Shekhawati Calling

Mandawa Haveli
Khejri Trees
On Celestial call
Spot the deer. IPhone image
Bangle shopping
Sheesh Mahal, Samode Palace
Rain water harvesting

Tough times. Tough calls. The lockdown was precisely that. What d’you do but crawl indoor & wait it out. Surfacing afterwards to revive & restore.

Between Covid waves 1 & 2 was Shekhawati. Logam! Off I go, taking chances but playing safe. Balance is everything. Pick up – drop off at the door step. Sanitised car 24×7, the driver never removing his mask.

The entire region was contagion free. Which was surprising ‘cos India’s first case of Covid had shown up here. Coming in from Jaisalmer, a group of itinerant Italians took suddenly ill. Realising it was the deadly virus the whole of Mandawa went into a tizzy. But that was March ‘20. Come October – November & lucky me. All about taking chances. Striking when hot.

Samode was the first port of call. I was booked at the ‘Bagh’ not ‘Palace’ which is everyone’s favourite. About 5 hours from Delhi I arrived to be shunted away – upgraded to Samode Palace because I was the only guest. A story repeated everywhere. As a people Rajasthanis are too decent & polite to turn anyone away. A guest least of all, especially a woman. I turned out to be the sole occupant at every castle, mahal & haveli. Welcomed and upgraded everywhere. Dining alone, was like being seated at a banquet after all the guests had left. This too had its moments.

Fairy castle – like, Samode Palace is stunning, grand & opulent. It is the namesake village in its midst that saddens & shocks. At total variance one wonders how such a beauteous Palace can co-exist alongside squalor & dirt and ruins that hark back to a splendid past.

Two nights at Samode & onwards via Sikar to Nawalgarh – a 2 hour drive.

It is the gateway to Shekhawati, a semi arid region bordering the Thar, known for its havelis, murals, frescoes, chatris, wells & Sati Mata temples. A visit to Poddar Haveli Museum is a must. A small & dusty town, a short walk around was an eye opener in that beauty parlours & girls on 2 wheelers were far removed from my idea of interior Rajasthan.

Mandawa is about an hour away from Nawalgarh. It boasts an 18 century fort castle & exotic havelis. I was booked at ‘The Mandawa Haveli’. Built in 1726 it has retained its original structure, design & ambience. It was like living in an open – air art gallery, part of the joy of waking up each day being to open ones eyes to countless murals & frescoes. Fading colours & threadbare rugs notwithstanding, the place spelt comfort. It was old world and – elegiac.

A word about the frescoes. Painted over an extended period of time most have religious themes or scenes from the epics. There is folklore & festival – Teej & Ganghor – and scenes from everyday life. Signalling the coming of the British, later murals depict white men & women in formal western attire. The advent of the motor car, rail carriage etc all captured in art & colour. My personal favourite was a birthing scene showing a group of women help one of their kind in labour. I also liked the Krishna series. There was Krishna on the telephone. And Krishna with the Gopis, making out with one or the other while a disgruntled third looked on. All this within the confines of a coach.

Most of the havelis are empty & dilapidated. The ones in Sikar have been demolished I’m told, to make way for – of all things – malls.

It is quite possible to suffer haveli fatigue. The best thing then is to venture out into the adjoining villages & get a feel & taste of the ‘real’ India. The countryside anyway is beautiful, especially from the window of a moving car.

‘Khejri’ along with Keekar covers a wide expanse of landscape. The ‘Khejri’ has multiple use, every part meeting a need. It’s fruit – kair sangri – a desert bean grows in clusters, the leaf is fodder for camel – cattle & the dry branches take care of farm boundary & fuel. The tree looks particularly beautiful when pruned – and that is often.

Enroute to Alsisar I stop at the Rani Sati Mata temple in Jhunjhunu. It is one of the oldest of its kind. I do so out of curiosity. Wondering what makes for the kind of faith & belief that persists.

Simpler to respect another’s feeling by far than try figuring out something clearly beyond comprehension.

Stopped for a wayside meal too. Not the regular lal maans – safed maans, gatte what have you. This was simple, homely fare. It was vegetarian & it was delicious. The meal consisting of bajra roti, batiya, khichri, Kaddi, Kaachra sabzi, lasava pickle, chilli – garlic chutney & peda.

Alsisar stood out like a redoubtable outpost. The stone ‘mahal’ magical, its tinge of pink matching the colours in the horizon. Remote & quiet both village & castle cast a spell.

A jeep safari that last evening was the perfect end to a beautiful day. Speeding cross country across low dunes in an attempt to spot black buck, deer & sambar, then watching the sun go down over steaming hot mugs of coffee. There was a quiet thrill to it all.

One of several wells
Mandawa Haveli

The Grand Haveli, Nawalgarh
Don’t miss the ‘Khejris’