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Asia travel

How Raas hotel in Jodhpur, India, was just first step in restoration of Blue City’s squalid ancient quarter

The blue alleyways and bazaars of Jodhpur’s old walled city had seen better days until two brothers turned an old mansion into a luxury hotel. Fifteen more purchases and US$6 million later, the area is getting back into shape

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2018, 10:19am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2018, 10:18am

Celebrity names tumble off the tongue of Kanwar Dhananajaya Singh as if he is listing the days of the week. “We’ve had Mick Jagger, the King of Sweden, Sting.” He stirs his masala chai, then tantalisingly adds: “Supermodels.”

Singh is clearly unfazed by the stars who have knocked back martinis beside the pool at Raas, the luxury hotel he opened in his hometown of Jodhpur in Rajasthan, northwest India, in 2010. That’s probably because, in India, he is royalty himself.

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His cousin Gaj Singh II became the Maharaja of Jodhpur at the age of four, after his father died in a plane crash. Although the royal, who was educated at British public school Eton, was derecognised in 1971 when India’s constitution was amended, he is still a pretty big deal.

In 2007, British actress Liz Hurley got married at his home, Umaid Bhawan Palace. And that imposing fort on the cliff side overlooking the entirety of Jodhpur? Well, while most maharajas handed over their costly estates to the government after derecognition, not Gaj Singh II. The fort belongs to him, too – Naomi Campbell threw a birthday party for her boyfriend there in 2012.

But this is just background to what we are here to talk about today. The Singh in front of me is currently promoting one of India’s most exciting privately funded heritage programmes: the restoration of Jodhpur’s ancient walled city.

The city is a maze of Brahmin blue alleyways and bazaars dating back to the 15th century which have an Arabic flair reminiscent of Chefchaouen, the blue town in Morocco’s Rif mountains. It is the colour of this quarter that earned Jodhpur the nickname “Blue City”, but in recent decades the area had become squalid and rundown.

In 2007, a local nobleman put up for sale his 18th-century haveli, a gated mansion built in the ornate Rajput style inside the walled city. Singh and his younger brother, Nikhilendra, who worked in the travel business, decided to turn it into the Raas. Three buildings were added to the existing three, all built from red sandstone.

“We were very clear that the old parts we just wanted to restore and not play around with at all. Where things were chipped we left it,” Singh says. “The new parts we didn’t want to be faux heritage. That has had its day.”

Singh is referring to the Taj and Oberoi five-star hotel chains designed to recreate the four-poster bed, silk sheets, stuffed-leopard lifestyle of the old maharajas. The opulence of Raas is pure 21st-century elegance. Jali screens of red sandstone make mosaic patterns with light, a chic rooftop bar sits in the foothills of the fort, and the unfussy swimming pool is surrounded by gentle reeds.

Raas was a hit but, in the years that followed, Singh saw more of Jodhpur’s landmarks “coming down”.

“Our first impulse was to save as much as possible architecturally,” he says. “And that led to us saving it culturally.”

In 2014, Singh formed the JDH Urban Regeneration Project with advertising experts Mohit Dhar Jayal and V. Sunil, who designed the lion logo for Make in India – prime minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to reignite design and manufacturing. His cousin the maharaja and two Englishmen also came on board as key investors.

The group has spent about US$6 million buying and restoring 15 heritage buildings within the walled city, with the aim of turning them into guest houses and shops. First though, there was the issue of the stepwell.

Stepwells are ornate stone structures traditionally used throughout India to tap into deep water sources, their Tetris-like steps running hundreds of feet into the ground.

We wanted to have brands known for being the best of Indian craft, design and heritage
V. Sunil

American journalist Victoria Lautman, author of The Vanishing Stepwells of India , estimates there are 3,000 stepwells across India, and says their value is only just being recognised.

Built in the 1740s, Jodhpur’s Toorji Ka Jhalra stepwell was filled to the brim with “a green soup” when the JDH team arrived, Singh says. Thirty-four truckloads of refuse was dredged from the well, including a motorbike.

Singh doesn’t own the stepwell, but the government allowed him to do the renovation. The result is one of the most majestic sights in Jodhpur.

Today, young boys squeal with delight as they dive into the 55-metre (180ft) deep well to cool down. Its waters are so clear that even the fish have returned.

Sunil’s job was to find the right Indian partners to open cool cafes and boutiques in the havelis that spin off the stepwell. “We wanted to have brands known for being the best of Indian craft, design and heritage,” he says.

Those ended up including Portside Cafe, Bobby Aggarwal’s handcrafted leather goods brand; Forty Red Bangles, the socially conscious, Jodhpur-born fashion label; and, perhaps the biggest scoop, Good Earth, the homewares boutique chain founded in South Mumbai 23 years ago by Anita Lal (Lal is the wife of the “two-wheeler tycoon” Vikram Lal, who made his fortune with bike manufacturer Eicher Motors).

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Lal’s store is a destination in itself with its Rajput murals and delicious displays of Indian textiles and crockery.

“During our travels, we have all been charmed by old European towns that have been restored, and I felt that an initiative to do something like that in our own walled cities was just what was needed,” says Lal, who is also an investor in the JDH project. “I immediately offered to support it in every way.”

While JDH has stepped in where, in another country, the government might have done, it is not a charity, Singh says – the project is designed to be financially self-sustaining. “This is a business plan,” he says.

Essentially, Singh is using JDH to raise awareness of Indian brands, and the resulting commerce will cover the restoration costs, he says.

“We have these islands of excellence and we’re hoping it spills over in the rest of the quarter, in the way that Raas has done. The hotel made a big difference to everyone here in financial terms, in property value, and also in self esteem: they’re seeing the whole world is coming here, this must be something special that we are taking for granted.”

The next steps include replacing polluting cars in Jodhpur with ZBees (Swedish-made electric rickshaws currently being tried out at Raas), and forming waste collection schemes to clean up the streets.

But will regeneration lead to gentrification and, ultimately, a loss of Jodhpur’s spirit? Sunil says this is the group’s main concern.

“We have been studying the High Line project [in New York] and areas like Shoreditch [in East London] where people like us move in and … gentrification makes the place unaffordable for the people it belonged to,” he says. They are still working out how to avoid that outcome.

Sunil cites the Kochi-Muziris Biennale – India’s first art biennale, which he helped establish in 2012 in his home state of Kerala – as an example of successful regeneration.

“In the space of a couple of years, we have been able to bring the kind of change you don’t see in many other cities in India,” he says. “On the back of the biennale, there have been so many new cultural initiatives, new businesses and massive growth in tourism.”

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For Singh, the goal is to modernise without Westernising, to improve quality of life while keeping Jodhpur’s traditional family values.

If they can do that, he says, “we can get Jodhpur back into good shape.”

Getting there

Air India, via Delhi, and Jet Airways, via, Mumbai, fly between Hong Kong and Jodhpur.