Northern Rajasthan, the Shekhawati region, is famous for its painted Havelis. These are traditional, very ornately painted houses, built around one or more courtyards. From the 14th century onwards these were important trading posts on the caravan routes. The paintings can include anything; religious scenes, family portraits, historical events, and even modern inventions like steam locomotives.
Most of these houses are still owned by the families that built them, some are beautifully restored, and some are only standing up thanks to the large trees in the courtyard propping the walls up.
Entertainment on Indian road trips
We drive from Jaipur to Mandawa in Shekhawati. Thankfully, a day on the road is never boring in India.
Just out of Jaipur we happen upon a small procession of women dancing and singing, celebrating Karwa Chauth. These women have fasted from sunrise to moonrise for the safety and longevity of their husbands. I may not have done the fasting (at all), but they happily embrace me in their dancing as we stop. Blessed and decorated with a bindi I climb back in the minibus to continue our journey.
There are regular stops along these main roads where you can use the bathrooms (if you are desperate), buy cold drinks, food, chai, snacks and souvenirs. With a number of us experiencing upset stomachs at this mes, the cheese toastie and lassie have become a good roadtrip staple.
I found a nice set of Indian coins for my coin collection, which were very well priced. However, I was shocked to find out that the small pack of seriously out of date (!!!) digestive biscuits set me back 240 Rupees, that is $5 Australian. Note for next time, bring cookies!
Driving through India requires a special skillset. We have obviously survived the trip, as I am safely sitting here typing this. Our survival is largely due to the excellent driving skills of our minibus driver. I recall that on this section of the trip he avoided a large traffic jam on the highway, by driving on the other side of the divided road. We managed to narrowly avoid an oncoming truck, making it back to our side of the road just in time.
And we discover a new source of entertainment; the matrimonial classifieds in the Indian Times. Under the header “Times Soulmate”, we peruse the section of wanted brides and grooms. It is nicely categorised by caste, profession or nationality. Doctors and USA green card holders are specifically highlighted. The girls are advertised as very beautiful, fair, charming, soft spoken, well educated and working in excellent jobs. The boys are tall, have high powered jobs and are well connected. Foreign visas and family business connections are flaunted… And people are not afraid to state the required salary bracket for potential suitors. It is all modernised with most families wanting a WhatsApp response (although even in the largest of adverts, that can be spelled as “what’s up”….).
Heritage Properties on the Old Silk Route
Rajasthan still has a large number of heritage properties, former palaces and vacation homes, owned by one of the various Royal Families. They are often converted into hotels, restaurants or resorts.
On our drive from Jaipur towards Bikaner, we stop at the Roop Niwas Kothi at Nawalgarh, one of those heritage homes. We are greeted by an uniformed guard waving an Indian flag.
The property has a large verandah and we feel immediately thrown back into the times of the Raj. We are the only visitors, the staff is attentive and the food simple, curries and rice, but fresh and tasty. Definitely bygone glory here. I can imagine whiling away the afternoon in the cane chairs on the verandah, sipping a gin and tonic.
The owners have a passion for horses, especially the rare Marwari horses. They are one of the three local breeds of horses in North West India and can be traced back to the 12th century. These relatively small horses have been bred for their hardiness and loyalty. They are recognised by their distinctive inward turning ear tips, and were the traditional battle horses of Rajputana.
There are less than 30 of these horses outside of India, where their numbers are slowly increasing again. They look gorgeous, trotting around the pastures, and very inquisitive, coming to say hello to us.
The Havelis of Shekhawati
We spent a day visiting a number of Havelis in Mandawa. Each one is different, some are beautifully restored with a large amount of gold leaf painting. Some are still lived in by the family or care takers, others are empty shells.
Walking through town our guide takes us in and out of these buildings. A number are well known, like the Binsidhar Newatia Haveli and the Murmuria Haveli. These are both from the early 20th century and have paintings of the Wright brothers, a steam train, Nehru on horseback, the canals of Venice and a flying bird man. Remember, the artists had not seen any of these and often use their own imagination in their pantings.
For access to the less famous Havelis you need to know the local care taker. It is well worth getting a local guide to be able to visit these as well. None of them are the same; small, large, old, new, ornate, simple. The only commonality is that they are built around a courtyard.
We have a great time walking in and out of these, accompanied by the local dogs.
Rajasthan Kathputli Puppet show
On the first night we are entertained by a traditional Rajasthan puppet show. Using string puppets, this theatre is called Kathputli and is one of the most popular forms of Indian puppetry. The puppeteer has a bamboo reed in his mouth that produces bone cutting whistling sounds to accompany the story.
Some scholars believe that this tradition is more than a thousand years old. The puppets have wooden heads and limbs, and cloth bodies with beautiful embroidery. Although we do not know the story, or understand the language, the sharp whistle sounds and puppet antics have us in stitches.
Travel Details and Tips
Accomodation: We stayed at The Desert Resort just outside Mandawa. This is an interesting looking resort, with a large number of small bungalows made out of adobe and painted with traditional symbols. The rooms are large and there is a nice pool on the premises.
Tips: Try out some of the local restaurants in Mandawa. We went to the Monica Rooftop Restaurant, wedged in between the fort and the main bazaar, it is located in a converted Haveli. Food is a colonial style mix of British and Indian dishes and it is lovely to have a drink on the rooftop terrace, watching the sun go down over the town.