Go beyond the puppet shows and thali feasts of India’s tourist palaces seeking out another gentler and creative India with some of our favourite family-owned boutique properties below. From one of the grandest cities in India, now a faded beauty and nearly unknown, to a celebrity favourite deep in the depths of Rajasthan, India is scattered with lesser-known properties that are infused with stories of valour, vision and rooted in the soil of their setting. This is a journey through hotels created by love – with each one is utterly individual to itself, offering an experience not to be found anywhere else on earth.
1. Rajbari, West Bengal
A gentle 2.5 hours drive from Kolkata ‘City of Joy’, Rajbari is less a hotel and more of a discovery. Restored after decades of dilapidation by Kolkata resident Ajay Rawla, this early 19th-century merchant’s palace has one of the most breathtaking entrances in all of India. Built on a vast scale, the columned courtyard facade is the perfect expression of the swaggering past of West Bengal, a land of adventuring East India fortune hunters, colourful ‘Nabobs’ – Englishmen who adopted the native ways of life (including ‘Hindoo’ Stuart, a Limerick-born soldier whose vast collection of Bengali antiquities forms the basis of the British Museum’s South Asian collection) – and art patron landowners. Rajbari is a sleeping beauty brought back to life by a man in love. To stay here is to enter a deeply authentic story centred around the magic of West Bengal – sail on a country boat along the Hooghly River before taking part in Sanskrit evening prayers as dusk falls and journey through the local dishes in the candlelit state dining room. 1819 meets 2019 in true period perfection.
2. Bari Kothi
Few visitors to India even hear of Murshidabad, let alone visit it. But this former capital city once controlled 5% of the world’s GDP. An 18th-century relic coiled around the banks of sacred River Ganges, Murshidabad boasts one of the largest palaces in India, mosques built in a day, glorious architecture and a most intriguing history. One of the prominent communities to settle here were the Sheherwali Jains, who built magnificent homes in the twin-towns of Azimganj and Jiaganj, upriver from Murshidabad. The boutique property Bari Kothi has been recently lovingly restored by owner Darshan Dudhoria and is a dazzling sight to behold. Set in the town of Azimganj, known as ‘the Varanasi of the East’ on account of its plethora of temples, Bari Kothi is an arresting confection of Greek, Roman, and French architecture. Explore this warren of mosaic floored ballrooms, Burmese teak pillars, Belgian chandeliers, faded portraits and vast stained glass windows before wandering down onto the family ghat stretching into the holy waters. The young married owners are deeply welcoming and a fount of stories about the region – all is done with passion and spirit here. Come and be seduced.
3. Wild Mahseer, Assam
‘Assam stretches from the sea-line to the snow-line’ reflects the ebullient owner of boutique resort Wild Mahseer, Ranjit Borthakur. Such pride in this wild corner of North-East India, known as ‘the land of the rising sun’, is evident in each area of the charming property, nestled in 22 acres of lush Addabarie Tea Estate. A deep and unswerving commitment to the surrounding environment underpins every part of life here and guests are immersed in the rich rhythm of nature. Set in the Eastern Himalaya Botanic Ark, Wild Mahseer is passionate about showcasing the region’s biodiversity. They arrange unforgettable experiences such as the spring festival of Ali Aye Ligang with the local Mishing community, forest bathing, river safaris along the mighty Brahmaputra and visits to Assam silk weavers as well as astonishing game drives at the famed Kaziranga National Park, home of the Great Indian One Horned Rhino.
4. Pepper Trail, Kerala
Go deep into the jungle and discover this idyllic corner of North Kerala, nestled among the mountains of the Western Ghats and swimming in heritage, storytelling and tranquility. Third-generation owner Anand Jayan has transformed his 200-acre inheritance into one of the most rewarding small properties in South India through sheer determination and effortless devotion. The surrounding area of Wayanad is one of the most naturally spectacular regions in South India, a hill station with stunning waterfalls, the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and the Edakkal Caves, boasting rock carvings from 6,000 BC as well as the largest dam in India. Pepper Trail is a working tea and coffee plantation with houses built almost 40-foot above ground entwined around jackfruit trees. The hand-carved canopied beds are made from the forest, the textiles are locally sourced and each corner sings with joy for the region. Hospitality is personal and gentle, guests are welcomed as honoured friends and with endearing affection. Two suites are set in a 140-year old bungalow, all Kerala planters chairs and pillars, with further villas complete with swimming pools soon to be launched. Seasonal local dishes are served in the Pavilion, high in the foliage and the Peppery Mutton is a delight along with local fruits, bursting with jazzy flavours. Eat being serenaded by flashing birds, the Malabar pied hornbills and rose-ringed parakeets, and know you are in God’s Own Country.
5. Rawla Narlai
Supermodel Yasmin Le Bon’s favourite Rajasthan retreat, Rawla Narlai, hidden in the mythical Aravalli Hills, is one of those rustic gems that celebrities flock to for a discreet and transporting experience. Follow the long shadow of Elephant Hill and climb the 700 granite steps to watch the setting sun transform the landscape into a burnished orange sea amid the echoes of village life far below. Such moments have the power to harness the heart into a harmony with nature hard to find in the west. Seventeenth-century Rawla Narlai was the favourite hunting lodge of the Maharajas of Jodhpur and an echo of the old royal ways remain untouched by time. Requests to staff are answered with folded hands and a gentle ‘hukum’, the traditional honorific. The furniture and paintings blend seamlessly with the Rajput architecture and the pool sparkles in the bougainvillea-festooned courtyard. Suites in the original lodge sing with breathtaking frescoes, traditional coloured glass arches and enormous sink-in beds. Comforts are those of an English country house rather than a creaky Indian palace and every whim is taken care of with a touching charm. The famed stepwell dinners are the most romantic in Rajasthan, lit by a thousand terracotta candles and accompanied by folk musicians and peacocks fanning under the moon. The surrounding village is one of the oldest in the country and sports 350 beautifully carved temples to explore including those of the Jain sect. The perfect oasis stop between Jodhpur and Udaipur, Rawla Narlai is a jewel glinting in the desert light.