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.

The Land of Happiness – Part I

Ever since Bhutan opened itself to the world, there has been a certain aura around it. Proximity to India and the much-acclaimed natural beauty are added incentives. We have now been to Bhutan twice – once during the monsoon and then during winter.

Before we get into the describing the magical kingdom, a few essentials:

Travel Agent – We realize online bookings are difficult. So, we opt for a travel agency. We go with Wow Bhutan Travels which we also highly recommend. We also come to understand that a guide & a driver are mandatory for tourists. Thus, you may consider this option for ease & peace 😊

civilization, city, town, bhutan, river
Like all civilizations, all the major cities & towns of Bhutan are situated alongside rivers

Visa –Indians do not need a visa but do need to carry either the passport or the voter identity card. Our travel agent gets an e-permit issued for us which entitles us to visit beyond Paro/ Thimphu. The e-permit saves us time at the Paro immigration too. Find more details here.

Flights – If you are flying, there are only two airlines to Bhutan – Druk Air & Bhutan Airlines. We recommend Druk Air – More reliable as it is the national carrier & has been operating for many years now.

Hotels– Hotels are available for every budget. Bhutanese have a high service orientation; even basic hotels are clean & comfortable.

Bhutan--2
Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

Accessibility – If you are a sedentary person, it will be good to start physical activity if you intend to visit Bhutan. There is a considerable amount of walking required. Even within structures, you will encounter stairs & inclines.

F&B – The most common dishes are Sewo Marp (steamed Punakha red rice), Josha Maaroo (minced chicken and peas), Ema Datsi (cheese chili), Doma (betel leaf), & mixed vegetable curry. Bhutanese like their food SPICY!

If you plan to have food outside your hotel, ensure you make it early; restaurants close by 9 PM.

Bhutan also has local whiskey and wine brands. Try them out.

Glossary of Terms – To ease your reading:

  1. Dzong – A fortress that now houses administrative offices & religious seats
  2. Lhakhang – A temple
  3. Chhu – A river
  4. Gonpa – A Buddhist monastery or temple

authentic, Bhutanese meal, Spinach, Pork, Rice
Our first authentic Bhutanese meal – Dry Fried Spinach, Kewa Datshi, Mixed Veg, Pork Ribs, Seekam Paa, Spinach Soup, and Sticky Rice. Delish is an understatement!

Weather – In the rains, the mountains are lush green. August is called the ‘summer-monsoon’ month; the maximum temperature is 25℃! In contrast, in our January visit, the land looks bereft of greenery but has a natural arid beauty. Be ready to shiver any time of the day or night.

Hot Stone Bath – Something that is a must-do in Bhutan is to get a hot stone bath. It is a traditional Bhutanese therapy, aimed at a number of medical benefits. Water, traditionally taken from a river, is heated using hot stones.

The stones come from the rivers/ streams too and are roasted over open fire/ kilns. You will lie down in a wooden tub filled with this hot water. Your host will adjust the temperature based on your comfort, adding more hot stones or cold water. S/ he will add medicinal herbs to the water to help you relax.

You can opt for both private & public experiences of the hot stone bath. If opting for a public experience, take a bathing suit with you. The temperature outside is freezing but we do not feel it as long as we are soaked in the bath.

With the facts out-of-the-way, how about insights?

Bhutan is for nature lovers. If you are one, take your backpack; start moving on the streets (or ‘Lam’s). If you are a driving buff, drive into Bhutan & keep driving within. You will not be disappointed.

Bhutan--4
Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

We speak with all the locals we come across. They tell us interesting facts about Buddhism & Bhutan. Did you know – according to Buddhism, India is considered the center of the earth? Is it because Buddha attained Nirvana here or did Buddha attain Nirvana here because it is the center of the earth? The hierarchy of the holiest places for Buddhism is India, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan.

Something that surprises us is the harmony in which all living beings co-exist here. Pigeons are unafraid of cats; cats of dogs; dogs of cows; & all of these of human beings. What brings this symbiosis? Is it due to the respect that Buddhism propagates towards all living creatures? Animals are docile & quiet. We can understand human beings treating the animals well but animals also treating each other well? It is a mystery.

The overwhelming women employment stands out. The hospitality sector majorly has women, who also work late into the night. They are given the respect they deserve and treated as equals.

notice, sad, urban, spare
We notice, with sadness, that urbanization doesn’t spare anyone…

The cities & towns are seeking modernity while not discarding traditions. Thanks to the mandate on architecture conforming to the Bhutanese style, the country looks as if you have stepped back a century.

Bhutan is a cleaner, colder, healthier, prettier, and quieter version of India. With Tata, Eicher, Ashok Leyland, Bharat Petroleum, Indian Oil, Maruti cars, we feel we have not left India but still have left India.

Getting to the specifics of our visits, we have visited Bumthang, Paro, Phobjikha Valley, Punakha, Thimphu, Trongsa, & Wangdue. We hope to transport you to the Magical Kingdom through this blog, as well as provide a few helpful tips. We rank each of these places in our order of preference.

Bhutan--12
Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

For each place, we further provide the attractions and our accommodation picks. Here we go!

1.    Phobjikha Valley

Phobjikha is a glacial valley in the center of Bhutan. It is famous for the Black-Necked Cranes that migrate here during winter from Tibet. We love how the valley shape refreshes our geography lessons. In January-end, the land is arid but has a haunting beauty.

The Phobjikha Valley is the only place where we encounter snow & bitter cold; our vehicles refuse to start in the morning. Compared to the rest of Bhutan, it comes across as undeveloped; but that just adds to its appeal.

January, shade, brown, green, dominate
In January, shades of brown & green dominate.

