Based in Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan, this renowned firm consists of a closely knit team of architects and interior designers. Sthapatya Architects was established in 1996 by the creative couple, Sandeep and Ritu Khandelwal. They graduated in the first batch of architecture from the MNIT, Jaipur, and are members of the IIA, COA, IIID, PHD, and PETA. The architect duo started private practice while still at college and have over the years made a mark in the design world of Rajasthan.
nestled in the scenic Aravalli range. The Fort remained abandoned for centuries before the Jaipur-based architect duo, Ritu and Sandeep Khandelwal of Sthapatya Architects, were roped in to restore it from its deplorable condition to be converted into a world-class heritage resort. The challenge was to keep the original structure intact in its entirety, barring breaking portions of the walls to connect rooms and drilling holes for the air-shafts and drainage.
Sandeep, while narrating the story of the restoration work that took several years, told us that this magnificent structure had lost its purpose of a refugee fort and, over the years, was infested by thousands of bats and monkeys. At the turn of the century, the royal family of Shahpura made the visionary decision to adapt it to a hotel property, thus giving it a new lease of life. The entire makeover took nearly a decade and the result is there for all to see.
As we listened to the wonders and the hard work that went into the restoration, Ritu further explained the design ethos of the heritage property, adding, ‘The warrior Fort is of typical Jaipur gharana style, which is a beautiful amalgamation of Rajput and Mughal architecture. This gave a clear source of inspiration as it was important to keep the heritage alive and to use the beauty of the existing structure and restore it to its stately homestead.
The visual vocabulary of the Fort has been carefully woven into the design to keep it true to its original form and maintain the essence of the warrior fort and not convert it into a palace, which is what has come to be expected of the heritage sites in
As we walked around, we noticed that the inner core of the Fort has been completely retained where the stone carving pillars have been restored and replicated. Just the upper wing and an outer envelope was newly built. Ritu said, ‘The structure is a completely organic form with no 90-degree angles which was one of the major challenges faced as there are no typical layouts.’ You can see the attention to detail in every nook and corner that has some intricate lattice stone work, vegetable dye frescoes or a bit of ancient metal jaali screens to complete the authentic gharana theme. Then there’s use of antique brass embossing and ancient woodwork on doors and windows that talk of its rich past.
The furnishing and upholstery also seem to have been hand-
picked painstakingly and merge effortlessly with the structure. Another reason for this project to take 10 years is that most of the furniture and light fittings were custom designed and made to order. Vernacular techniques of patchwork, block print, tie-and-dye and Gudri work are scattered around to add flavour to the interior of the hotel and are sourced locally from various parts of Rajasthan.
The architect duo made sure that the carbon footprint was kept to the minimum. All the material from the construction stage to the furnishing stage has been sourced locally, from within a 100-km radius. Traditional material has been used with a certain amount of modernity. The best part is that they involved the local community in the construction process; it wasn’t difficult to find talent in the nearby villages.
One can very well imagine the uphill task of working with the existing structure and encapsulating it in a way that served the modern needs best. We were pleasantly surprised to see four vertical circulation lifts and even a kitchen lift for goods added seamlessly to this ancient Fort. The architects faced a massive road block trying to discover vertical shafts for the lifts. So, they employed the traditional method of tying ropes to torches to overcome this challenge.
The other big hurdle was to allow natural light to enter the interior of the Fort. Like every fortress, Fort Bishangarh had been designed to block everything out. During the restoration process, the architects had to cut through the floors to get natural light and use the existing courtyard as the main source of natural light in the common areas and the corridors running all along the Fort. This created a more welcoming atmosphere, which is a must for every hospitality business. Use of jaalis and screens in the corridor creates a magical reflection on the floor of the corridor; as if the building breathes when the shadows change and patterns evolve through the day.
Currently this heritage resort has 59 rooms, each with its own unique shape, which adds to the overall living experience. The only common element are the windows that offer incredible views of surrounding villages and hills. The windows are of jharokha style, is a typical element of the gharana architecture style seen across this royal state. According to the architects, the windows had to be designed in such a way that it did not damage the elevation of the Fort and, at the same time, it was necessary to harness the magnificent views of the landscape of Rajasthan. In order to achieve this, they came up with a unique combination of unequal (small and big) windows which were painted in the matching colour of the Fort. The material used to restore the Fort comprises widely natural sandstone, marble, and granite. Even the plaster was made with the local sandstone and tested until it matched the old plaster.
Driving up the winding road from the base of the hillock to the main hotel entrance is, perhaps, one of the most spectacular attractions for petrol heads like us. The sharp hair-pin turns and a breathtaking view of the land below leave a lasting impression of the time spent at Alila Fort Bishangarh. Sandeep enthusiastically explained how the roads to the hotel had to be imaged and constructed from scratch since there wasn’t any visible path in existence and how, initially, most of the equipment and building material had to be ferried up on mules just as in the ancient times.
What is also interesting is that at the base of the hill is a haveli comprising the arrival courtyard and Jodhpur-tent like structure which resembles the ones used during the game hunting expeditions of the royal years. The area also has a luxurious banquet lawn and a pool with a terrace. The usual lineaments of a five-star like a bar, fitness centre and spa, four different restaurants curated by a celebrity chef can also be seen in this boutique resort.
We had the good fortune to spend a night at this magnificent hotel and can vouch for the luxurious rooms replete with every modern convenience one could desire, including a spacious bathroom, inbuilt bathtubs, and large, comfortable beds. In the morning, we had breakfast at the roof-top, open-air coffee shop that offers a breathtaking view of the sunrise. No artificial camera filter can match up to the vibrant colours this natural landscape had to offer.
As we wrapped up our photo shoot and were walking through the corridors, the air felt heavy and laced with mysteries and untold stories from the past. It felt as if one could stumble upon a hidden trap-door that would open a new chapter from the royal history, undiscovered so far. It is this essence which can only be inherited by heritage properties such as the Alila Fort Bishangarh, which makes it an experience of a lifetime. And this feeling is what inspires us to get back on the road with the trusted Hyundai to discover more such architectural gems of India.
( Above) A view to kill: seen through one of the cannon holes