The desert sand heals those that dare to tread it. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover an oasis of wellness amid the dunes of Rajasthan.
One look at the harsh unforgiving landscape of the Thar and you wonder what rejuvenation a desert could possibly offer? As we drove in to Jaisalmer, there was no palm-fringed oasis in sight and the barren land with hardy kikar and khejri trees stretched as far as the eye could see. Unlike Kerala or Bali, the Thar didn’t possess the healing touch of green that soothes the soul, the crisp mountain air of British sanatoriums of yore or the relaxing soak of hot water springs in the fabled spa towns of Europe.
The Great Indian Desert yawned endlessly over 200,000 sq km covering 60% of the state of Rajasthan. However, all apprehensions about a wellness holiday in an arid desolate tract prone to extremes of temperatures dissipated, as a flagged convoy waiting on the town’s outskirts led us with much pomp to Suryagarh. From the main gate, two camels ushered us up the slope to the resort’s entrance where floral showers, drummers and a traditional welcome swept us off our feet…
Founded by Maharawal Jaisal in 12th century, Jaisalmer lay on the southern strand of the Silk Route. Between 16th and 18th century, the city thrived on taxes collected from the caravans from Central Asia passing through the desert en route to Osian and China. Its caravanserais teemed with traders plying exotic goods.
Inspired by this indigenous desert culture and its ancient healing traditions, Suryagarh’s Rait Spa was named after the sea of rait (sand) it was set in. Drawing on the essence of delicate aromas of fine oils, elixirs and spices, its signature thermal therapies were based on sand, salt and stone. But Suryagarh’s legendary hospitality spearheaded by our host Manvendra Singh Shekhawat was not to be taken lightly.
The Halwayi breakfast of traditional snacks and sweets was so heavy we could barely make it to our first spa session. Trudging with heavy steps from our opulent Haveli Residence, we secretly hoped that the short walk to the spa was enough digestive exercise.
The illustration of mustachioed wrestlers dominated the Akhara or gym while yellow lights contrasted against the deep blue of Neel, the indoor pool. The flicker of oil lamps and flower petals announced Rait Spa, enveloped in an air of calm. Ambient eastern music played in the background and it was like being in a medieval oasis in the desert.
We tried the Sand Ritual, an age-old treatment handed down centuries based on the natural healing potential of heat. After a fragrant spice scrub, we surrendered to a massage using heated potlis (bundles) of Jaisalmer rait (sand), which helped relieve the tautness of our muscles. We felt knots of pain slowly melt away into nothingness.
The soft tinkle of a bell announced the end of the session. We couldn’t believe that only an hour had passed; it felt like eternity. After we cooled off in henna and aromatic vetiver (camel grass or khus), the therapist explained how heat aided the body to release toxins naturally and regain natural rhythms, enabling better metabolism.
‘Better metabolism’, just the words we wanted to hear! For the days that followed, we needed every ounce of metabolic willpower to take on the specially curated culinary experiences at diverse venues – breakfast with peacocks in the bush at dawn, specialty cuisine at Legends of Marwar, Jaisalmer kebabs and biryani at the Lake Gardens, Thar dinner at Celebration Gardens, Signature Thali dinner at The Courtyard that came veiled or the magical Dinner on the Dunes under the stars – a recreation of the nomadic hunt menu. Mehboob Khan and the troupe of manganiyars (traditional musicians) formed a continuous musical backdrop.
The days were spent exploring the Thar on bespoke trails through shifting sands and thorny scrub. We scoured dhanis (small settlements), learnt about govardhans or carved pillar markers that pointed out water sources, tasted fresh water at sweet water wells, marveled at Phoenician-like figures of traders on tombstones in the cemeteries of Paliwal Brahmins and went on the spooky midnight Chudail Trail to the abandoned village of Kuldhara.
Overlooking the ruins of homes and serais, stood the 13th century Khaba Fort. Info panels explained how 60 million years ago, the Arabian Sea stretched beyond Gujarat to present-day Rajasthan and this vast wasteland was once a flourishing tract through which the Saraswati and its tributaries coursed.
Tectonic shifts caused the river to dry up, leaving behind little rivulets and isolated saltwater lakes. One such surviving river is the Luni, known in Sanskrit as Lavanavati, or ‘salt river’, due to its high salinity. Incidentally, the desert too is referred to as Lavana Sagara (Sea of Salt). Even today, the sandy bed throws up whorled fossils of ammonites and petrified trees.
For centuries, these salt-water lakes and streams in the Thar Desert have been used to manufacture sodium chloride salt. On our return, we noticed the motifs of jalis, stonework and roof patterns of the ruins finding recurrence in Suryagarh’s architecture but we didn’t expect the salt to be used for our spa therapies!
Rait’s unique salt therapy sources salt from the Luni riverbed handpicked by the staff. It is fused with IMRS (Intelligent Magnetic Resonance System), a health care system developed in Germany to balance the body’s magnetic field and subtly adjust bodily cadences. Adhering to the salt theme, Himalayan rock salts were used to light the room to cleanse and align the energies.
For better efficacy and absorption by the skin, oils were charged with bio disks, technically engineered using over 100 natural minerals bonded in glass using molecular level fusion at high heat. The therapist slowly wrapped us in soft muslin drenched in salt and we lay mummified, experiencing heavenly realms of peace. The salts were rich in potassium, magnesium and other minerals, ideal for deep cellular-level cleansing. An hour later, we emerged like lithe spirits.
