MANDAWA

The ‘Open Air Museum’ In 12 Hours

We had been to Churu earlier. When we were drawing up our itinerary for the Rajasthan road trip, we knew we had to include another Shekhawati town. Mandawa was our fourth & last destination.

We left our Jodhpur hotel after breakfast. Jodhpur to Mandawa was close to 330 KMS. We did not halt anywhere except when needed. The road was terrible; it affected our mood negatively. But we found our solace in spotting birds along the way. We managed to click an Indian Roller & a Black Drongo.

Here is a blogpost on Mandawa.

The Evening

Art Worthy of a Museum

We were at our hotel in Mandawa by early evening. Tired from our journey, we sat under a tree & sipped on steaming masala chai. Then, we were out sightseeing. Our hotel provided us with a guide who took us around the town.

It is not just Marwar & Mewar that are rich with history; Shekhawati has its fair share too. The region is unique. Shekhawati towns are full of havelis that once were homes to rich business families. The businessmen constructed their havelis & baolis with painting on the walls, called frescoes.

The region reminds of cultural amalgamations with fresco themes ranging from Hindu motifs to Rajasthani women to Europeans wearing hats. Religion is an extremely common fresco theme. Scenes depicting Lord Krishna, His childhood antics, His Leela with Radha etc. are found commonly in the frescoes.

Frescoes depicting Lord Krishna are common.

On the other hand, when the Mandawa merchants returned from their Europe travels, they would get these frescoes made to give an idea to the local populace about life abroad.

Today, the havelis lay abandoned as the business families are now settled in Kolkata & Mumbai. A few havelis have been converted into hotels. A few others have been restored with caretakers allowing sightseers to visit. Sadly, we saw only a few caretakers take active interest in care taking.

Sightseeing is now the only way to ensure that the havelis do not remain abandoned. But, even with sightseeing, most havelis need TLC. We wished the owners would take charge. We call all Agarwal’s, Birla’s, Chokhanis, Goenkas, Jhunjhunuwalas, Ladias, Nemanis, Saraf’s to please restore their ancestral residences in Shekhawati.

The unique Shekhawati region!

A little love, a little renovation & a whole lot of old-world charm.

Now, there are no specific sightseeing ‘spots’ in Mandawa though Chokhani Haveli, Ladia Haveli & Saraf Haveli are a few of the splendid ones. The havelis are located close to each other & in narrow alleys. The best way to see the town is on foot.

So just walk around the town & see the havelis & the frescoes. You can enter a few of the havelis to see brightly colored rooms.

Look up!

Our first stop was a water well. Mandawa & its surrounding areas have several open & tube wells, highlighting the scarcity of water in this region. We could imagine the importance of the wells by seeing how beautifully the well was constructed.

Next, we explored the havelis. We discovered something new at every turn.

We climbed to a haveli rooftop & saw Mandawa Fort in the distance. It is now run as Hotel Castle Mandawa by Rajasthan Tourism.

Cultural Amalgamations

At one haveli, a bright green & yellow door caught our eyes. The door was a tourist magnet; it gave us decor goals. We saw more such beautiful doors.

Given that many havelis are neglected by their owners, it was heartening to see Saraf Haveli in good shape. It is a great example of Shekhawati art.

At one haveli, we came across evidence of Mandawa’s trading past. The town was once important, lying on the route between Delhi and Gujarat, and China and the Middle East. How did a Burmah-Shell Oil Storage & Distributing Co. of India Ltd. board find its way here?

In need of a little TLC

An enterprising caretaker had taken to selling goods (which we believed come from the haveli) to tourists.

The Kedar Mal Ladia Haveli is called ‘Golden Haveli’. It has a golden painted room which was a result of competitions to build the most opulent Havelis. Even the main gate leading inside is grand. It is fair to call the Golden Haveli a one-room museum.

A form of stained glass greeted us. This was another exquisite part of the Shekhawati havelis. Belgian Glass was embedded in the doors. We saw scenes from Indian scriptures come alive on the walls. Little gold remains on the golden room frescoes, but colors make the room lively.

Each fresco stood out in its own way.

The ‘gold’ paint has peeled off in places. But it gave us an idea how the room would have looked when it was intact.

