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.

China – Not That Mythical

We have had a chance to visit China twice. Well, Hong Kong & Macau don’t really consider themselves China but the fact remains that they are the special administrative regions of China.

As an Indian (this may be true across nationalities too), China has been a fascinating, mysterious place. The most common thoughts that used to occur to us when we thought of China (& this holds for many more like us):

  1. China has too many people.
  2. The Chinese eat anything that walks.
  3. An Indian will have a problem in finding edible food.
  4. The language barrier is significant.
  5. The major cities are heavily polluted.
  6. The Chinese are rude & unfriendly.
  7. The Chinese are xenophobic.

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Before the opera, we were all ears for this girl playing this instrument quite beautifully. After some time, the Chinese tunes seemed all the same to us.

A few of these turned out to be canards while the rest got validated. Our observations are based on the three cities we visited – Macau, Hong Kong & Beijing. Thus, our sample size is small but hopefully not way off the mark.

So here goes what we detected and felt about China.

China Has Too Many People

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At a cloisonné factory, we got swayed by this work of art, & ran away soon after hearing the cost.

Yes it does. It is next to impossible to go to a tourist attraction & expect to click a photograph with no people in the frame. At times, it is even impossible to see the attraction. A lot of travel blogs suggest reaching early which we did not manage to do. Perhaps that would have helped.

The ‘too many people’ manifests itself in the scramble for public transport too. Hailing a cab can be quite a task but using a subway is easy, cost-effective & we did not find it too crowded. We have seen worse in India 🙂

The Chinese Eat Anything That Walks

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The Ming Dynasty tombs are more museum than tombs.

Not entirely true. The Chinese do eat a lot of meat but most of it is conventional stuff like chicken, beef, pork, seafood, fish, duck etc. At most mid-segment restaurants I visited, there was nothing that was repulsive to read or look at. Hint: dogs, insects, reptiles etc.

However, street markets and a type of restaurants called ‘hotpots’ had ‘interesting’ food available. All the horrors that were in the mind appeared in front of our eyes.

An Indian Will Have a Problem in Finding Edible Food

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The preparation that went into the China trip. Glad to report none of this got consumed! Beijing had edible food more easily available than both these places.

Partially true. There are adequate food options available, thanks to the presence of American, Italian, & even Indian restaurants. You can find vegetarian restaurants too. There are enough McDonald’s, Starbucks etc.

We had a lot of ready-to-eat food with us but gladly, we did not have to consume that. You can find Chinese dishes with conventional meats like chicken, fish & seafood. However, the Chinese dishes taste nothing like what we get in India.

India has its own brand of Chinese, fondly called tandoori Chinese, which is full of sauces and condiments. In comparison, authentic Chinese will appear bland to the Indian palate.

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The night calls for letting our hair down. The Chinese aren’t just about manufacturing and making the world their market. They party as hard as probably any other nationality does! Seen here – the lights of Hou Hai.

Also, we found a particular pungent smell in all Chinese dishes. Perhaps it was the use of fish sauce or oyster sauce. The smell was too overpowering for us to ignore. We minimized our intake of Chinese food consequently.

The Language Barrier Is Significant

Yes it is. 90% of the people we came across did not understand a single word in English. Even basic phrases like ‘thank you’, ‘excuse me’, ‘hi’, ‘hello’ were alien to them. Surprisingly, this was the case in the hospitality sector too.

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While we returned from our partying, we realized there was a curfew in the city. Our taxi driver, midway, refused to drop us to the hotel & asked us to get out in the middle of God-knows-where. Mercifully, we had a phone. We requested our hotel to pick us up. We get evacuated in a Buick. For free! Emergency evacuation in style!!!

A few of the servers who waited on us did not understand English at all. The only English they understood & could say was ‘no English’! We had to point to the menu to order our drinks & dinners. & if we wanted any customization, God help us!

For cab drivers, we carried the Chinese names of our destinations. Thankfully, all of them could read Mandarin. This is a major variation from India. Here, even a rickshaw puller understands Basic English words/ phrases like ‘thank you’, ‘okay’, ‘hello’ etc.

Among the remaining 10%, the grasp of English was elementary at best though we are sure the situation would be different for the crowd that works for multinational corporations.

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Our hotel (Red Wall Garden) celebrated its 5th anniversary while we were there. We got this complimentary savory treat plate. Savory? Who gives savory to celebrate? Where are the cupcakes & muffins?? & treat? It’d kinds of meats we were unsure of. Ahem!

The Major Cities Are Heavily Polluted

Not true. At least not for an Indian. Compared to Delhi NCR, the air quality in both Beijing & Hong Kong was better, though there was a little bit of haze. For travelers coming from developed countries, this may be a worry & thus, as advised by the western travel blogs, it may make sense for them to carry masks.

Apart from the air, we found all the three cities to be impeccably clean. In Beijing, we observed the roads being washed twice a day. The garbage was collected almost on an hourly basis. There was no difference in people’s behavior though.

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She was happy making the painting but wouldn’t let us try… Artists!

Like Indians, they continued to spit, throw garbage etc. at their whim & fancy. But the discipline of the sanitation department was exemplary.

The Chinese Are Rude & Unfriendly

Hem – haw! Yes, the Chinese appear to be rude because (i) they do not smile on seeing you (ii) they talk in a blunt, direct manner. I believe their way of talking stems from their language. As far as I understand, Mandarin does not have grammar & syntax.

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It is more of words put together to make sense. So for a Chinese talking in English – s/ he processes what s/ he wants to say in Mandarin in her/ his head –> s/ he translates that to English in her/ his head –> s/ he speaks/ replies in English.

This makes their English also blunt & devoid of the niceties that we usually put into it. About the smiling bit, I agree they should do it more.

