“This is your room, Madam,” said the hotel attendant as he opened the door and switched on the lights.
And I saw red. Literally.
“This is a very nice room, Madam,” beamed the attendant. “Don’t you like it?
“It’s too red, ” I said in a dazed voice taking in the red walls, red carpet, and furnishings shimmering away in different shades of red .
The attendant said soothingly, “This room is one of a kind, Madam. No other room is like this. In fact, all rooms are one of a kind. I promise that by the time you leave the hotel, you will love the room.”
He was right. By the time I left after 2 days and 2 nights at the hotel, I was not only in love with my red room, I was also in love with the hotel this room was a part of — the Bhairon Vilas Palace.
Once the residence of Colonel Maharaj Sri Sir Bhairun Singhji Bahadur, Prime Minister of the Royal Kingdom of Bikaner (see photo on the left), the Bhairon Vilas is about 120 years old. I was really fortunate to meet the owner, Harshavardhan Singh, the great grandson of Bhairun Singhji, who shared the history of the Bhairon Vilas and its transformation into a heritage hotel.
Bhairun Singhji was also the first cousin of the Maharaja of Bikaner, Ganga Singhji, and had his own quarters inside the Junagarh Fort. Sometime in the late 1800s, it was decided that the Fort would no longer be a residence for any member of the royal family or their extended family. While the royal family moved to the Lalgarh Palace, Bhairun Singh was alloted land opposite the Fort to build a house for his family. This land was also the site of an ancient temple dedicated to Bhairavnath, and it was this temple that gave Bhairon Vilas its name.
The Bhairon Vilas Palace was constructed as a complex of a main building, 3 smaller buildings and living space for servants, cows and horses. The main building was where the men lived and the 3 smaller buildings housed each of Bhairun Singhji’s 3 wives. Today, even though, Bhairon Vilas continues to remain as the residence for the descendents of Bhairun Singhji, large parts of it have been converted into a hotel.
The idea of the converting Bhairon Vilas from a private residence to Bhairon Vilas Palace, a hotel-cum residence came from one of Harshavardhan’s friends, a tourism expert. Once the idea took root, began the long process of transforming a residence into a hotel.
Harshavardhan faced a big challenge immediately—none of the rooms in any of the buildings had a toilet as till then an outhouse was used for this purpose. So building attached bathrooms and toilets for each of the rooms that would be let out for guests was one of the first things to be done.
Even though the family owned a lot of furniture and artifacts, it was not enough to furnish the hotel-in-the making. So while the existing furniture was repaired, polished and readied, additional stuff was also acquired through other sources. For instance, word was sent around in Bikaner for those who wanted to sell their old furniture or who were demolishing their houses. Harshavardhan would then go and pick up window & door frames, furniture, old photographs and anything else that the family did not want, but which would add to the ambiance that he had in mind for his vision of the hotel. Agents were also contacted to get period furniture and artifacts from all over the country.
A special feature of the interiors of the Bhairon Vilas Palace is the Usta art on many of the walls. Originally from Iran, this art form was very popular in Bikaner State in the 16th to the 19th centuries. Usta art has floral elements in gold and is done on a variety of surfaces, including camel leather. Since most of the Usta artists live in Bikaner, it was not too difficult for Harshavardhan to get this beautiful art form on the hotel walls and the reception is the first place that one notices it.
The Bhairon Vilas Palace Hotel opened with 2 rooms about a year-and-a-half back and today has 18 rooms on offer for its guests. However, the hotel is far from being completely ready and Harshavardhan doubts if it will ever be fully ready.
The hotel is constantly evolving. I started with one room and when I finished with the 18th room, I had to go back to the first room for minor repairs and changes. Then I will have to move on to the second room, and so on. Plus furniture gets changed, things get removed, added. So work on the hotel will never really get over.
The Bhairon Vilas Palace Hotel was literally built room by room, and that is the reason why no two rooms are alike. Harshavardhan said that this was not planned, and it was just one of those things which happened. If my “red room” had a canopied four poster bed, furnishings in rich brocade, a leopard skin mounted on the wall, 8 mirrors in various shapes and sizes, and a bathroom without doors, there were rooms where the furnishings were a soothing cotton in rich vibrant colours, beds were ornately carved, walls painted with beautiful frescoes, and had bathrooms with a sunken bathtub…
Each room is a visual delight and each area has been well planned and thought out, like the dining area.
The courtyards and common spaces are beautiful. There are swings, rocking chairs, arm chairs, benches, and other cozy seating arrangements are laid out all around amidst trees, water fountains, shrines and hot pink bougainvillea.
Harshavardhan said that most of the guests at the Bhairon Vilas received were international tourists. This was not a surprising revelation as Bikaner receives more international tourists than domestic ones. The hotel also receives a lot of interest for film and photography shoots — portions of I am Kalam were filmed at Bhairon Vilas.
The hotel does try to cater to what the tourists would like to see and on my first day there saw a group of tourists returning from an overnight desert safari. They also arranged for a folk music and dance performance at the request of another group of tourists at the hotel.
The Bhairon Vilas is a not a big place and does not have a large staff. The service is friendly and warm, but not necessarily quick. As Harshavardhan said,
If one is expecting everything to happen at the snap of a finger, then sorry this is not the place. But if you are looking for privacy, a place to truly relax and rest, then there can be no better place than this.
I couldn’t agree more with him on this. The 11-day Rajasthan tour was my first long break in nearly 3 years. Bikaner was my first halt and the Bhairon Vilas Palace the first place I stayed in.
Normally, while travelling I can’t wait to get out of the hotel room to explore the place I am in and being in Bikaner was no different. And yet, I could not wait to come back to Bhairon Vilas, lie down on the swing, read a bit, listen to bird song, watch the birds fly home… in other words, just unwind and relax. It goes without saying that this was after I got over the shock of my overwhelmingly red room !
Before my stay at the Bhairon Vilas, a hotel was just a place for me to bathe and sleep and sometimes eat. All I looked for was safe location, clean rooms, running water, accessibility to railway station/bus station/airport, and decent food. But now, this list has been revised to add ambiance and a place that I can also relax and rest in.
And it is all thanks to Bhairon Vilas Palace, the first heritage hotel that I have ever stayed in.