In a few havelis, the frescoes date back to the 18th century. & naturally, these transported us to the days of yore. Mandawa is 360 degrees of art. Decoration exists on every conceivable part of the walls. Do not forget to look up as even the underside of arches have art on them. The attention to detail is astounding.

Ceiling frescoes seemed like carpets above our heads. How did people manage to paint entire tapestries on the ceiling? The outer walls have fine decoration. The inner walls are equally attractive.

A Ceiling Carpet

An interesting bit is that only the rooms in which visitors were entertained were painted. The private quarters would be kept plain.

If architecture/ art/ heritage/ history interest you, you will enjoy the havelis & kothis. The lapse of time has not taken away the grandeur. We were out of words to keep describing the frescoes. Each stood out in its own way.

After the visual extravaganza, back at our hotel, we found tourists gazing at frescoes & restoration here. We lounged by the pool enjoying a local shisha & ended the day with a homely dinner.

City – life Frescoes

The Morning

It was time to head home but only after a hearty breakfast at our hotel. Mandawa to NCR was ~290 KMS. We halted at Indulgence, Manesar for lunch. It is a food court having multiple restaurants inside its campus. Even though the campus is big, the parking is inadequate. We had to park on the side of the road itself, which is not ideal as NH8 is a heavy – traffic, high – speed highway.

Having said this, the inside is made quite well. There are food joints for every kind of palate. It is a family – friendly place. Washrooms are available & were clean. We filled our stomachs at Berco’s, Burger King & Giani’s.

So attractive!

Painted havelis & carts pulled by miniature donkeys were just a couple of sights that made Shekhawati a tourist’s paradise. The entire Rajasthan road trip was about experiencing calm in different ways. Every time we visit small cities, life magically seems to become simpler.

After an art & heritage filled road trip, we knew we would sleep easy for some time to come. Before the travel bug infected us again.

Accommodation

The Mirror of Our Dreams at Mandawa Kothi

After the bumpy ride, our accommodation in Mandawa sprang a surprise on us. Knowing that it is a small town, we were not expecting much in terms of hotel quality. But our minds were blown off by the Mandawa Kothi. Everywhere we looked, we saw art.

We thanked God for the person who decided to restore this century – old ‘Kothi’. It would have been heartbreaking to lose such art. This boutique hotel has old world charm coupled with modern amenities. Living in places that echo with history is always an enchanting experience. By staying at Mandawa Kothi for a night, we became a part of its history.

Walking under its arched gates was memorable. We had to cross three gates/ doors to get to the main living area. (We love how old houses had the concept of multiple sections.) Mandawa has been a favored location for Bollywood. A gate in the Mandawa Kothi featured in a prominent scene in the movie Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

Tourists gazing at the frescoes & restoration at Mandawa Kothi

The parking is right in front of the entrance. Mandawa Kothi has just six rooms but all have been carefully restored & upgraded with modern amenities. Our room was beautiful & spacious. There seemed to be just a handful of young men managing the hotel but ever so efficiently.

Sad, we stayed only for a night; wish we had more time at Mandawa Kothi! It felt like a home away from home.

Recommendations

Such attention to detail!
  1. Getting to Mandawa
    1. You can easily do a long weekend road trip from Delhi NCR.
    1. A train to Churu is available from Delhi. Churu to Mandawa can then be done by bus/ cab.
  2. Make your way to Mandawa between November & February. You will not be disappointed.
  3. If you visit Mandawa in winter, do remember the nights can be cold. Do not forget your woolens.
  4. Take a guide with you for the fresco sightseeing as s/ he will be able to point out details you would not notice otherwise.

Nathdwara

A Quick Halt at The Shrinathji Mandir

On our Jaipur to Udaipur stretch of the Rajasthan road trip, Nathdwara (351 KMS from Jaipur) turned out to be an impromptu halt. On a whim, we turned inside from the highway to bow our heads to Shrinathji (a form of Lord Krishna). We write the key points from our visit here.

