The Spa in a Dungeon

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There’s always something exciting about the first sighting of a fort.

I’m on a wellness trip an hour and a half’s drive from the city of Jaipur, and as we approach the destination, my pulse quickens. Crowning quaint Bishangarh village, Alila Fort Bishangarh is a 230 year old warrior fort turned luxury hotel, a peach-hued architectural jewel atop a rocky hillock, apparently India's only such convert. 

It took architects Sandeep and Ritu Khandelwal ten painstaking years to renovate the property and there are plenty of clues to how they worked within its limitations. The lifts go to different floors depending on whether you’re in the king’s or soldiers’ quarters of the building and its 59 rooms and suites have 22 different layouts across five categories. The constraints seem like a highlight rather than hindrance. The architects preserved original details such as arched windows and latticed jalis, celebrated natural curves, and designed the interiors to complement, striking a careful balance between old and new, restoration and construction.

The result is a heritage hotel that feels modern and a palette that’s muted and earthy, an antithesis to the folksy kitsch of many of the state’s hotels.

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There’s lots of little things to love about Alila Fort Bishangarh. A library where battles were once strategised, an ultra cosy tea lounge, a mysterious bar with a cigar and cognac spot hidden in a turret and an open kitchen where you can learn to cook your own meal using produce from the organic garden. The original architecture is in the Jaipur Gharana style, with both Rajput and Mughal influence and the two metre thick fortress walls still retain openings for firearms and cannons.

But fascinating details are not just why I’m here. I’m a spa junkie and interested in the intersection of design and wellness. The Alila spa is in the dungeon making it an instant favourite for our first edition. 

Once the fort’s magazine - the place where artillery was stored (not unlike the one in this story), today the spa is a sanctuary of calm. The narrow, winding corridor that leads me there offers some clues of what to expect. Soft candle light flickers over the granite boulders that are the hallmark of the hillock the fort is built on, antique attar bottles and Alila’s signature range of products are showcased inside nooks, my treatment room has no edges, making its location at the base of a tower obvious.

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The spa’s signature treatment is the Roots of Jaipur, a scrub made from a local recipe - crushed green gram with honey and turmeric, that’ll slough off your dead skin and leave it baby soft, followed by a massage and lung cleansing steam.

During my massage, therapist Jolly’s incredibly adept fingers have me fighting myself to stay awake to savour every moment. I always rate my massages based on how often I have to think about what I’d like the masseuse to do instead, and it’s always a great sign when I have no mental feedback.

I emerge feeling several months younger and sip ginger lemon tea in the outdoor relaxation area.

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Much like the other hotels in its portfolio, this Alila property is perfectly suited to the wellness traveller. Early mornings are for relaxing sunrise yoga in the lush spa garden rewarded by breakfast (it’s a la carte and we loved the local thali with hot millet rotis, butter and garlic chutney) followed by the hot hours spent by the pool with the fort providing the backdrop.

Punctuate your sunbathing routine with cold dips, and eat a leisurely lunch at Haveli, the adjacent Mediterranean restaurant. Afternoons are for lazing (and spa treatments) and sunsets are for taking in the view of the Aravallis bathed in orange from Nazaara, the open-air terrace lounge.

But head back to the reception marquee after sunset to see the majestic fort lit up at night. Tonight with a full moon in the back and a cool breeze on my cheeks - it is a surreal and meditative sight. 

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Visit Alila Fort Bishangarh online and follow on instagram


Sheena Dabholkar is a photographer, writer and the editor of LOVER. She likes pranic healing and reading on her Kindle.
Follow her on instagram at @thisisweeny