Agra-THE OBEROI AMARVILAS
THE OBEROI AMARVILAS
MAKING THE TAJ ROMANTIC AGAIN
State Uttar Pradesh Place Agra
Location 600m from the Taj Mahal on the Taj East Gate Road. Every window, balcony and door offers a breathtaking view of the Taj
Distances 200 km SE of Delhi, 237 km E of Jaipur
Route from Delhi NH2 to Agra via Faridabad, Palwal, Hodal, Kosi Kalan and Mathura
Route from Jaipur NH11 to Agra via Balaji, Dausa, Mahua and Bharatpur
BY NILANJANA S ROY
Halfway to Agra, I realize exactly how strange this journey's going to be. If you live in Delhi, the Taj Mahal is in your backyard - over- visited, the grandeur and beauty of one of the Seven Wonders of the World diminished by over-familiarity. It's where you've taken scores of your cousins, NRI relatives and friends from outside India; in your college years, perhaps you too drove down to see the Taj Mahal, an on- the-spot plan, after a particularly delirious party, just because it was there and you could.
I've lost count of the times I've pointed out the delicate pietra dura work, the "Cleaving Asunder" text from the Surah, its thuluth script calligraphy engraved into the walls, the amrud (guava) dome designed by Ottoman Ismail Afandi, the lapidary work of Delhi's Chiranjeevi Lal. Like many of those who live near Agra, I'm as practised as a guide, and every time I visit the Taj, I see it less and less.
The Oberoi Amarvilas doesn't advertise itself as a panacea for the jaded traveller, but that is its real promise: that this legendary hotel can make the Tajromantic again, for even the most ennui- ridden tourist. Or the most exhausted; I'm travelling after a hellish period of overwork and minor illness, resentful at being on the road again. I want sleep far more than I want to see the Taj. I figure they have their work cut out for them.
I jounce down Agra's battered and crowded roads, getting a clear view of the garbage that an indifferent municipality doesn't want to remove. I ask to see the Taj first, and at this stage, it's a mistake. The tang of urine in three flavours fresh, stale and toxic -- hits you when you enter the approach to the Ta]. Then the guides and touts and sellers of garish miniature marble Taj replicas swarm out. If you're a woman on her own, walking around the beautiful gardens and the world's most stunning mausoleum is an unpleasant experience -- you're followed, sung at, relentlessly badgered.
Right, I think, as I drive back to the hotel. Taj -- 0, Hideous Cultural Experience -- 1. Over to you, Amarvilas.
It doesn't change instantly but as I enter the gates, the outside world is left behind, one clamorous, odorous bit of it after another. The hotel's architects were clever enough to retain the Mughal fondness for luxury while refraining from the style I think of as 'Taj Lite'. The sound of water from the fountains is soothing as I walk in; the welcome drink is a perfect lime sherbet; and the Moorish-Mughal style, bizarrely, works. From the picture windows in the lobby, I see something so familiar it has almost a cartoon feel to it: oh, there's the Taj, I think tiredly. It's bloody close, isn't it?
When to go Late October to March is the most pleasant, but if assured of pleasant afternoons within Amarvilas, you can go September to April too
The Oberoi Arnarvilas
Taj East Gate Road, Tajganj, Agra
How to book Contact the Toll Free No. 1800-11-2030. Payments can be made at any Oberoi hotel by credit card/ cash advance, or make a deposit in the HDFC account of the hotel
STD code 0562
That's when the Amarvilas unleashes its secret weapon: relentless but subtle pampering. It's one of the rare hotels where the smiles of the staff seem genuine. The room is scented with a mandarin-grapefruit aromatherapy oil; the small balcony is secluded from the other balconies around. It offers a great view of the stepped swimming pool that mimics the Mughal fondness for gracious, formal water bodies... and I look up just as the sun sets and there's the Taj bathed in a soft, rosy light, the marble shining clean and pearly despite years of pollution. There's the Taj, I think. It's not such a bad little building.
Earlier in the day, the hotel's dapper manager, Visheshwar Raj Singh, has shown me around the place, disappearing briefly to deal with Bulgarian royalty. The Kohinoor Suite, which has housed presidents from several countries, is huge, regal and imposing, with special rooms tucked away for bodyguards, enough space for a mini-conference, and a bathroom with a Taj view. The shower stall is dazzling -- inlaid glass that, apparently, takes at least an hour to clean.
