Forts and palaces get a fresh lease of life thanks to Aman Nath and Francis Wacziarg of Neemrana Hotels
Heritage hospitality: Aman Nath, co-chairman, Neemrana Hotels, has a passion for converting ancient buildings into hotels Pic. by S. R. Raghunathan
DURING A research tour of the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan for a book, Aman Nath and Francis Wacziarg stumbled upon a ruined fort, which sat atop a hill, overlooking the Aravalli range. Looked like the once imposing 15th Century fort was waiting for someone to give it a facelift. And what a facelift it got, even if it took nearly 15 years!
Today, the flagship of the Neemrana Hotels, the Neemrana Fort-Palace, about 120 km from Delhi, is a heritage hotel that draws the likes of Hollywood actress Kate Winslet and Lady Nadira Naipaul.
In fact, the aesthetically done up hotel was the venue of the International Festival of Indian Literature in 2002 where V.S. Naipaul, Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth rubbed shoulders. And it's the same fort where Siddharth Basu fired away questions to contestants of `Mastermind India.' And to think this property once had prospective buyers such as Jackie Kennedy and members of the Gandhi family!
For the men behind the heritage hotel chain, Aman Nath and Francis, it was the beginning of a journey of exploration, renovation and backbreaking work... a blossoming romance with heritage buildings.
Sitting in his room at the Madras Club, Aman Nath, co-chairman of the Neemrana Hotels, is as happy talking about his passion for heritage buildings as he is about the books he has authored.
"Old places have a different vibration. That's why I like the club," he begins. Similar vibrations led to the `resurrection' of many a fort, palace and bungalow.
"I think the USP of the chain is the real Indian experience that it offers. I remember a guest telling us that he felt his friend had given him the keys to his home! As somebody aptly put it, it's an experience that combines history and architectural grandeur with honest hospitality," says Aman Nath.
"That's why we call it a `non-hotel' group. The ambience is not that of a regular hotel."
What about such projects in the South, especially Chennai? "We have The Bungalow on the Beach in Tranquebar, the Wallwood Garden in Coonoor and the Villa Pottipatti in Bangalore. And we have just acquired the house where St. Francis lived in Cochin. As for Chennai, if we find an appropriate place, why not?"
What are the criteria behind choosing a building for restoration, you wonder. "The place has to have great charm. The project has to be viable and, of course, funding plays a big role. Generally we buy the property, all unlisted monuments, but in some cases, we lease the place," says Aman Nath.
Talking about the actual work involved, Aman Nath says, "We have to work out our plans around the basic structure. Of course, unlike in France or Spain, our crafts skills are still alive and labour is cheap. Our past is still connected with our present." He goes on, "We get requests from many people who want to convert their old homes into heritage hotels. In fact, we just acquired an 8-acre palace and the fort of Tijara in Alwar, and are scouting for a partner."
Besides travelling across the length and breadth of the country and overseeing the hotels, Aman Nath also finds time to pen books on history and heritage, naturally. Some of his books are "Jaipur: the Last Destination," "Arts and Crafts of Rajasthan" and "Dome Over India: Rashtrapati Bhavan." And the books in the pipeline include "Brahma's Waters: The Magic of Pushkar" and "Shiva Shiva Shiva: A Different God."
As for the future, the duo will continue in their endeavour to "put the right value to old buildings."
Past meets present
THE `NON-HOTELS' that Aman Nath and Francis Wacziarg have redone are the 14th Century Hill Fort, Kesroli, the 18th Century Mud Fort in Kuchesar with a 100-acre mango grove, the Ramgarh Bungalows, Hotel de L'Orient in Pondicherry which was built in the late 1700s, The Verandah in the Forest in Matheran, which belonged to the British, the Piramal Haveli in Rajasthan, The Glass House on the Ganges in Rishikesh, the 17th Century The Bungalow on the Beach in Tranquebar, the Wallwood Garden in Coonoor and the Villa Pottipatti in Bangalore.
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