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An Indian Hotel Built From Ruins

By Kames Narayanan

The Alila Fort Bishangarh in the day.
Alila Fort Bishangarh
The Alila Fort Bishangarh in the day.

Perched atop a granite hill amidst the vast Aravalli mountain range located in northern India sits the Alila Fort Bishangarh hotel. The grandiose structure, finished with traditional surkhi (stone dust), set against a backdrop of cloudless skies, call to mind the sandcastles from a fond childhood. Flanked by thick walls of the fort that measure up to three-metres in width – that were built some 230 years ago to stave off invaders during India’s royal reign – the Alila Fort Bishangarh deceivingly melds into the original fort it is built on. To the unacquainted, it is near impossible to dissect the new boutique resort from the age old warrior fort.

When restoration works first began about a decade ago, the vision for the renewal heritage site was set. The intent was to breathe a new lease of life into what remained, all while keeping to its stark, desolate mood and retaining its tangible structure. By no means an easy feat, the conservation project proved to be a tall order even for well-learned architecture duo Ritu Khandelwal and Sandeep Khandelwal, who consider this the most extensive work that they have executed thus far in their career.  

In the years of abandonment, the fort had run into ruin, morphing into a makeshift home for thousands of monkeys, bats and inhabitants of the like. The Khandelwal’s, spent much of the first two years working through the architectural arithmetic of the fort. The structure was an unconventional maze connected by unusually slanted walls – not one single 90-degree wall was featured in its construction. Solving its structural construct and drawing up the luxury resort’s minute details panned out to be a time consuming, about two-month long endeavor.

Alila Fort BishangarhSeats by the corridor.
Seats by the corridor.

“It’s an organic structure, with no 90-degree angles. Every detail of the project was executed without even a single typical floor plan yet every corner of the building had a drawing,” said Khandelwal in an interview with CNN travel earlier this year.

This was but the first of a slew of kinks that the architectures were met with along the way. The derelict building had to be stabilised and strengthened, a meandering road leading up to the fort had to be constructed prior to the beginning of the reconstruction works and the thick walls had to be maneuvered in the installation of a network of electrical services.

Alila Fort BishangarhA shot from the atrium in the Alila Fort Bishangarh.
A shot from the atrium in the Alila Fort Bishangarh.

Throughout the long drawn out project, all the efforts were underscored by a greater overarching theme that retained the integrity of the existing architecture. By way of integrating the remaining ruins into the newly constructed structure, all design elements were constructed to resurrect what was once of the fort. Its interiors, weaving in from the austere exterior, reflect a similar sensibility. Stripped of the archetypal ornate decorum expected of a Rajasthani property, the rooms reflect an incongruent modernity. While touches of heritage are observed in the resort’s Jharokha-style windows (a traditional type of overhanging that arches across the frame of an enclosed balcony or window), intricacies of stone Jaali lend a subtle touch of origin and time worn doors that recall the tale of time, the hotel moves forth with a balance of the contemporary. A little less than a third of the fort is covered in marble and outfitted with the conveniences of the modern day – sprawling bathrooms, daybeds fit for a king and built-in light bulbs barely skim the surface.   

The Alila Fort Bishangarh hotel, reportedly the only warrior fort in the world resurrected as a boutique hotel and resort, speaks of a burgeoning trend in architecture. Increasingly, new meaning is found in old buildings. Ideas of reconstruction, redesigning and repurposing are buzzwords that lead the architectural conversation of now.

Alila Fort BishangarhThe Alila Fort Bishangarh at dawn.
The Alila Fort Bishangarh at dawn.

As the world’s population reaches all time highs, with unchanged perimeters of land, people are met with new challenges in meeting these increased demands. Rehashing old buildings, then presents itself as a viable solution to the pertinent issues of land scarcity. The end goal of the resurrection of these structures echoes that of the Alila Fort Bishangarh hotel – to built upon a legacy that has been left behind.

The relationship between the reincarnations of these building and its people evolve as the structure itself gets restored. At Singapore’s Dempsey hill, a 1930s Ebenezer chapel has reestablished itself as home to one of the island’s most delectable dining experiences; old commando barracks at a far flung east end of the country has been refurbished into a boutique hotel; and a Catholic convent now houses a chain of restaurants at the city center.

And perhaps, the generation’s widely recognised taking to a tinge of nostalgia has set the trend further in motion. Fresh ideas, ironically bloom, within the desolate spaces of old buildings. In many ways, the past is never really left behind, a sentiment that is also observed in an architectural sense of the world.