The facade of the hotel gives us an inkling of what these people mean by luxury: a tawdry, gilded version of the architecture that probably prevailed in Orchha’s fort 400 years ago. The exterior, all arches and whaleback roofs and columns, is painted in pale yellow and cream. The lobby, which smells overpoweringly of incense, is gloomy and has furniture of the carved-wood-and-fake-velvet type. The upholstery patterns are abstract, black and brown streaks and swirls on a beige ground. Not the sort of thing you team with a ceiling decorated with ornate arabesques, murals of warriors and elephants, and much gilt.
This seems to be the theme all through. Our room has a four-poster bed, carved furniture—with the same abstract upholstery—and curtains plus bed cover in an attractive stylised floral print, of the sort that instantly strikes me as ‘Mughal’: it’s the design you see all over buildings like the Taj Mahal. Our room has a TV, wardrobe, and tea and coffee fixings (no mineral water, though, so we end up buying mineral water and using that). The bathroom has a shower/bathtub, though the floor of the bathtub has ominous blackish stains and the shower plays up every now and then. The hot water takes a while to start flowing, but once it starts, there’s no stopping it—and it’s scalding. Since the cold water seems to give up as soon as the hot water starts, all our baths are mostly cold water ones.
The bathroom has a small tray with iffy-looking moisturiser, shampoo, soap and hair conditioner. The towels look clean, but mine smells faintly of something that isn’t detergent or softener. Even the bed linen has a strongish smell of something that’s burnt: wood? And, before I forget: the electric switch near the door—into which we’ve been advised to insert the door key—doesn’t really work. We have to go around switching on (or off) each point manually. The toilet can’t be flushed in the usual way: depress the lever, and it releases a torrent of water that refuses to stop until we screech for help and a room attendant comes by to show us how this particular lever should be worked.
The Amar Mahal is in the shape of a hollow square: in the centre is a garden, very green at present. Next to the lobby is the restaurant and bar, also overdone in a garish way, with painted and gilded ceiling, carved wooden pillars, and fancy chandeliers and ceiling fans. The tables, covered with maroon tablecovers on white tablecloths, are seemingly laid just once at every meal. Whenever we enter the restaurant, we find used tables lying as is: soiled napkins, baskets of cold poppadums, butter dishes, used glasses... the waiters don’t appear to believe in clearing tables too frequently. The menu consists of Continental (of the ‘roasted mutton with brown sauce’ school), Indian and Chinese food. We’re pretty sure that the Chinese and Continental food won’t be anything like the original, so we stick with Indian, which is the usual tandoori, kababs, lentils, naan and roti, different types of curries, pulaos, biryanis and so on. A few dishes are listed as Bundelkhand specialties: chicken curry, mutton curry, and so on. On the whole, fairly tasty, though not exceptional.
A buffet breakfast is included in our room charges. The buffet consists of cornflakes, porridge, milk, juice, fruit, toast, omelettes (congealed and tasteless), hash brown potatoes (burnt and tasteless), pancakes (chewy and tasteless). There are also Indian dishes—stuffed parathas one day, pooris with potato curry the next day—which are vastly better than the rest of the food. The chef seems to think Westerners don’t want any seasoning in their food.
Smelly linen. Malfunctioning toilet. Malfunctioning showerhead. Malfunctioning switch. Tasteless Continental food. Would I stay at the Amar Mahal again, even if the garden is pretty and the Indian food is tasty? Probably not.
New Delhi, India
September 10, 2010
From journal Palaces, Temples and a River