1     But First – What’s Unique About The Temple?

Shrinathji Temple is known as Haveli (mansion) of Shrinathji. The haveli itself is fortified & was the Mewar royalty’s palace at one point of time. Interestingly, the haveli has amenities/ rooms for different purposes – chariot, betel storeroom, flower storeroom, jewelry chamber, horse stable, gold & silver grinding wheel etc.

statue of belief, nathdwara, rajasthan, india
Statue of Belief under construction

Shrinathji is not seen as a God but as the Lord of the Mansion. So, the form of worship is unusual – service to the living image. The Lord is attended with daily functions like bathing, meals etc. Moreover, as He is a form of Lord Krishna as a child, special care is taken. (Shrinathji has a nap time, play time etc.)

Now, as Shrinathji is a living image, He can be met (seen) only a finite number of times a day. Thus, devotees & visitors can do the darshan only eight times a day when His aarti & shringar (dressing up & beautifying) take place. The darshan timings, according to the official website, are:

AartiTimings
Mangal Aarti5:15 am to 6:00 am
Shringar Aarti7:15 am to 7:45 am
Gwal Aarti9:15 am to 9:30 am
Rajbhog Aarti11:15 am to 12:05 pm
Uthapan Aarti3:30 pm to 3:45 pm
Bhog Aarti4:45 pm to 5:00 pm
Sandhya Aarti5:15 pm to 6:00 pm
Shayan6:50 pm to 7:30 pm

1.1   We Recommend –

  1. Plan to spend a night at Nathdwara. The different darshans have different meanings. Try to see more than one.
  2. If you cannot spend a night, time your visit appropriately. It would be heartbreaking to reach all the way here only to find out that you cannot see the Lord.
  3. As mentioned above, there are multiple parts in the haveli. Try to see them all.
Photography outside the temple as it is prohibited inside!

2     Finding The Temple

Once we turned in from the highway, we kept going around in circles trying to find the temple. GPS was of no help. We must have maneuvered through multiple narrow alleys before a kind traffic policeman advised us to ditch the car & run as it was almost time for the Shayan, our last chance to see Shrinathji.

Unfortunately, there was no parking in sight. We did not want to leave our vehicle on the road either. Finally, another kind soul told us the way to a gaushala (cow shelter). There was space to park & a shortcut through the gaushala to the temple, though uphill.

2.1   We Recommend –

  1. If you are staying at Nathdwara, take local transport to the temple.
  2. If you are just visiting, there is a parking lot on the highway itself. Park your vehicle there & use public transport to get to the temple.
  3. If, like us, you are lost in the lanes, ask locals. Do not rely on GPS.
Running up the incline to be in time for Shayan!

3     Darshan

We literally ran up the incline to be just in time for the last darshan of the day. Like mentioned above, the idol of Shrinathji is open for public viewing only eight times a day. As we did not have a plan to stay in Nathdwara, we had to make it to the last viewing.

Luckily, we reached in time, even after depositing our cameras, phones, shoes & wallets at the storeroom. People were still scattered around.

The curtains were drawn within a few minutes. It seems the entire place came alive as soon as that happened. The crowd thronged towards the viewing queue, separate for men & women. We did not have to make any effort to move forward; the crowd carried us along! 😀

The darshan time is small as all the devotees need to be accommodated in the 45-minute window. So, do not expect to get a leisurely time to pray. And, do not even think of getting distracted, as it could be a blink-and-you-miss-it situation. 😊

Sunset on our way down…

The atmosphere was emotionally charged with devotees getting overwhelmed. We believe people from far & wide come to catch a glimpse of the Lord.

3.1   We Recommend –

  1. Keep time available for the security checks & for depositing your belongings.
  2. Photography is prohibited inside the temple. Leave your camera behind.
  3. Keep your balance in the crowd. You would not want to fall down & be trampled upon, would you?
  4. Keep your eyes focused to see the Shrinathji idol. It is a small time-frame. Do not get distracted.
  5. It is, after all, a crowded place. Keep your wits about you. Do not hesitate to ask for help if you feel the need.

4     Getting Out

Outside the temple, there are scores of small shops selling idols & photographs of Shrinathji as well as material for worship. We bought a few memorabilia & had cups of tea.