The Chinese Are Xenophobic

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Bigger & grander than Rajpath, this is where the Chinese government sits — Tiananmen Square!

Assume you are not allowed to meet anybody all your life. You are confined to your house. You can interact only with your family members. Your family members do not step out either. You have a view of the outside world only through your window.

Then, suddenly, when you turn 25 years old, you are told you can step out & can even let outsiders enter your house. Will this affect your behavior towards the outside world? Sure it will. Through that narrow window, you had formed an image.

You are now being subjected to other images, a few of which contradict the earlier image & a few which validate. Would you not take time to absorb it all & adapt to it?

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We were sure there was a deeper meaning behind the Chinese opera but we couldn’t help giggling, sitting right at the first table. Subtitles anyone?

Apart from dispelling/ validating the above preconceived notions, I formed a few independent opinions too. Succinctly put:

  1. Beijing is a cleaner, richer version of New Delhi.
  2. The Chinese love big cars – Audi, BMW & Mercedes. These are almost every second car that you see on the road. But the Chinese have no qualms buying these big names secondhand. (This explains the ‘almost every second car’ bit.)
  3. Hong Kong is the not – so – glamorous cousin of Singapore. Both are financial hubs filled with expats. But Hong Kong has a ‘China’ flavor to it.
  4. The Chinese love to talk. They can yap all day long. Given the harshness of their language, this can sound quite jarring to the ears.
  5. Chinese women/ girls love their bling. They can give the Rajouri aunties a run for their money any day.
  6. Macau is not just a gambler’s paradise. It has a lot to keep culture & history lovers occupied too.
  7. Since Hong Kong used to be a British colony, we were under the impression that the place would be full of English eateries. But, sadly, we did not find any place that served the quintessential British food. In fact, our food struggle was greater in Hong Kong than in Beijing.
  8. The Chinese are enterprising. Every second home on the outskirts of Beijing housed a small-scale industry of sorts. From these small factories, they supply goods all across the world. Despite the language barrier, they have managed to trade with the entire world.
  9. Not talking in financial terms, but India is still light years away from being a China. If we imbibe their discipline, we can think of competing with them.
  10. Despite their population struggle, their infrastructure is top class. Better put, their infrastructure is managing to keep up with the population pressure. Perhaps they plan first, execute later.
  11. China, as a whole, has a rich history but it is still a virgin territory for outsiders. Within themselves, they love their historical places, & they accord the respect that such places deserve.
  12. The Chinese love their nightlife. The world may think otherwise due to their apparent serious nature but all the cities we visited had quite ‘happening’ entertainment options.

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The best place to have a good time that we came across in Beijing – San Li Tun. It was a hangout for expats. We finally didn’t feel like aliens…

To summarize our sentiments, there is lots to be explored about China, in China. The expanse of the country ensures that a lifetime will be inadequate to do so. Each small region holds a story. We will be lucky if we get to discover at least a couple more…

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 5

Continuing from Chapter 4, day two dawned bright & beautiful again. I looked forward to capturing the Kanchenjunga summit. This was also the day for local sightseeing. KN arrived promptly to take me around.

We started with the Bakthang Falls. The Falls are a better sight during & right after monsoon when the volume of water is high. Currently, it looked bereft of its glory but to me, any sight different from the usual is worth seeing.

A hawker girl asked me if I wanted to dress up in the traditional Sikkimese clothes. I politely declined. One of the other aspects I loved about Sikkim was that the hawkers would offer you their wares once; if you decline, they will move away & not pester you again. This is so unlike most other tourist spots where hawkers will make you want to run!

The Bakthang Waterfall
The Bakthang Waterfall

Next stop was the Tashi View Point – a lookout offering an unobstructed view of the Kanchenjunga. As luck would have it, clouds hovered over the peak. I couldn’t get a clear photo, no matter how hard I wished or how long I waited! I cursed my luck for some time but soon realized that even though I’d been unable to click it, I’d managed to see it with my eyes. And that’s what mattered!

Next up was Ganesha Tok – a temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha, perched on a little height, such that you get a clear view of the Gangtok city. A bit of climbing is required; if you’re not keen on the temple, I’ll recommend to skip it, as the view is average. By contrast, the view from the Tashi View Point is spectacular. Or, perhaps, at night, when the city lights up, the view from Ganesha Tok will make sense!

We made our way to the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. Don’t let the heavy name deter you. It houses a wonderful museum wherein you can find relics centuries old that tell the tale of Buddhism in India, Nepal, Bhutan & Tibet. I’m an absolute museum buff. I spent the maximum time here, & thanked my stars N wasn’t around, for he abhors museums. This gave me time to read every single description, & not leave even one exhibit unseen.

The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology
The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology- Photography prohibited inside!

Photography is strictly prohibited here (like most museums in India) but as is wont of Indians, they clicked mindlessly. Why is it so difficult for Indians to follow instructions? I was overjoyed when the attentive museum staff caught hold of the defaulters & made them erase the photographs.

A small souvenir shop outside the museum made me splurge a bit. I picked up a book on Buddhism, a traditional necklace for myself & a tote bag. I barely shop on trips. The max I pick up is a fridge magnet. But for this trip, I loosened my purse strings, also because everything seemed reasonable (so atypical of a tourist place)! And then, you don’t travel solo every day, do you?

A few steps & almost a mountain away was the Do Drul Chorten. The climb is pretty much vertical and it knocked the wind out of me. But I guess travel gives me energy. I huffed & puffed my way to the top, circumambulated the chorten, clicked away & attracted more friends again! It struck me that Buddhism & Hinduism have this aspect in common – all their holy sites are built at almost inaccessible places.

Do Drul Chorten
Do Drul Chorten- The effort paid off!

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