oooooh! for a good treatment......

Monday, 2 October 2017


"Long before one can enjoy the Neemrana Experience, it is vital to humble oneself before the vast and continuous sprawl of history. Humans come later."- a quote from  their website.

Tijara Fort Palace stands tall and foreboding on a hilltop. As you approach this new addition to the Neemrana Group of Hotels, the tall grasslands play hide and seek with the view of the Fort. A wide but steep entrance through the palace gates reminds me of the established Neemrana Fort in Delhi.

I have known the owner of Neemrana Group, Aman Nath, for the last 17 years. He is a neighbour and a friend. We recently connected through work at the Indian Heritage Hotels Association, and I was almost embarrassed that I had not accepted his many invitations to visit his new "baby." So when I had some time this autumn, I jumped into my car and drove off into the wilderness, only to be surprised by the sheer enormity of the Fort and what Aman has done to convert the old 19th century ruins into a grand palace hotel. I cannot even begin to imagine what a mammoth task it must have been to renovate the old ruins of the Fort and transform it into this splendid Palace Hotel. Keeping to traditional architectural guidelines, getting licenses from the Government and even building the roads to access the Fort could not have been an easy task. Yet this is exactly why these boutique hotels of the IHHA are charming and unique - they are more a labour of love put together with all historic details in place.

Located only 2.5 hours away from Delhi, Tijara Fort makes an easy getaway for weekends from Delhi. My friend Meg Lambert a.k.a. "an english woman abroad" joined me on the trip. We were on a Mystic Asia journey into the heart of Indian heritage.

We arrived at lunchtime and were given a very elaborate Thali lunch of Rajasthani food. I indulged in some "normal" food after a long time!Aman told me they would be starting a new restaurant with "sattvik" food! I shall look forward to it! Food was delicious although a little oily for my liking.

We strolled around the huge property comprising of the three main buildings, the Mardana Mahal, the Rani Mahal and the Hawa Mahal. Seven terraced gardens connecting these Mahals command a magnificent view above the tall ramparts that have now been lovingly completed and restored.

My favourite spot was the stunning Ikkat floor tiles that formed a carpet in the main hall of Mardana Mahal.

The rooms have been designed by well known personalities of the art world and painted murals adorn the walls and ceilings of several of the rooms. I was pleasantly surprised to find that "Anjolie Mahal"

which was allocated to me, had walls painted by one of Indias most talented artists, Anjolie Ela Menon.

Her signature was inscribed on the walls for posterity. Beautiful!

In the evening, Meg and I got down to do some much needed stretches and Yoga after the long drive from Delhi. 

The sunset lit up the radiant hues of the red sandstone of the Fort. Ending with some meditation we headed straight to the spa.

Oh yes ! and on the way I spotted something that was interesting.......

The double OM!!

Raja Sitlhou was warm and welcoming to the Oriental Senses Spa that he runs at Tijara Fort. He was almost apologetic that the new spa premises were not yet ready for use. Never mind, I said, we will be back!

The Oriental Senses spa is run by husband and wife (Raja and Ahoi) team with what seems like a hands on, personal attention, vibe.

They seemed very sincere, very caring, very eager that we have a good experience. The temporary spa was set up in one of the rooms and the two therapy beds were separated by a makeshift screen for our purpose. I understood that special therapists were brought in for us too, which was very touching indeed. They had only one gown so we couldnt pose in "white"! I always have an immediate rapport with North Eastern staff so it was easy for me to feel at home. My therapist Mesavino or Avi, for short, was of Naga origin. I amused her with some of my Nagamese knowledge and then we got down to business. I opted for a deep tissue massage.

The spa menu was non fussy, compact and to the point with the standard therapies on offer. 

We started off with a foot soak in lukewarm water and rose petals, Thai style. 