We then used the earlier route & climbed down the incline towards our vehicle. It was now that we realized we were essentially walking between houses. At one spot, we saw the sun going down. At another, we came across a group of men huddled around a fire, right under a sign that read – “Do not idle around”! 😀

(As we clicked the signboard, the men began to laugh. We turned out, grinned & clicked them as well. Nothing breaks barriers as humor does. Do not leave your sense of humor behind when you go sightseeing!)

We made our way back to the highway & started towards Udaipur. Just then, we spotted a large Shiva statue, under construction, by the highway. A little googling told us it is called Statue of Belief. It was expected to complete in August 2019. We, unfortunately, do not have an update if it is open to public now. But, once it is, it will be worth visiting as it will be the second tallest statue in India.

HAVE YOU VISITED NATHDWARA?

Meet the Maharaja

For us, a holiday is not about rest and rejuvenation alone. At different points in time, it is about adventure, luxury, new experiences, new cultures, new food and discovering each other. One such place which gave a new experience was Kishangarh, Rajasthan, India.

Kishangarh is a big town divided into an old and a new segment. The new segment houses large marble companies with their factories, offices, and lots of small marble product retailers. This is the not-so-interesting side.

The real charm is in the old town of Kishangarh, which houses the Kishangarh fort and the Phool Mahal palace. It is about an hour before Pushkar when traveling from Delhi. Both Ajmer and Pushkar are at easy accessible distances.

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The old town that still owes allegiance to the maharaja of Kishangarh. The blue reminded of Jodhpur…

We came to know about Kishangarh from the 2012 edition of Outlook Traveler. But when we mentioned it to people, they either did not know about it or dismissed it saying it has nothing.

It left us skeptical but not disheartened; skeptical because we were taking our parents along too. Nonetheless, we were determined to find out for ourselves. And, we are glad we did.

We started from Delhi fairly late, at about 9 AM. We got all the city traffic possible. The road from Gurgaon to Jaipur was quite bad too; there was construction going on. Diversions marked our route, making the roads even more congested.

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It may be small. It may not be as glamorous as other heritage properties. But it had a soul…

Once we turned onto the Ajmer- Pushkar road, it was smooth sailing. Phool Mahal palace is available accurately on GPS. Within Kishangarh, we crossed the market to get to the palace. This added to our skepticism as the market was narrow, with a fair degree of hustle and bustle. One of the roads branched to take us to the palace.

Once we reached there, all our skepticism went flying out of the window. Located on one side of the Gond Talav (pond), made of yellow stone, and having the fort as its backdrop, the Phool Mahal is not your typical luxury heritage hotel. It is more of a budget heritage hotel, but with all the old-world charm intact.

Kishor, the caretaker, showed us our rooms, which were on the first floor and were pond-facing. Our parents’ room was in a theme of blue with large bay windows overlooking the lake. It had a bathroom the size of a flat in most metros.

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The prettily done-up rooms. Great lighting, great views!

Our room had a pastel shade, and was circular & small. But it got its beauty from the paintings done on the wall. These were the Kishangarh style of miniature paintings. We also had a small verandah which opened to the lake.

The fort and the palace are retained by the royal family of Kishangarh. The current king is His Highness Maharaja Brajraj Singh. He is the 20th king. Kishangarh was set up when the second son of the Jodhpur Maharaja came here and established his own kingdom. His name was Maharaja Kishen Singh, from which the town takes its name. And true to its name, the town follows Lord Krishna.

The Royal Kishangarh has two more heritage properties – Roopangarh about 25 kms away from Phool Mahal, and Kishangarh House in Mount Abu. The lounge on the ground floor had a wall full of portraits of the 20 kings to have ruled Kishangarh. The dining hall had the photographs of the current king and his family.

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The prettiest bits – the paintings on the walls, called the Kishangarh Style of Paintings

The staff was skeletal but hugely courteous. The Rajasthani hospitality was quite evident. Kishor was not just our go-to person; he was also our guide to the history of the palace and fort. He accommodated all our requests. Along with him, we had a server dedicated to us.

The palace grounds are quite big with a large parking, the main palace, gardens and smaller standalone structures. When we reached, the Gond Talav was covered with water hyacinths.