Another signature therapy was Stone using the healing properties of tiger-striped seashells from the Philippine islands with volcanic stones. These unique, specially sourced seashells, enclosed with a gel rich in lava powder, emit heat due to a natural chemical reaction. The shells, rich in calcium carbonate and trace elements, help nourish bones and tissues. The coarse texture of the shells made a natural scrub and we yielded to the long strokes and deep-kneading massage that boosted vascular circulation, drained toxins and improved metabolism.
Back in our room, a secret bedside platter of assorted traditional sweets awaited us. This daily treat was the creation of resident halwayi Chef Gatta Ram who would set them with little scrolls tied with silken strings, explaining each item. Tearing ourselves away from the pleasure palace that’s Suryagarh was near impossible but the task of continuing our Thar wellness tour to their property in Bikaner goaded us on.
Narendra Bhawan, the revamped residence of Narendra Singh ji, the last Maharaja of Bikaner is the most idiosyncratic address in the region. Renouncing the comforts of the palace, he created his own residence where he stayed with his family, 86 dogs and 500 cows (he used to call each by name)! Long before bovine love was fashionable in India, he was given a Gauratna for his service to cows. Legend goes that he never ate a meal till his animals were fed.
Today, his goshala (cowshed) is an alfresco bar where we downed Negronis and evening snacks on a fiery onyx tabletop. We were led us past the typical Bikaneri façade, for which red sandstone was brought from Dhulmera 80km away. Step inside, and it was anything but Bikaner.
It took architect Ravi Gupta and interior designer Ayush Kasliwal six years to reinterpret Narendra Bhawan as a tribute to the man and his travels. Manvendra explained, “We imagined it as the house of a mad uncle we all love – nothing makes sense initially, but eventually it grows on you. Like a residence, it’s not themed”.
Bright walls, framed Banarasi textiles, Ming vases, crystals, porcelain figurines from Dresden, Richmond patterned chequered floors, Art Deco lights, framed photos of the Narendra Singh ji’s royal lineage and dogs, old Encyclopedia Britannica and Penguin classics, usta gold painting, a red piano; everything was an ode to the maharaja’s eccentric nature and eclectic tastes.
The rooms transcend his phases in life – flamboyant Prince rooms, leather-panelled Regimental rooms flagging his military lineage, India rooms reflecting Gandhian ethos and Republic rooms showcasing works of Le Corbusier in a post-independent India. “It’s not really a hotel but a landscape of memories – life’s passage through time,” added Manvendra.
The same vein of creativity ran through the spa. Inspired by the great sanitariums of Europe, Clinic – The Spa was a novel concept based on holistic healing through flowers and plants. Between 1920-30, Dr Edward Bach developed a set of 38 floral remedies catering to a particular emotional state.
Using concepts from the Bach Flower Therapy, Narendra Bhawan’s Flower Essences are specially designed to soothe one’s senses, instill harmony and bring balance. Aided with Bemer technology for Physical Vascular Therapy, it promised improved microcirculation, enabling the body’s self-healing powers to promote inner and outer radiance. The spa’s clean sharp décor bestows a sense of calm.
The food carried the irreverence forward, fusing disparate themes like the banquets of kings at P&C (Pearls & Chiffon), colonial era bakeries at the Mad Hatter, poolside Muslim feasts served in crescent platters, Jain thalis in a haveli’s rooftop on the Merchant Trail, Reveille at Ratadi Talai that recreated cavalier grills to smart English menus with a Bikaneri touch.
Listening to jazz while eating dahi wale aloo, murgh sabja, kachre ki sabji (variety of wild melon) and angoor ki sabzi was quite an experience. Inventiveness was its peak with arrancini biryani, wild mushroom gujiya and seb ki kheer. At open pastures beyond Bikaner, we enjoyed sundowners and char-grilled kebabs as folk musicians played the ravan hattha (stringed instrument) by the dancing light of lanterns and the setting sun. Life was good in the Thar.
The nearest airport is Jodhpur, from where Jaisalmer is 300km (5 hrs) and Bikaner 249km (4 hrs). Jaisalmer and Bikaner are 312 km apart.
What to See
Jaisalmer: Fort, Patwon ki Haveli, Museums, Kuldhara & Khaba ruins, Desert National Park, Sam & Khuri Dunes
Bikaner: Junagadh Fort, Laxmi Niwas Palace, Rampuria Havelis, Bhandasar Jain temple, Karni Mata temple at Deshnoke
What to Eat
Mirchi bada, Bhikaji’s Bikaneri bhujiya & namkeen, Mawa Kachori, local dishes like ker-sangri, kachra, gatte ki sabzi with bajre ki roti.
Where to Stay
Kahala Phata, Sam Road, Jaisalmer
Ph +91-02992-269269 www.suryagarh.com
Rait Spa Therapies: Salt 1hr 45 min Rs.5900/person upwards, Sand 2 hrs. Rs.7000/person, Rs.12,000/couple, Stone 1hr 30 min Rs.4400/person, Rs.7500/couple
Karni Nagar, Gandhi Colony, Bikaner
Ph +91-0151-2252500, 7827151151
For more info, visit http://rajasthan-tourism.org/
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Travel+Leisure India magazine.