All the main towns of Shekhavati lie within 15 or 20 kilometres of each other, a manageable enough area as far as distances are concerned; you needn’t travel much to reach the next major attraction. There are local buses that travel down the main roads, but unless you’re the adventurous sort that likes breakneck speeds and crowded transport, these are best avoided. A better bet -- and one we found convenient (though expensive) -- were the numerous cars that can be hired (only chauffeur-driven; no self-drive cars are available here). Check with whichever hotel you’re staying at, and they’ll arrange for a car for you. We hired one for about three hours, to go from Baggar to Mukandgarh and back -- a ride that cost us about 400 rupees.
The next day, we decided to take our car (along with a guide provided by the hotel) and it worked out a lot cheaper -- we covered Mandawa, Jhunjhunu, Fatehpur and Nawalgarh, and other than the amount we spent on fuel, we just gave the guide a tip of about 250 rupees. If you have the luck to be able to bring your own vehicle to Shekhavati, I’d suggest you use it to drive around.
It’s forty. Maybe a degree or two higher. Centigrade, and in the shade. Local men, smoking hand-rolled beedis, loll on wooden benches in verandahs and watch us, obviously tourists, as we go searching Shekhavati for havelis. Mad, is the general though unspoken verdict. Anybody must be mad to attempt a summer vacation in Rajasthan. And it’s a well-known fact that Shekhavati, tucked away between the arid Thar Desert and the low-lying fold mountains of the Aravalis, has some of the fiercest summers in Rajasthan. Definitely bonkers.
But the fact is that we’ve been blessed with an unexpected but extremely welcome long weekend, and have decided that we cannot possibly let it pass us by. Trains to the hills are all booked; nowhere else is as close as Rajasthan when it comes to driving down for a quick break- and we’ve wanted to see Shekhavati for a long, long time. So Shekhavati it is. Despite the heat.
A drive of about five hours -- from the cool tree-fringed avenues of New Delhi to the parched, scrub-studded region of Shekhavati, brings us to the village of Baggar, where we’re setting up base. And setting off to explore this amazing land.
Shekhavati is named for a local medieval chieftain called Rao Shekha, and is part of the historic subdivision of Rajasthan known as Marwar, a land famous for its superb horses, its excellent vegetarian cuisine- and its businessmen. Gifted with a business acumen all their own, a vast number of Marwaris made their way to the metropolises (mainly Bombay and Calcutta) during the 18th and 19th centuries. There, many of them made their fortunes- and decided, in the early 20th century, to show it off back home. The more generous constructed hospitals, schools and colleges for the welfare of the villages in Shekhavati; and nearly all of them built stupendous havelis (a mansion is called a `haveli’ in Hindi and Urdu) all across the area.
Shekhavati today is known for its havelis, richly frescoed structures that find a mention in dozens of coffee-table books in India’s snazziest homes. There is literally one haveli down every street, and exploring these delightful mansions is an experience we enjoy thoroughly as we sweat our way through the dusty towns and villages dotting this area. Mukandgarh, Fatehpur, Nawalgarh, Mandawa, Jhunjhunu -- each has its share of havelis, and all of them figure on our itinerary.
The day we reach Baggar is restricted to a three-hour trip to the village of Mukandgarh, a quiet and hot little introduction to Shekhavati. Mukandgarh’s havelis are nowhere near as magnificent as those in Mandawa or in fact most of Shekhavati’s other towns -- but we are seeing these havelis for the first time, and they’re awesome enough for us. We wander around, stopping over at the prettily-painted Saraf haveli and the Gopinath Temple on the way. It is at the latter that we catch our first glimpse of what makes Shekhavati’s frescoes so different from those in other parts of Rajasthan- or even India. Where most other frescoes follow traditional Indian themes- religious and secular- the frescoes of Shekhavati merrily break all barriers of time and space. The period when Shekhavati’s havelis and temples were being built was one of an overwhelming British presence in India, and traces of a European influence are obvious in many of the frescoes. Even in cases where it wouldn’t logically fit. Like the Gopinath Temple, where a bowler-hatted, suit-clad figure sits on a chair amidst more conventional paintings of Indian gods.
Mukandgarh is delightful, and encouraged by all that we see, we decide to pay a visit to the local medieval citadel (any city, town or village in Rajasthan worth its salt has its own citadel- and a few have more than one)- the Mukandgarh Fort. The fort, like many of its kind, has been converted into a heritage hotel, but it’s dingy and not too classy. We thank our lucky stars that we opted for the Piramal Haveli instead, and on our way out of the fort, stop over to take a photograph of a very `touristy’ fresco- one of a bunch of very pink and plump nudes bathing amidst lotuses.
