STEPPING INTO THE HEART OF RAJASTHAN’S ARID DESERTRajasthan has been very eagerly anticipated. I am so open and ready and willing the colours, food, smells, people, culture and accommodations.
A few hours drive from Delhi into the Shekhawati region lands me at the foot of an astoundingly beautiful heritage hotel, Castle Mandawa. It has all the old-school charm, luxury and grandeur of an Indian palatial bygone era. Guests who choose to stay here are equally well-heeled travellers, I find. Talking with the hoteliers, I learn that it’s a family-run business. With such a unique location and historical grand building, the family is resisting the likes of luxury 5* hotel chains who are desperately keen to buy it up to add to their portfolio of luxury offerings. Having made this important discovery, I set about losing my heart to Castle Mandawa and actually embracing it’s charming offering.
FADED GLORY OF A FORMER FORT
Every detail about the property tells the family-owned story. It’s deluxe in subtle ways. This is not the place for a super-long hot shower or a range of restaurant options. It has a more boutique feel. What is offered is so clearly considered from the heart and showered with passion. Less lavish, opulent or plush and more refined, quaint and historic. Staying here feels truly special and feels like a lucky find only few will have the privilege of experiencing.
HISTORIC PAINTINGS, FRESCOES AND MURALS
Covered in original frescoes, restored murals and colourful scriptures, the former fort boasts a curious mix of old and new, uniquely bordering both ostentatious (the entrance lounge) and subtle. From the outside, it’s magnificent faded glory and stands proud.
Located in the heart of the village of Mandawa, it’s the perfect spot from which to explore the region by foot at dawn and then unwind within the comforts of the peaceful retreat.
Every inch of the vast and very tranquil hotel is geared towards the intrepid traveller with a fascination for history. The devil is in the finest detail. As an explorer, it’s not often I can come to such a hotel and sit tight without having discovered ways onto every rooftop and admired solo views from every turret. This is no exception.
With countless nooks, corridors and crannies, I’m a little girl exploring an Alice-in-Wonderland fairytale castle. I delight in ambling through hidden ways and stumbling into unused rooms. And it’s so peaceful that the quiet adds an eery yet intriguing mystery to the property.
My suite is on the top floor and has it’s own expanse of rooftop. But I spy two sets of rickety steps leading much higher up onto separate roofs. They seem closed off. But, within seconds of spotting them, I’m there.
Up here, I can feel the breeze. It tickles my neck as it caresses my skin and flirtatiously weaves through my hair. I look around for somewhere to sit and appropriately find a thoughtfully-placed chair. Here, I sit a while and pass the afternoon with a good book whilst admiring candy-coloured house rooftops across the flat Rajasthani desert land.
Bells chime, of the village mosques and temples, every so often, resounding through the landscape, preceeded by a bellowing call to prayer which floats above my head sounding haunting yet strangely calming. The village is so peaceful, I can hear a group of boys kicking a ball around a dusty old playing field in the distance.
These Medieval turreted towers and palanquin-roofed balconies become my private hideaway from whence I oversee the entire village proceedings.
Peacocks seem to perch in the most picturesque spots as if strategically placed there to add to the beauty. It’s not until I witness it’s remarkable flight off a tall turret that I’m reminded they are actually real.
As the sun begins to make it’s descent, I head downstairs for an evening tour of Mandawa. It’s the ideal time of day to step outside without being frazzled and exhausted. I wait for my guide in the ‘Diwankhana’. This is the formal drawing room and is decorated with family portraits and exquisite antique armour.
Walking with my guide, I learn that Castle Mandawa was built in 1755 by the former Rajput ruler of Mandawa, Thakur Nawal Singh, to prtoect his settlement. Mandawa, the village, grew around the fort and became a trading outpost for the ancient caravan routes that stopped here from China and the Middle East, who later built their own palatial mansions in this arid land.
HOME OF THE HAVELI
We embark on a walking tour to visit some of these painted haveli homes, for which Mandawa has become renowned. At this time of day, as the sun is low pouring it’s intense bedtime pinks over the village, the Havelis are alluring. Their faded cream walls are romantic, the rows of glittering sarees hung outside come to life like musical notes and the rustic old-world history is true charm.
The havelis I pass are covered in the most delicate and intricate paintings. They showcase every aspect of life in the 17th and 18th centuries, from food and family to battle, religion and nature. It’s the genuine, true original art form, displaying all that life stands for to those people at that time. The vibrancy of the palettes is stunning with rustic reds perfectly offsetting pistachio greens and mustard yellows. My guide explains that the colours would have been extracted from nature such as plant leaves, foods and even animals. Each Haveli I visit is more a piece of art than a home. And each is entirely individual and uniquely astounding.
Inside, I’m shown around the set-up. Traditionally, men and women had separate quarters. The entrance is where the men would sit, do business, drink with friends and host parties, in the verandah. The women’s quarters ‘Zenana’ are at the back of haveli and are where girls are looked after and taught to cook and clean by their mothers, aunts and grandmothers.
Havelis are large with two floors and are built around a central open-air courtyard, for family time. It’s an unusual set-up, all very open for a Westerner, but offering an easy way of life.
In the evening, the local market is hectic. Rajasthan comes alive in the evenings. Once people have finished work in the fields or in some form of the tourism industry, they come out to shop and browse. Fresh fruit, vegetables and utensils are on sale at each tiny wooden stall and hut. Cows, camels and dogs are also on the hunt for dinner, as I navigate them through the busy market road.
A satisfied stroll back to the hotel culminates in an early dinner and early to bed. Most travellers here sleep early and are up at the first sign of dawn, setting off to witness and photograph early morning life, before heading back for breakfast. There’s one main resturant at Castle Mandawa. But one is all it needs. It offers a delectable variety of spicy Indian and hearty European with something for everyone.
At dinner, a local elderly couple make a grand entrance playing music and singing. They deserve any donations so I’m first to their hand. I can’t help but feel that at their age, they ought to be enjoying life, not selling themselves to tourists. But I remind myself that tourists can provide them with some income and thus perhaps a better life than the alternative. And that’s to become increasingly clear along my travels through Rajasthan.
Mandawa is off many tourist radars but is a rare find and remains etched in my brain as a leading memory of Rajasthan.
- Impressions of India; Portraits of a People (ani-shah.com)
- Vibrant Rajasthan: ‘Golden City’ Jaisalmer (Day 3) (tralect.wordpress.com)
- The Merchants Trail in Shekhawati (shekhawativirasatabhiyan.wordpress.com)
- Colors of Mewar – Rajasthan (wovensouls.wordpress.com)
- India you are on my mind (designmixer.wordpress.com)
- Shekhawati: Contours of Urbanization (shekhawativirasatabhiyan.wordpress.com)