Avi gave me an unusually large disposable underwear to change into and began kneading my body with a sensitive touch. She was petit girl so I almost felt bad to ask her to go deeper into my tissues and muscles. (I like my massage to be quite painful, nicely I mean!). I think I reached her limits, poor girl, as I continued to ask her to go deeper! The oil smelt nice with a combination of lavender and lemon, homemade by Ahoi herself. I think the base oil was sesame, I was not sure.

I have to say here that the hospitality shown by Raj and Ahoi was refreshingly personal and caring and I think what most spas dont realise is that a customer comes to a spa to be spoilt, to receive some TLC. So being caring, sincere and some kind words can always touch a soul. This was the best part of my experience with them- the warmth with which I was welcomed.

As the massage relaxed me into a state of sleep, an hour later, I was woken up on my table. Meg was almost asleep too. We yawned, stretched and filled ourselves with gratitude for this amazing journey that we were on.

We sauntered off to dinner soon after that and decided to have an early night so we could catch the morning light at sunrise the next day.

Sure enough, at 5.45 am we were up

at the Hawa Mahal to watch the sun rise and I was treated to a fabulous sun "wash" through my Sahasara (crown) Chakra !!

We found a nice spot amongst the corridor of pillars to do our yoga 

and then moved to the edge of the building for some meditation.

A hearty breakfast of yummy Poha and an hour of swimming is how we spent the morning. The enormous open air pool is set at a lower level.

The water was cool and inviting. Am sure it would be stunning to swim in the night and watch the stars while on a backstroke!

I spent the rest of the morning enjoying the balcony outside my room,

feeling the gentle breeze while I caught up with my reading on Devdutt Patnaiks interpretation of the Devi (in keeping to the theme of Navratri and Durga Puja!).

We quickly grabbed some lunch and with heavy hearts said bye to our short sojourn in "Wonderland"!

It felt like a dream.

I am so grateful for every moment that comes my way in this wonderful world of travel, specially moments like these that are precious and unforgettable. Little sparks of magic that make life very worth living.

Thank you Aman, Vivek and Raja and Ahoi.

Recommendation: Im sure the new spa will have a more aesthetic space than the one we experienced and I wish them luck with that. I hope to visit again soon. The collaterals could also be brought in line with a definite brand image. 

Thursday, 10 August 2017


Ive seen Aashyana Lakhanpal grow from its inception to this beautiful sprawling property that is cared for, yet looks uncared for. That is the unique magic of this place. Owner Ajai Lakhanpal has been a dear friend over the years and has often invited me to enjoy his home -turned -resort on one of Goa's most popular beaches, Candolim. He is a man of good taste and little fuss. He wisely decided that instead of having a manicured garden he would allow the garden to be natural and grow organically. The concept has worked incredibly well and hidden amongst the grounds are his commitments to the environment in the form of rainwater harvesting, composting, organic garden etc.

Firstly, the entrance to the property is archaically narrow, and requires us to switch over to smaller cars at a certain point, in order navigate through the lanes. After a short drive the majestic gate suddenly appears and as we drive in to the property, we are greeted with tall coconut palms and a beautiful entrance hall with a grand spiral staircase.

I am here this time, to shoot my second Indian healthy cookbook with my co author Nandini Gulati, our stylist Vidhi Jain and two photographers. Our book is whole plant based and uses no oil, sugar, gluten or animal products!

We arrived in Goa with bags and bags of styling crockery and food ingredients which we knew we would not find easily if Goa.

We were here to cook, style and shoot 118 recipes in 10 days. It was going to be intense work and I was sure I would need some good relaxing spa treatments!

Ajai very kindly opened up his property for us to capture some of the magic of his gardens and incorporate it into our book. And so it was. Every leaf, every corner, every wall, provided us with unique surfaces to place our dishes on.

We would start early in the morning to capture the light.

But wait!

My morning doesn't start until Ive done my practice! The beach was only a stones throw away.

A good morning walk allowing the wet sand to massage the soles of my feet is a great therapy.