The story goes-the pond was used for water chestnut farming. Once, along with the seeds of the water chestnut plant, came a few branches and leaves of the water hyacinth plant. These took over the pond as Alexander had taken over the world. Efforts were made to remove these but given their stubbornness and parasitic nature, it had been futile.

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The water-hyacinth covered lake. Before, during and after the wind blew…

The hyacinths were killing the pond. The lack of oxygen made the fish come to the surface. The pond had a dirty brown-grey color. But, but, but, we got a pleasant surprise when a gentle current made all the hyacinths drift into a corner of the pond. The pond then got a  blue shimmer color. That was the sight that kept us company for almost a day and a half.

We hope the municipality took corrective action. It was just a matter of will, was it not? And not every pond would have catfish as large as an eagle’s wingspan.

Next in line for us was the visit to the fort. The entry fee was INR 200 per person. The tickets were available at the Phool Mahal reception. A guide escorted us and explained the doors, the spikes, the horse-drawn carriages, the treasury, the weapon storage area etc.

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The rampart, the defense arrangements, we could breathe the days of yore

He then handed us over to ‘Mukhiya ji’ who was the priest in the temple inside the fort. The temple was dedicated to an avatar of Lord Krishna, Sri Nath ji but it could not be accessed by the public.

Mukhiya ji took us on a tour of the fort interior, which included many palaces. We just managed to cover the queen’s chambers after which we were exhausted. There is quite of bit of climbing that one needs to do, and it being Rajasthan, the Sun can be pretty strong. So try to go during the evening hours and do carry water with you.

It was heartwarming to see an intact fort which gave a glimpse of how the royalty lived many years ago. The fort also housed Studio Kishangarh which was the art initiative by the princess of Kishangarh. The Studio was striving to revive the old Kishangarh painting style. Worth a dekko!

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Studio Kishangarh- an initiative by the princess to revive the lost art of Kishangarh painting

Maintaining the fort would not be easy on the wallet, especially without a private/ public funding; a fort without a regular tourist inflow, it must be the pride of the royal family, and their memories that have kept this going.

His Highness was doing a pretty good job. Our only regrets – (1) We could not explore the fort in full due to its size and our paucity of time; and (2) We could not pick up a souvenir from the Studio Kishangarh outlet.

As we completed the fort visit, we were greeted by the sight of His Highness sitting in the veranda of Phool Mahal. We struck a conversation where he told us about the history, the efforts to clean the pond, the privacy of the Srinathji temple, and his other properties in Roopangarh and Mount Abu.

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Within the massive fort, lots of palaces for kings, Queens, princes, princesses & all bhai- bhatijas! That’s why they didn’t need a TV those days 😉

His Highness came across as a learned man; we later came to know he was an author and a lecturer on the Kishangarh art. There is something royal about royalty, isn’t there?

This brought our trip to an end. The day we left was the day of Holi, the festival of colors. We found the roads and highways devoid of traffic. On our onward journey, we had taken almost eight hours to reach. While returning, it took us six hours.

We took away nuggets of learning from the trip: (1) Never write off a place without experiencing it; (2) Hit the roads on major festival days.

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Bravery awards, replicas, sun-lit verandas, open courtyards… Sigh! This is the era we should have been born in.

Lastly, for the ease of fellow travelers, we suggest the following itinerary ex-Delhi: Delhi – Kishangarh- Ajmer- Pushkar- Roopangarh- Delhi. Five days, four nights would be sufficient.

Day 1: Leave from Delhi in the morning. Reach Kishangarh by evening. Spend the night at Phool Mahal.

Day 2: Start early and explore the fort in the first half. Head to Ajmer after lunch and offer a ‘chaadar’ at the ‘dargah’. Return to Phool Mahal for the night.

Day 3: Start late and head to Pushkar. Visit the Brahma temple and others, if you wish. Or shop at the bazaar and eat delicacies at the German bakeries. Head to the lake towards evening and be a part of the ‘aarti’. Back to Phool Mahal for the night.

Day 4: Head to Roopangarh. Explore the fort by day and rest there at night

Day 5: Leave for Delhi

Recommended time to visit: October-March

Recommended eats: Laal Maas (a very spicy mutton dish)

Recommended buys: A souvenir from Studio Kishangarh, lac bangles

Ram-ram sa!

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