Visheshwar Singh's passion for Agra, Amarvilas and the history of the Taj comes through clearly. He and the Oberoi group have planted trees on the grounds in between the Ta] Mahal and Amarvilas, sparing guests the sight of locals who apparently enjoy a Taj view especially while doing their morning business. He suggests, despite the outdoor bathroom situation, a morning walk to the Taj: "It looks different when it's quiet." And he urges me to visit Sikandra, where Akbar's tomb lies -- one of his favourite places.
Dinner at the Espahan, and while some of the guests are cutting business deals, there are a few couples soaking up the candlelight and the mehfil atmosphere. It's an extraordinary meal -- kebabs that stop just the right side of fusion, a very light prawn-lemongrass done tandoori style, an anjeer (fig) kebab that's extraordinary, and meat curries that could give Lakhnawi cooks a run for their money. The biggest surprise is the dal-- down-to-earth, what you might get from a superlative cook in an ordinary kitchen. The desserts are less successfully fusion, but still tantalizing.
I go up to find the Amarvilas of mints on your pillow: petits four and a Baileys' chocolate mouse in a miniature glass. I take one more, mildly cynical, look at the Taj-by-moonlight, discover the rose-petal- filled bath that the room elf has drawn for me, and collapse gratefully, blessing whoever chose the 400 thread-count Egyptian sheets and the luxurious pillows.
Life is distinctly rose-scented when I wake up the next day, possibly because I carried some petals into bed with me. I have a quick breakfast at Bellevue and am benign with approval - they make their own croissants, the buffet is not the usual mishmash of leftovers, and the orange juice is pulpy and fresh.
Walking up to the Ta], I see a young Italian couple from the hotel. They're ridiculously good looking, and almost indecently in love, and suddenly, as it rears up before us, I see the Taj through their eyes: an emperor's love letter in marble and precious stones, to the wife he adored. Never mind that Mumtaz Mahal died in childbirth - and that Shah [ahan had knocked the poor woman up for the fourteenth time; that's my inner cynic talking. Its lines made gentle by the morning light, the Taj is suddenly unbear- ably beautiful.
He promised his Arjumand that he would build this monument to her as she lay dying; it took him 20 years, but he kept his word. Even my inner cynic has to admit that it beats flowers and chocolates.
Air Agra's Kheria Airport (12 km/ 1/2 hr) is serviced by Kingfisher Airlines daily from Delhi and Jaipur. Complimentary pick-up for guests by Amarvilas
Rail Agra Cantonment, connected by the Shatabdi Express (dep: 6 am; arr: 8.10 am) from Delhi. Both the Shatabdi and Taj Express are good for your return journey as you get back to Delhi around 10-10.30 pm. Agra also has express connections to Jaipur, Mumbai and Kolkata. From Jaipur, it's the Intercity Express (dep: 6 am; arr: 10.20 am) serving Agra Fort Railway Station. The resort is about 7-8 km from each station and offers complimentary pick-up/ drop
Road The excellent NH2 or six-lane Taj Expressway connects Agra to Delhi via Kosi Kalan and Mathura. From Jaipur take NH11 via Bharatpur
I try not to stalk the young Italians, but it's hard not to smile at their amazement. And I remember my first sight of the Taj - I truly believed, as I saw that exquisite monument, with the fragile arches and the jewel colours of the inlay work that this had to be the most perfect place on earth. I understood why Shah jahan had wanted, according to legend, a matching black mausoleum across the river for himself.
Amarvilas's Banyan Tree Spa is considered one of India's best spas - the manager says couples love it. I can easily see why; treatments are carried out in a bedroom suite, and you can have your treatments side by side. My attendant suggests one of the 'royal' treatments, which is a combination of oils and scrubs with a massage.
I'm lying down, but I can see the Taj if I raise my head. The treatment is truly luxurious, her hands knowing but gentle. Some spas, even the best, confuse 'massage' with "tenderizing steak", but this isn't one of them. She does a deep muscle massage, taking her time to listen to each muscle, setting up a smooth and sure rhythm. Even the relaxation music isn't the usual whalesong-meets-Yanni garbage; it's a classical music inspired meditation tape.