I believe its now also been given the name "earthing" and often included as a spa therapy!! It certainly helps to ground me and absorb the energy of the earth! We had spectacular sunrises as it was the monsoon season . I dragged Nandini out to do some Yoga and meditation on the beach.

Our cottages were set amidst a lot of greenery and the birds made sure they woke us up in the morning. I also noticed a new resident here- the peacock. But was not able to capture him in my camera. These cottages have been gradually added to the property and they are soooooo close to the beach that you can hear the ocean as you sleep.

After a hearty and healthy breakfast of fruit, smoothies, brown rice poha and badam milk we set to work.

We scouted the property for interesting spaces to photograph our dishes on. So while I paid attention to producing the dishes,Vidhi and the photographers went hunting for surfaces. We did so want to capture the cottages and villas of the property but with food shots we needed to have close ups. Nevertheless, what we found was amazing.

Sometimes some moss..........

Sometimes a Buddha Statue

sometimes on the rooftop

and sometimes in the pond!

Day after day we worked non stop for 12 hours a day taking breaks to review the work. Sitting out in the verandah of our cottages till dusk dawned and the mosquitoes decided to descend upon us. The cottages inside were very comfortable, fully air conditioned and a great tea making service!

We even went to Mapusa vegetable market to get fresh veggies for the book. (Yes, it was avocado season!!)

And got to taste our own haul from Mapusa!

 But most of all, I would be on my feet all day. My tired soles were aching. I tried to relax in the picturesque pool.

Nothing worked. My feet needed a workout.

I finally decided that the only remedy would be to take a walk down to the spa.

Shobha and Biju are a husband wife couple that take care of the spa at Aashyana. The spa, if I remeber right, was once an exclusive Ayurvedic spa but has now been converted to a general spa with both Ayurvedic and Western therapies.  The couple are from Kerala and are able to handle both forms of therapies. I opted to have a deep tissue on the first day for my aching body (after so much hard work!!)

It was Shobha who took care of me, gently digging into my muscles and soles. 
The spa was very simple and basic. No frills and no fuss (just like the owner likes it). It has a feel of au naturalle about it. I asked for a deep tissue massage and she did a good job using her lower arm and elbow to dig deep into my back and soles as required. They use mainly Ayurvedic oils at the spa and dont give you much information unless you ask. I think what she used on me had a sesame base.

After a weeks gap I chose to have the Ayurvedic rejuvenation therapy as well, on the wooden massage table.
I dont know about you but I always have a fear that Ill slip down from the table!! I usually hold on tight when I need to turn over. The two hands Abhyanga treatment was given using a Tridoshic oil combination call the Dhanwanthaila (the Hindu God of Health Dhanwantari and Thaila meaning oil). Shobha is an experienced therapist and explained to me thats its a myth to say that Ayurvedic massages are given only under the instruction of doctors. I think what she meant was there is a difference between massages with tridoshic oils (which would be suitable to all dosha types) and those that are prescribed by doctors as Ayurvedic treatments with specific dosha oils.

And so be it.

I would say then that this could only be considered a "massage" rather than an Ayurvedic treatment! Still it was nice and relaxing. I bathed after, with the home-made moong dal paste that she had made.

I left the spa feeling rejuvenated and ready for another days work!

Our time in Aashyana seemed to have gone my very fast. We wrapped up the shooting by taking some portrait pictures for the book. Aashyana Lakhanpal is the kind of place that grows and grows on you. You just dont want to leave it. However we celebrated by having a nice meal made by Jagat Singh and Lakhan, our two chefs and eventually we had to say byeeeee!!

Recommendation: I would definitely recommend improving the aesthetics of the spa and also work on spa etiquette. It could be much more charming set in those beautiful grounds.

I'd like to thank Ajai Lakhanpal, Priya Shaikh. Pradeep Sethi and Rajendra Tiwari for the support they gave me and my team during our stay at Aashyana Lakhanpal. It was memorable.