Marigold re-visited

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The follow up to the film ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ is released this month. The original film was based in Rajasthan and on our last Indian trip my daughter Jennie and I travelled to stay at the hotel. (The film came up in conversation this week and I decided it was worth reminiscing and following Grandma on a previous adventure).

The film tells the story of a group of Brits, played by Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith, who, for various reasons, retire to a hotel ‘for the elderly and beautiful’ in this northern Indian state.

With retirement age approaching I couldn’t resist seeing if it actually existed. With some Internet research I struck ‘Marigold’ and a prompt email response from the Indian hotel manager was brief and to the point: ‘Madam, we are delighted to tell you we do NOT have air conditioning. I assure you we have very cool, limed, stone walls’. After such an intriguing reply we decided it was worth making a special detour on our thousand mile tour. We weren’t disappointed.

The Ravla Khempur Heritage Hotel (the hotel’s real name) is a local tribal chief’s palace in a small village in the heart of the countryside, seventy miles outside Udaipur. It’s not easy to find and, after a hot and dusty seven-hour drive, it was a relief to bump along a dirt track and finally see the familiar outline of the white-stuccoed building used as the film set. It was even more thrilling though to find the signs for the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel were still in place!

The thirteen-bedroom hotel has all the charm and ambience portrayed on screen. Sadly Dev Patel (the attractive Indian actor who’d played the hotel manager) wasn’t waiting, but his real life counterpart, Nithin, welcomed us enthusiastically. The only other hotel employee, Mohan, (still dreaming of his walk-on role in the film) donned his hat with the flourish of a veteran 1940’s film star, proffering cold drinks on a delicate silver tray, whilst still managing to pose for photos.

We dropped our bags in the cool, well-furnished bedroom. Nithin’s email response was absolutely correct, – the thick, limestone, walls kept the Rajasthani heat at bay.

The sun filtered through vivid stained-glass panels into rooms decorated in a traditional, if somewhat idiosyncratic, style:  photos from the Raj; an old wind up gramophone poised to play 78 records; chandeliers throwing light onto chaise longues, sofas, tables and chairs from a bygone age.

Our arrival had obviously been eagerly awaited and within minutes Nithin, the manager, swept us on a break neck tour of the hotel: up crumbling external staircases; along terraces; across the white balconies and moss covered ramparts; down stairwells and into tiled passageways festooned with old Persian carpets. His exuberant commentary flowed continuously. – “Here’s where Maggie Smith . . . this is the room where they filmed…. Over there is where he died in the chair.’

His enthusiasm was infectious and we felt very much at home as we finally lazed in the late afternoon sunshine, admiring the faded Indian frescoes and drinking sherbet. Peacocks called noisily to one another around the courtyard, brightly plumaged parrots dived in and out of the trees and a couple of horses peered nosily over their stable doors. We were a novelty. We were the only guests.

The hotel owner is also a horse breeder. He specialises in pedigree Kathiawari and Marwari horses (they have distinctive little ears that twist backwards) and you can hire them by the hour for gentle rides in the surrounding countryside. Here was our next opportunity  – whilst our evening meal was being prepared, we rode into the Indian sunset, stopping off to meet local people going about their end of day activities: an old woman rhythmically milking her goats, children wanting to start up English conversations, glimpses into village homes at dusk and finally, joining in the celebrations for a local wedding.

On our return, an excited Mohan was waiting. The kitchen had been busy preparing a meal with freshly gathered vegetables, herbs, chicken and eggs from the hotel farm.  Mohan led us up to the crumbly terrace overlooking the courtyard, where, under a midnight blue sky, a white plastic table had been incongruously laid with elegant china. We sat quietly and listened to the night time sounds drifting in from the nearby village.

In the courtyard below Mohan lit the first firework. It exploded into the darkness, much to the delight of the elderly and the beautiful.

Jennie and I were now completely seduced by this quirky gem of a small hotel.  Although we were the only guests that night, its normal clientele includes naturalists, bird watching enthusiasts, and horse riders who visit the area for the wildlife. The film has given the hotel a once in a lifetime opportunity and the owner hopes the publicity will attract  more mature UK guests wanting to experience Indian rural life.  Nithin, a professional hotel manager, has been appointed to make this transformation and change some of the more unusual elements. At the moment it’s comfortable and clean but it’s not a hotel for the faint hearted, as we were to discover when the fireworks and delightful meal were followed by further entertainment.

As our dishes were cleared Nithin led us to the courtyard and ushered us towards two plastic chairs set up as if Royalty was expected. We sat down obediently and waited.

Through the white archway and out of the darkness came the old retainer from the riding school. He was leading the mare, which had been watching us over the stable door earlier that afternoon. With the help of an assistant the retainer hobbled the horse. We watched in mystification. With enormous pride Nithin began a commentary on the value of the horses and the work of the stud farm. As he spoke, three other men wrestled a whinnying stallion through the archway. His detailed commentary rapidly became redundant. At this point dear readers I will draw a gentle veil over the proceedings, only adding I have never before attended a live horse sex show.

At the end we thanked them politely, in a very British way, and retired to lie down in our cool, non air-conditioned bedroom. We felt as if we had just left an exotic film set.

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