“I’m here to take you to ghosts,” beams my guide as he sweeps me into an open-top jeep. It’s early morning and mist clings to the valley floor as water buffalo amble into the soon-to-be-sun-kissed fields. Our occasional companions on the road are tractors blaring music in a futile bid to drown out the roar of their engines, and the odd group of peacocks, India’s national bird, holding court by the village wells.
I’m bound for Bhangarh Fort, India’s most haunted site, where entry is denied after sunset and those who find themselves nearby when night falls fear they keep company with disgruntled spirits. Once home to 10,000 people, Bhangarh is now populated by cows, macaques and parrots who rove and swoop about the gloriously beautiful mass of golden ruins, the remains of havelis, bazaars and temples destroyed by black magic.
Legend has it that the community was cursed by the magician Selu Sewra, who fell for Bhangarh’s princess. His affection unrequited, he cast a love spell on the oil intended for her royal massage. However, sensing the enchantment, the princess had her servants smash the bottle upon boulders, which were drawn to Sewra in her place. Crushed beneath their weight, he used his dying moments to doom Bhangarh and its inhabitants. As if summoned, invading forces decimated the fort, almost overnight, less than a century after its construction.
This is just one of the private excursions offered by Amanbagh, a luxury resort dedicated to protecting and promoting the villages of the Ajabgarh Valley, which might otherwise share the fate of countless rural communities and disappear as the young answer the call of the city.
The space here feels boundless. The soft green of the mustard seed-filled fields and burnt orange of the unpaved roads are broken by splashes of colour and life; women tend their crops, goats demand right of way, electric blue kingfishers dart from branches, makeshift cricket bats thwack and the flame- of-the-forest blooms, these glowing red flowers only visible for a few weeks at the start of summer.
Assured that no two Ajabgarh days are ever alike, I join Amanbagh’s afternoon Cow Dust Tour and find the villages transformed. You may see mothers and daughters embellishing saris, potters at their wheel or one kilogram silver bands being attached to the ankles of newly married women. Children will run to meet the jeep whenever it slows - one impish five year old demanding that I photograph her, before assessing the result and art-directing her reshoot. This is a growing trend in luxury Indian hospitality; creating astounding spaces while working to promote and protect village life - RAAS Devigarh, just beyond Udaipur, Alila Diwa Goa further south and Alila Fort Bishangarh (which was once a warrior fort protecting the kingdom of Jaipur) are just a few of the hotels who understand the merits and allure of responsible tourism.
The pastel pink Amanbagh itself is a marble and sandstone oasis. At its entrance rangoli (flowers, lentils, dried rice and grasses arranged in geometric patterns to kindle good luck) greet guests and, in the evening, help transform the library terrace and pool-side alcoves into private dining areas. Resident camels charm, bougainvillea blooms and musicians who barely seem to pause for breath perform beside the pool while birds sing from palms that stood here long before Amanbagh’s construction. Ayurveda is practiced in the spa, yoga takes place just after sunrise and when retreating to the palatial, pavilion-style rooms, awash with warm tones and natural light, you’re reminded just how much this resort lives up to its name, ‘peace garden’. Serene, decadent and socially conscious, this is holistic hospitality of the highest quality.
Words by Liz Schaffer