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March 18, 2024 – Published in Design & Decor Autumn-Winter 2023 issue

A story of India and two ‘mad’ people

Words Jim Dunn

You can never ‘do’ India. India is thoroughly undoable. People say ‘oh yes I’ve done India’… well they haven’t. They have in most cases only nibbled at the icing on the cake.

India, that vast, restless, many coloured, tribal, chaotic and with its many religions and sects all shouting, praying, chanting and hooting all over the place will last you a lifetime of travel.

I love every second I spend in the country from the street life with its roaming cows, donkeys and dogs not to mention the occasional elephant. To the busy roads teeming with seemingly out of control traffic… and they never seem to collide… to walking the iconic cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Kalkata or Calcutta as many will prefer. Or there’s hiking the countryside of Rajastan and visiting all the many recovered, many still crumbling, Royal Palaces but many now turned into fabulous hotels offering the ultimate in 5 star living and service renowned the world over. 

The lakes, the mountains, the scenery, the wildlife, the bazaars, the haggling, the fabrics, the artisans and the prices… and shipping home is so easy. The Indians are very switched on to selling. And let’s not forget the people. Most speak English. Given half a chance crowds of smiling locals will flock around you if you stop to ask directions… and they never know where you want to go but they will send you off in some, any direction with a big smile. Silly Englishman in the midday sun.

On my last visit to the country, I had a particular quest. I had read about two ‘mad’ people I thought who instead of buying a country house in the UK or on mainland Europe to retreat to every weekend or for the summer months, they in their wisdom, decided about 

10 years’ ago to buy a remote field not too far away from the glorious City of Lakes, Udiapur in Rajastan in the West of India and build an Indian home for themselves. 

So with the looming, silhouette of the Aravalli Range of mountains in the background, wait for it, they  built the glorious Bujera Fort in traditional style with local builders, materials and architects, with vast rooms and with a welcome hint of a European country house. It looks like it has been there for centuries. 

And as if that wasn’t enough they decided to open the Fort to paying guests. My recent visit was just perfect in all aspects from the comfort of the beds, the spacious rooms, the beautifully planned gardens, the peace, staff and the food. It is like staying in someone’s private home but with the host keeping themselves at a discreet distance and leaving plenty of space for the guest to relax and unwind.

Richard Hanlon and his best mate Trish MacFarlane are the ‘mad’ couple in question. It is they who have created this magical place. And that is the word which keeps cropping up as I flick through the heavy, lengthy visitors’ book… ‘magical’… among the many other words of appreciation.

Richard underplays what must have been a truly traumatic experience… building from scratch on a barren field in India, a luxury 5 star edifice. You can tell it is an experience that he is grateful to have had but one that he would not like to repeat. We’ve all dealt with builders.

Now, shady cloisters enclose a Courtyard with fresh green lawns planted with sweet smelling frangipani, orange, lemon and mango trees. The swimming pool is in the centre of the Courtyard and a pair of ‘onion’ towers adorn the skyline of the Fort on the first floor and underneath are the two gracious Master Suites. There’s a broad Terrace which runs all the way around the four sides of the Fort giving vast views of the surrounding mountains, countryside towards Udiapur. All the rooms run off the central courtyard on the ground and first floors.

Trish is in ‘diamonds’ still working in London but makes frequent visits so Richard runs the show day to day helped by the ever efficient Shakti, the quiet manager in the background with his enthusiastic team of locals.

Richard, now in his sixties, trained with Sothebys in London, worked as an estate agent and then as an Interior Decorator and it is this aspect of his career which shows to the guest. Bujera Fort is a dream for anyone interested in interior design from the use of fabrics, to the painted furniture, tiles and those small artisanal touches everywhere.

If he’s not too busy Richard will take you off exploring the local area to abandoned Temples and secret viewing points. He’s also a goldmine as far as shopping suggestions in Udiapur. For us he recommended Aashka a shop belonging to the Maharaja’s daughter Princess Bhargavi, and the superb Ganesh Handicraft Emporium where the rooms of a 17th century haveli are crammed with embroideries, miniatures, carvings and beadwork old and new.

The couple know everyone locally and flit between drinks and dinner with the local Royals and Maharajas to the man down the road who supplies the vegetables for the hotel. They source everything or nearly everything locally from food from the Fort’s own gardens to fabrics, and furnishings and where possible anything they grow is made into jams, pickles and bread and they support the local people and the village as much as possible.

Richard and Trish had the inspiration for Bujera Fort and a life in India after reading Deborah Moggach’s book ‘These Foolish Things’ which in turn inspired the The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It’s a beautiful, enchanting fictional story but this couple have created the real thing and its divine.

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