After the treatment, you and your partner are invited to relax in the slipper bath filled with rose-petal-infused-hot water, given jasmine tea, and then invited to, well, relax further while the attendants discreetly disappear. And you do feel privileged; not everyone gets to make whoopee with the world's most famous monument to love watching over you.
I spend the afternoon at Sikandra; after the crowded environs of the Taj, Akbar's bare tomb is starkly beautiful and restful. Only the parrots keep me company as I chat with the caretaker; it's the perfect place for a couple to spend some quiet time together.
That evening, I take my books down to the swimming pool, as the pool attendants light mashaals and wave red flags emblazoned with a skull and crossbones on them to scare off the pigeons. The Italians are relaxing, and their obvious happiness lights up the place for us. The Taj soars above the pool, majestic, cold, so beautiful it makes you catch your breath. The tapestries and the fragile gold Ganesha gleam, reflected in the water and the lights.
I think of a long-dead emperor and the woman he loved so much that the court poets wrote in astonishing detail of the erotic charge between them. I think of a monument that's become a cliche, but that reveals a new side to itself if you have the patience to approach it differently, see it through the eyes of lovers new to each other celebrating the passion of what was, after all, an old married couple. And I thank Amarvilas, silently, for giving the Taj Mahal back to me.
The Oberoi Amarvilas has been ranked the Sixth Best Hotel in the World by Conde Nast, listed in the top 20 resorts of the world by Zagat, and shows up unsurprisingly often in any list of the world's most decadent/ sybaritic places to visit. The hotel has been built in such a way that most rooms -- dining areas and lobby areas included -- have a spectacular view of the Taj Mahal.
It's located 600m from the Taj Mahal and is considered to have the best possible view of the Taj you can get without actually living inside the monument. The Amarvilas spa is famous in its own right -- it blends classic Ayurvedic techniques with traditional Thai massage and herbal lore, and has a few recipes from royal India in addition. Try the orange yoghurt body scrub, the hot stone massage, and the incredible honey citrus wrap, followed by a marigold or rose petal bath. They offer special packages, with the 3-hr Noor-e-Taj treatment being particularly popular. The "double therapy" room is popular with couples, but single rooms are available.
ACCOMMODATION AT AMARVILAS
Most visitors opt for the 57 Premier Rooms, each boasting of a private balcony. Rooms are well appointed, and designed to feel less anonymous than the usual hotel room -- my room felt more like a guest room at a well appointed private residence, without stinting on any of the luxuries you would expect.
Also on offer are 38 Premier Rooms without a balcony. The 4 Executive Suites have a private living room as well, and are very cosy. The 2 luxury suites have a larger living and dining room and a butler's pantry -- recommended for a more demanding but more formal stay. The Kohinoor Suite is massive and presidential -- exquisite but again, very formal, and designed for a VIP with a large entourage. Tariff ranges from Rs 29,500-1,60,000; taxes extra.
MEALS AT AMARVILAS
The menu at Bellevue is shifting slightly from Continental in the direction of pan- Asian -- the breads and desserts here are freshly baked and quite extraordinary. I'd recommend the salads and the fresh juice blends. Espahan pulls off, quite brilliantly, the difficult feat of combining regal Mughal-inspired cuisine with a comfortable, domestic touch. The meals are sometimes successfully fusion (tandoori prawn-lemongrass), often amazingly authentic. If you can wangle a kitchen tour, go ahead and you'll see why: the kitchen has freshly ground spices and a very home-style flavour to it, but done on a massive professional scale something like your grandmother's kitchen on steroids.
WHILE AT AMARVILAS
Taj apart, Agra offers Akbar's many visions: Agra Fort (built 1565-1573), Fatehpur Sikri (his new imperial capital, 39 km west of Agra) and Sikandra (his tomb, personally designed).
Fatehpur Sikri is an astonishing city: pavilions and courtyards, domes, balconies, terraces, gardens, elegant cupolas, tanks, pools and baths .... It is playful and full of surprises: turn a corner and find an enchanted walled garden, climb out of an apartment and find a tree perfectly framed in a window. Must sees include Buland Darwaza, the tomb of Salim Chishti, the palace of Maryamuzzamani and Birbal Bhawan.
Sikandra is an architectural marvel of tiered pavilions and elegant chhatris. An inscription on the mausoleum reads: "These are the Gardens of Eden, enter them to dwell eternally." It's a peaceful place, with the least of crowds among all of Agra's tourist attractions.