Rude Travel by Vir Sanghvi: A celebration of love
There are few things in life that are more relaxing than lying in a bathtub and staring at the Taj Mahal. A fortnight ago as Covid cases mounted in Delhi, my wife and I drove for two and a half hours to Agra’s The Oberoi Amarvilas, the one hotel where every room has a view of the Taj.
The view from our room was not just stunning but it was almost impossible to escape. The bathroom had glass windows that let you gaze at the monument. We ate breakfast every morning overlooking a garden, beyond which the Taj loomed in all its majesty and beauty. And yes, there is no better view to wake up to each morning than the Taj Mahal.
Agra has always held a special place in my heart. My mother, childless after four years of marriage, prayed at the dargah of Salim Chishti. In less than a year, her luck changed and along came I. When I was four, she took me to Fatehpur Sikri, to the dargah and she thanked the saint for his blessings. ( I just thanked him for letting me exist.)
Since then, I have been back to Agra so often that I have lost count. During one school trip when I was 16, a few of us tried to escape the Agra summer sun by going to the air-conditioned splendour of the Clarks Shiraz Hotel (then the only decent hotel in town) for a cold Coca-Cola, only to be denied entry by the durwan who thought we were too downmarket. A decade later, when I stayed at the Clarks Shiraz, I realised he had probably done us a favour by not letting us waste any money there.
After a long spell as the only game in town, the Clarks Shiraz gave way to the ITC Mughal. If you look at the Mughal closely, it is an embryonic Vilas property built for an era when people did not spend too long in their rooms.
The resemblance is largely because the design of the hotel was overseen by the Oberois. At that stage, ITC was a cigarette company that wanted only to own hotels that others would manage for it. So the Oberois were to run the property till Ajit Haksar, then ITC’s Chairman, suddenly decided that the company would run its own hotels.
The Taj planned a luxury property in Agra with gardens landscaped by Mary McFadden but those plans (which were fully ready) were put on hold when the hotel market in Agra suddenly collapsed.
It wasn’t that people stopped coming to Agra – quite the opposite! – but the introduction of the Shatabdi encouraged tourists to treat Agra as a day trip. You left Delhi early in the morning and you were back by nightfall having whizzed through Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri and the Taj. Nobody bothered to spend the night in Agra any longer, so hotels stayed empty.
Then, Biki Oberoi decided that he would ignore the conventional wisdom and build a magnificent hotel that would become a destination by itself. Amarvilas had not yet opened its doors to the general public when I first went there to have breakfast with General Musharraf during the Agra summit. The hotel looked beautiful but its beauty was obscured by Musharraf’s unpleasantness. (And in any case, I was not his favourite person at the breakfast after I asked him how we could possibly trust him, the architect of Kargil).
I went back again the following year, with friends, for New Year and then again for a break. Those visits convinced me that Amarvilas had changed hospitality in Agra forever. Though it was not cheap, it drew tourists from all over the world and, like the other Vilas hotels, made it to every international list of best hotels. For Delhi people, Agra had a built-in advantage. You drove there so you saved on air fares and could splash out on a good hotel.
I could see why Amarvilas attracted so much global recognition. All Vilas hotels are luxurious and brilliantly run. But none has the sense of place that Amarvilas does.
The Taj is a monument to love. Amarvilas is a monument to love of the Taj. It has been built with a single purpose: to celebrate the beauty of one of the world’s seven wonders in a style that would have pleased the Mughals and every guest is pampered as the Emperors must have been.
It has changed Agra’s hotel scene. Once it became clear that guests were willing to stay on in Agra, ITC Hotels boss Nakul Anand sent Anil Chadha, who was then his best General Manager, to turn the tired old Mughal into a luxury resort with an award-winning spa and new suites with private pools. (Anil is now COO of ITC Hotels.) And good hotels began to spring up all over Agra.
I now go to Agra at least once a year, staying either at the revamped Mughal or Amarvilas and find that it is the perfect destination. I can drive there for New Year when the fog disrupts flights.
And the Taj is special. At the end of the last century, the musician Yanni held a night concert in the shadow of the Taj. The music was horrible, of course, a pretentious version of elevator muzak. But it hardly mattered. The Taj had been lit up. The moon shimmered in the sky and the total effect was completely magical. I have never seen the Taj look so beautiful in the Agra night and I don’t suppose I ever will again
At the Yanni concert, where I blotted out the music and focused on the beauty of the monument, I came to the conclusion that the standard tourist visit to the Taj (which, I have done many times) kind of misses the point. Even if you go beyond the Princess-Diana-on-a-bench kind of visit and actually tour the insides (which I did in the days when it was still possible), you don’t fully appreciate what the fuss is about.
The point of the Taj is the beauty of the structure and you only really appreciate that if you look at it again and again. One reason why I love Amarvilas (apart from the luxury, the delicious food, the Vilas service, etc.) is because each time I go there, I fall in love with the Taj again.
This time too, it was hard to prise me away from my balcony (or even my bathtub) because I was hypnotised by the beauty of the monument. I hadn’t realised before that the colour of the Taj subtly changes every hour as the sun shifts in the sky. And Amarvilas is so near the Taj that you often feel that they are two buildings in the same compound, separated only by a garden.
I always say that Vilas holidays are worth saving up for. But at Amarvilas, its not just the splendour of the hotel. It is also the sense that you are getting a close-up view of India’s glorious heritage.
Go there with someone you care for. The Taj is, after all, about love.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, December 6, 2020
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch