It was our last day in Shekhawati. We had to reach Delhi before it was dark. Jaishree and Dhanshree wanted to return from Nawalgarh itself. They wanted to relax before starting the daily chores of the next day. I insisted on ‘Dekko Mandawa’, even if it meant “कबड्डी कबड्डी छू” (touch the place and return almost immediately). After-all Mandawa is only twenty-four km from Nawalgarh. Anirudha supported the idea. He felt, he could drive fast enough to reach Delhi before eight. It would be dark, but still we would have time to relax. We men are so optimistic about our driving capabilities. And it turned out to be that special day when men of the house won the case and the ladies decided not to contest them publically.
The road to Mandawa passes through sparse hamlets, locally known as “Dhanis”. The terrain is semi arid with its flagship Khejri trees. In between we saw flocks of sheep and goats grazing around. It was an interesting drive among the numerous sine-waved ups and downs of the road; the road appeared to be vanishing at the summit and as we reached there it re-emerged from no-where.
The castle Mandawa with a flag fluttering over it exuded the old world charm from a far. The medieval fort of Mandawa appeared to be rising gradually on the horizon like an illusory and unattainable mirage. Mandawa was on the ancient caravan route from Middle-East and China. This fort was built-in 18th century by Thakur Nawal Singh, the Rajput ruler of Nawalgarh and Mandawa, to protect his trading outpost. The township grew around this fort and the dominant and rich merchant families started settling in this safe haven in large numbers.
The name Mandawa generated curiosity. We learnt that the first inhabitant of this place was a farmer, Mandu jat. Initially the place was known as “Mandu ki Dhani”, with time the name changed to “Mandu kaa waas”, “Manduwas” to Manduwa, finally becoming Mandawa. Interesting! Though it might be someone’s fling of imaginative creativity as well.
Among all the tourist destinations of Shekhawati, Mandawa is the most popular and castle Mandawa is in forefront promoting tourism in this region. It is a heritage cum luxury resort with an impressive and harmonious mix of old and new amenities. After reaching there, we realized it has nothing much to offer to day visitors, only a few royal family portraits, arms and an antique canon.
I looked at its big compound and thought, “may be I can park my car here”.
The moment staff got an air of my vicious intentions, they denied my car this opportunity of enjoying the royal setting albeit only for few hours.
Luckily, there was ample parking in the near-by main market as well. After parking, we immediately got engaged in the inevitables of Shekhawati, the sport of ‘Haveli Hunting’. Roaming in the towns of Shekhawati which are devoid of any particular traffic, is quite relaxing. Kids were also enjoying it. They were happily walking together, leading the pack, occasionally kicking the sand expressing the pleasure on their new-found freedom from adult supervision.
The first haveli we visited was “Chokhani Haveli”, a unique haveli in the region with twin wings in symmetry. Probably the owner planned it well for his twin descendants. This haveli has a fresco of ‘a sadhu with a chillum’. I could not understand why someone would like such a fresco painted on the walls of his haveli. Puzzled? I was.
Next one was Goenka’s double Haveli and a few others followed. However, the time was flying away fast. We had also constrained ourselves to reach Delhi before eight pm, so we left the other famous Havelis of Mandawa Binsidhar Newatia Haveli, Gulab Rai Ladia Haveli and Nandlal Murmuria Haveli. We also felt that the Havelis of Nawalgarh were in better shape than in Mandawa, so the interest was dying.
Shekhawati is full of grand havelis. What else one can expect in this land of Kubers! However, most of these havelis are abandoned and many are now succumbing to the years of neglect. We started discussing the reasons for the neglect and felt they are manifolds. The heritors of these havelis are living outside Shekhawati for several generations and they do not feel any connect with the town of their origin. Some of them are too busy looking after their business empires and some of them do not have enough money to repair and maintain these white elephants. A few of these properties have several heirs and if they are not already engaged in legal battles, they are still not ready to renovate a property on their own and it is difficult to convince everyone when there is a joint ownership. Some owners don’t want to sell them as they probably want to retain the symbolic link to their ancestral place and some believe that the success of their business is due to the vaastu of these ancestral properties. I heard echoes of these sentiments when a local claimed that even a single room in these havelis is worth crores. Most of these havelis are occupied by caretakers and to prevent them getting sold, ghost stories are in the air as well. But the frescoes of these havelis are work of art and need to be maintained and restored carefully. Seems there is no easy solution to stop this decay.
We decided to leave Mandawa after Lunch. Locals suggested a house in front of an old closed mill for the meal. Only two options in ‘sabzi’ were available. What if we do not like the taste? But it was a good place.The food was homely and delicious. In-fact it let us wonder why Delhi/NCR restaurants cannot have something so simple yet delicious. In most of them ‘sabzis’ taste so similar that if someone taste food with his closed eyes, it becomes difficult to guess the dish as the gravy dominates the taste.
Shekhawati is not far from Delhi and Jaipur. It is in Rajasthan, a state well marketed to the tourists. Still a few tourists visit this region and those who are able to reach are rewarded with the scattered treasures and beautiful landscape without hordes of their own kind and pestering vendors.
It was time to return. Anirudh occupied the driving seat controlling the car and I was trying to control the sudden rush of emotions. I was leaving behind Shekhawati and a part of me as well.