There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 26 January 2018

Mandawa, Town of Havelis: Part 2 of Rajasthan, Land of Princes

This post covers day 3 of a 16-day journey around Rajasthan. 
Day 3, Jaipur to Mandawa in north east Rajasthan
The size of Germany, Rajasthan is the largest of India’s 29 states. With the Thar Desert covering the north and west it is one of India’s less densely populated states, though with 200 people per km² (the same as Italy) it is hardly empty.
In the 11th and 12th centuries the rise of the Rajputs created some 20 or so petty kingdoms ruled by Maharajas - the ‘Rajput Princes’. These kingdoms, at first independent, later vassal states of the Mughal or British Empires survived until 1947, when the Maharajahs led their ‘Princely States’ into the new Union of India, creating Rajasthan (the ‘Land of Princes’). The rulers became constitutional monarchs until 1971 when the Indian government ended their official privileges and abolished their titles. ‘Maharaja’ is now a courtesy title, but most remain leading members of their communities and some are still immensely rich. Several, like their British counterparts, supplement their income by turning forts and palaces into tourist attractions and hotels.

Jaipur to Mandawa

Escaping Jaipur's urban sprawl took some time....

...but eventually we were on a good dual carriageway heading north. As I observed in the Jaipur post slow traffic usually travels in the outside lane, and the inside lane is for overtaking.... not officially, but this is India.

About to undertake on the dual carriageway out of Jaipur
After a while the dual-carriageway ceased, but progress remained much swifter than yesterday, despite the problems of the occasional camel cart....

Camel cart, and other traffic, between Jaipur and Mandawa

...and the yellow painted roadblocks. Allegedly these are calming measures but introducing an unannounced chicane into India's unruly traffic creates more dangers than it calms. [update Feb 9th 2018. On the day we left, the Hindustan Times was reporting that a traffic policeman in a Delhi suburb had joined two such barriers with a wire before going home for the night. The unwary motorcyclist who later attempted to drive between them died instantly and an angry crowd had gathered outside the police station.]
Traffic calming measures between Jaipur and Mandawa

Mandawa, our destination for the day lies off the main highway and the final fifteen kilometres were on a minor road on the margins of the Thar desert, a flat, parched and dusty land.
The minor road into Mandawa


We reached the small town of Mandawa around twelve and Umed found (or guessed) a route through the narrow streets to the Sonthaliya Gate. The existence of a city gate, might suggest a city wall, though I have found no evidence for one, there is just a gate in the middle of the narrow main street.
The Sonthaliya Gate, Mandawa

Four of our first five stops on this journey are in cities once ruled by Maharaja’s, little Mandawa (pop 20,000) is the exception. Shekhawati was the princely state immediately north of Jaipur and this arid semi-desert region’s capital moved several times before settling at Jhunjhunu, a much bigger city (though hardly a household name) 20km north east of Mandawa.

In 1640 the Maharaja of Shekhawati made his younger brother the first Thakur (lord/ruler) of Mandawa, though there was then little to rule in this remote rural corner. In the 18th century burgeoning trade brought wealth to Shekhawati which lay on one of the main east-west caravan routes. In 1740 Thakur Nawal Singh dug a well and built a fort at Mandawa, though whether to attract the caravan trade or in response to a growing demand I do not know. Mandawa grew rich, and its merchants built themselves fine houses, the richly painted havelis that still adorn the town.

For two hundred years Mandawa prospered, but in the 20th century transport changed, the caravans disappeared, the rich merchants left and their havelis fell into disrepair. The 21st century has given some of them a new lease of life. The 18th century Mandawa Haveli by the Sonthaliya gate, once the home of a jeweller became a heritage hotel in 1999. It looked stunning from the outside...
Mandawa Haveli Hotel, Mandawa did the atrium...
Atrium, Mandawa Haveli Hotel, Mandawa

...and our room. Though full of character it had no heating, which matters little for most of the year, but January nights are chilly.
Our room, Mandawa Haveli Hotel, Mandawa

We lunched on vegetable and paneer pakoras in the haveli’s garden before taking a walking tour of the town.

The first haveli we saw boasted a rooftop restaurant. Here the paintings are bright and shiny...
Monica restaurant in restored haveli,Mandawa

....while at the second, they were unrestored and faded...
Partially restored haveli, Mandawa

...but include an interesting view of a European woman with a gramophone.
Woman with gramophone, Haveli wall, Mandawa

Another haveli's faded paintings show a cyclist and British soldiers apparently bridging a ravine.
Cyclists and the Royal Engineers, unrestored haveli, Mandawa

Elsewhere there were lines of sad, crumbling havelis.
A line of sad, crumbling havelis, Mandawa

One restored building was open to the public, the new paintings bright, crisp and maybe a little less respectful of their subjects than the original would have dared to be. There are disputes as to how far restoration should go, should the old paintings merely be conserved so they deteriorate no further or is repainting acceptable? Having this debate is healthy and I will merely observe there are enough restorable havelis to embrace both approaches.
Over-restored paintings? Haveli in Mandawa 

The view across the town from the roof was less controversial...
View over Mandawa from a  haveli roof

...and they demonstrated that although tourism in Mandawa is in its infancy they understand the principle of 'exit through the gift shop.' We acquired a small antique brass Ganesh.

Mandawa's havelis, whether restored or decrepit, have a basic similarity so it was a relief to see something different. The town's elaborate well (and I have no idea how it is related to Thakur Nawal Singh’s original) is no longer in use but it is typical of the area. The design can be seen in local villages and standing alone among the fields.
Mandawa Town Well

On our way to the fort we encountered a red-wattled lapwing delicately picking its way across a small sandy square. I am pretty confident of that identification, but being far from expert in the field.... It is a common bird, but it is a wader and I could think of nowhere in this parched landscape he could go for a paddle.
Red-wattled lapwing, Mandawa

Nawal Singh’s fort, like his well, no longer fulfils its original function. It is now Mandawa’s premier heritage hotel – or at least its most expensive.
Mandawa Fort

Nearby the modern Raghunath temple has been constructed and decorated in haveli style. It is a pretty little building, but I have been unable to find out anything about it except that Raghunath is an alternative name for Rama.
Raghunath Temple, Mandawa

Returning to our hotel we passed the other way through the Sonthaliya gate. Though two sides are very different, this one being topped by a statue of Hanuman, the Monkey God.
The other side of the Sonthaliya Gate
In the evening the rooftop candlelight dinner seemed as good an option as any – not that Mandawa offers many. All who passed through the atrium were treated to a puppet show with percussion accompaniment. Amusing and skilful it lasted around five minutes, the ideal length for a puppet show.
Puppet show, Mandawa Haveli Hotel
Roof access was by two flights of steep concrete stairs inside the walls (access to the breakfast room next morning was even more precarious - this is not a place for those with mobility problems).
The candlelight was helped out by wall lights, so we could almost see our food, and warmth was provided by charcoal braziers which the staff kept nudging closer and closer to the tables as ‘cool’ progressed to ‘cold’. January days in Rajasthan are pleasantly warm, sometimes hot, but the temperature plummets once the sun has set. I generally dislike lunchtime and evening buffets (breakfast buffets are another matter) the food is often cooked too long in advance and it is easy, particularly in the dark, to pile your plate high with too many, sometimes conflicting, flavours. That said, we ate well enough (though by the end the charcoal braziers were no longer adequate) and there was Kingfisher beer to drink.

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