh boasts a staff-to-guest ratio of more than three to one, with about 145 full-time staff. Amenities and services are superb. Luxurious Udaipur green marble lines the main swimming pool; one of its more curious design features is a "chaise longue" cut into the steps on one side, perfect for those who wish to read or nap without leaving the heated water. The spa provides a sauna, steam room, and massages by followers of Ayurveda, a traditional Indian practice of healing using scented oils to improve health.

Chef du hotel Deepak Malhotra is particularly adept at Thai and southern Indian dishes, and if his forays into European fare are spiced a touch unusually, they are invariably delicious. Each evening, the front-office manager asks the guests where they would care to dine. Choose the private meditation room once used by the princess, overlooking the lovely Janana Courtyard. Before you can say "Scheherazade," a table is covered with orange marigold petals and flanked by iron braziers filled with wood coals shooting sparks 15 feet into the night.

But the delightful setting is no excuse to stay holed up in the Devi Garh. Udaipur—set on the lovely Lake Pichola—has charms well worth the 45-minute drive on roads clogged with buses, bicycles, and ox- and camel-drawn carts. Closer still are half a dozen impressive forts and ancient temples, easily reached in one of the sedans the Devi Garh makes available, along with a driver-guide. The village of Delwara, which the Devi Garh overlooks, contains a complex of Jain shrines built between the 11th and 14th centuries, and the hotel leads camel "safaris" for guests interested in exploring.

Delwara is picturesque, with extremely friendly people and blue- and yellow-washed concrete buildings. Its Jain temples contain images of Hindu deities like Rama and Vishnu—including a Krishna with four faces, each painted a different color. On my visit, the hotel's camels idled next to a gang of monkeys. Twenty feet away, saffron-robed mothers bathed their newborn children in wells that have been used for seven centuries. So many Indias, so little time.

Jetting To Udaipur

There is a small airport 15 miles south of Udaipur, from which state-operated Indian Airlines and privately run Jet Airways operate near-daily flights to and from Mumbai (as Bombay is now called), Jodphur, Jaipur, Aurangbad, and Delhi, allowing for connections from anywhere inside or outside the country. Booking a local flight from outside India can be a trying experience; the best bet is to make arrangements once there. Tickets must be purchased with either foreign currency, a credit card, or rupees backed by the receipt from the money-exchange house where they were bought. From the airport, the hotel will send a driver to pick you up.

During high season, rates range from $300 for a garden suite to $500 for the Devi Garh Suite. Reservations: 91-2953-89211; fax 91-2953-89357. Or e-mail: reservations@deviresorts.com.