Visit the Phobjikha Valley during winter to see the graceful cranes & the crane festival, but even without the birds, you will love it. It has an idyllic setting; you can see the Sun rise behind the mountains, the village slowly coming to life, unpaved roads, greenery, calm & tranquil… There is nothing not to love.

If there is one place you should cover in Bhutan, it is this.

Black-Necked Cranes – They come in hundreds after spending their summer in Tibet. The Cranes arrive in September/ October & fly back in February/ March. If you are a bird watcher, you must visit the Phobjikha Valley.

crane, gangtey, perform, imitate, grace, move
There’s also a Crane Festival at the Gangtey Gompa, where performers imitate the graceful movements of the cranes.

The Bhutanese consider the Black-Necked Cranes (‘Birds of Heaven’) sacred. They are so particular about conservation that this entire area is devoid of overhead electric transmission lines.

The Black Necked Crane Visitor Center overlooks the protected area. This marshy land is the natural habitat of the Cranes. At the Center, you can use powerful binoculars to spot the birds. Tall & slender, they are no less than runway models!

Karma, a juvenile Black-Necked Crane who got injured and cannot fly again, is cared for at the Center.

karma, break, wing, rescue, dog, recover, friend, valley
Karma broke a wing & had to be rescued lest it be attacked & eaten by feral dogs. It is yet to recover fully, spending its days seeing its friends scattered around the valley.

Gangtey Gonpa – We love hearing the stories behind sacred sites. The fascinating bit about the Gonpa is that on arrival in the Phobjikha Valley, the Black-Necked Cranes circle it three times before settling down. They repeat the process while returning to Tibet.

To see this phenomenon, the footfall increases in September/ October. It almost seems like a pilgrimage but there can be a scientific explanation. The Gangtey Gonpa is the highest point in the Phobjikha Valley. The Black-Necked Cranes use it to do an aerial survey & choose the area they want to descend into.

The pilgrimage story sounds infinitely better, does it not?

architecture, colour
The architecture, the colors… Uff!

Our Accommodation Pick – At a walking distance from the Crane Center is the Gakiling Guest House. It commands a view of the Phobjikha Valley & has a good sunrise view. Do not expect a TV or any other mode of artificial entertainment.

The Valley, & so the guesthouse, are meant for people who want to immerse themselves in nature. The rooms & bathrooms are basic but adequately furnished, with ample heaters & blankets to keep off the cold. The balcony faces East; you can get sunrise shots.

You will find an old-school heater in the dining room, & hot stones to warm your hands. The F&B and service are decent.

evening, scene
Evening scenes

2.    Bumthang

Bumthang houses the highest number of ancient temples and sacred sites. But if, for a moment, we disregard the sites, the sights are enough to enthrall! It is a beautiful land; pine trees, open meadows, and animals grazing on the meadows remind one of Switzerland.

Bumthang, being fertile, you can find ample organic products here. Try visiting the breweries & cheese factories. It is one of the rare places in Bhutan with a domestic airport. We drive down from Trongsa; not a good decision as the east west highway is being broadened. But the drive is certainly scenic.

ascend, bumthang, drop, temperature, obvious
As we ascend towards Bumthang, the drop in temperature becomes all too obvious!

Jakar Dzong – If you go by the picturesqueness of Dzongs, this will be almost on top. ‘Jakar’ means ‘white bird’ which relates to its legend. When the building of this Dzong was being considered, a white bird flew high in the sky and settled on this piece of land, signaling that this was the location for the Dzong.

We love Bhutanese legends!

Jambay Lhakhang – The legend pertains to an ogress who was terrorizing the Himalayan regions. To pin her down, the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo built 108 temples on a single day. This is one of them! The Lhakhang has been repaired and rebuilt several times. It is a must – visit due to its antiquity.

You can see the elderly doing ‘parikrama’ of the small, unassuming Jambay Lhakhang. The Lhakhang & the neighboring areas are so silent that the only sound you will hear is of the giant prayer flags fluttering in the wind.

Kurjey Lhakhang – Compared to the other Lhakhangs we visit, this is large in size. It is considered as incredibly important as the main shrine houses the body imprint of Guru Rinpoche. A tall cypress tree beside the Lhakhang is regarded as His ‘walking stick’.

The aura in the entire temple complex is mystic when we visit. Dusk & chilly winds contribute to the mysticism. When you visit, keep your ears tuned for a wind chime outside the window of the main shrine. Its music will make you think someone is playing a flute. Do tell us if it does not amaze you!

jambay lhakhang, 108, temple, tibet, songtsen goenpo, day, ogress, earth, forever, love, legend
Jambay Lhakhang – one of the 108 temples built by the Tibetan King Songtsen Goenpo in 659 AD in a single day to pin down an ogress to earth forever. #WeLoveLegend

Mebar Tsho (Burning Lake) – According to legend, Terton Pema Lingpa (Treasure Discoverer) jumped into the lake with a butter lamp in his hand. He emerged holding a chest and a scroll of paper with the butter lamp still burning in his hand! The Lake is a sacred site.

The access to the Burning Lake involves a climb down uneven stone steps. Coming back up can be exhausting. Also, the boulders near the Lake are slippery; there have been accidents here. Be careful!

Our Accommodation Pick –We were originally booked for December but our trip got postponed to January. Despite remaining closed in January, the Jakar Village Lodge opened for a couple of days only for us, to honor our booking. That stole our hearts!

The Jakar Village Lodge is located a little away from the town. The approach is scary, but once inside, the hospitality will warm you. Rooms are well furnished with the deal maker being the heater in the bathroom! F&B are good.

You will have a good time sitting by the radiator & chatting with the friendly staff.

hotel, movie
When your hotel looks like it’s popped out of an old movie!

Back with Part II soon!

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