Our jaunt to Mukandgarh takes nearly three hours, so we head back to base, and decide to do the rest of Shekhavati the next day. After all, we reason, Mukandgarh had some three or four havelis worth seeing; how many could Mandawa, Fatehpur, Jhunjhunu and Nawalgarh manage to scrape together between themselves? Probably not more than a dozen and a half; and that will easily be covered in half a day.
Little do we know what’s in store for us.
The next day we set off in our car, with a dhoti-clad local gentleman who knows this area like the back of his hand. He guides us first to the town of Jhunjhunu, which is the district headquarters of Jhunjhunu district- and is a pretty large town. Here, we’re carted off to see the Rani Sati Temple (avoidable, unless you’ve never seen a large and modern Hindu temple before) and an interesting early 19th century stepwell known as Meratniji ki Bawari.
But temples and stepwells are not top priority in Shekhavati, and we cajole our somewhat reluctant guide into taking us to some havelis. Which, when he does, he does well. Jhunjhunu itself is short on grand havelis; about all we see is the haveli of the wealthy Modis. The haveli has the usual complement of colourful frescoes, along with an ornate silver door. After duly admiring these, we set off for Mandawa.
Mandawa is quintessential Shekhavati: dry, dusty, bursting at the seams with old havelis. Down every street are havelis; old forgotten ones with faded or smoke-blackened frescoes rub shoulders with beautifully maintained ones, and there are even havelis which now house governmental or commercial establishments. The State Bank of Bikaner and Jaipur, for instance, is in a building with frescoes of European soldiers all along its façade.
We stop off at the Jhunjhunwala haveli, where a housewife with a sleepy baby on her hip opens the door to the haveli’s most famous room- its ceiling and upper walls completely covered in paint and liquid gold. Just around the corner from the Jhunjhunwala haveli is another interesting mansion: the Gulabrai Ladia haveli, where the main door is decorated with paintings and mirrorwork. We drive on to the exquisite Chokhani haveli, its outer walls painted with frescoes of caparisoned elephants. A camel standing in front of the haveli grumpily champs on some leaves as we go into the haveli, where every balcony, every parapet, almost every wall is covered with frescoes in a dozen colours: blues, greens, reds, ochre, yellow.
After the Chokhani haveli, we feel, there is surely little that can measure up. But we haven’t seen it all yet, and after an unappetising lunch at the very disappointing Castle Mandawa heritage hotel, our guide directs us to the next stop, the town of Fatehpur.
Fatehpur’s claim to fame lies in the gloriously rich hue of blue used in its frescoes- a shade known as `Fatehpur blue’. We’re running low on energy by now, but Fatehpur has its share of havelis, and we visit what is locally called the Angrez ki haveli (`the haveli of the English’). It’s owned by Frenchwoman Nadine le Prince, who’s spent a huge sum on restoring the mansion and converting it into a cultural centre. A lovely haveli, its colourful outer walls shimmering in the hot sunshine.
From Fatehpur, we drive on again, into the sandy, keekar-and-grass landscape, making our way past a signboard advertising a local heritage hotel called Roop Palace (roop means `beauty’ in Hindi). Whoever painted the signboard got a bit muddled up, though: it reads Poop Palace.
"Ugh", says my husband. "Thank God we aren’t staying there!" The sanitary arrangements do sound rather suspect.
By the time we reach the dusty little town of Nawalgarh, it’s blisteringly hot; we buy a bottle of chilled mineral water and have a peek at a cluster of century-old domed chhatris. Initially built by wealthy philanthropists as guesthouses for weary travellers, they’ve now been taken over by squatters. We follow it up with a visit to the run-of-the-mill Murarka haveli (disappointing, especially as the local caretaker- a skinny youth with an air of utter disdain- charges all of twenty rupees each for a mere peek at some very ordinary frescoes). Our faith in Shekhavati is restored somewhat by the delightful frescoes at the gorgeous Chokhani haveli and the haveli that houses the Dr Ramnath A Poddar Museum.
When we eventually get back to our hotel (the Piramal Haveli in Baggar), we’re hot, tired and thirsty, and our heads are swimming with images of the frescoes we’ve been seeing all day long. It’s been an exhausting day, but unforgettable. We’ve seen some well-known havelis; we’ve stepped into more than a dozen havelis that have no name; we’ve passed countless others, just catching glimpses of fading frescoes or ornate arches as we do so.
We’ve realised that haveli-hunting can be hot, tiring work: but immensely rewarding too.