There comes a time in every traveler’s life when the person wants to head to a destination where he/she is the only stranger on the road less traveled. It was this feeling that was the genesis of my impulsive plan to head to Shekhawati- a not so well-known region in the very well-known state of Rajasthan. Before I talk about my experience, a few facts about the place would be in order.
- Located in North Rajasthan, Shekhawati comprises districts like Jhunjhunu, Sikar, Churu and Nagaur.
- Works of art are scattered across quaint towns connected by single-track roads through arid country-side. From the 14th century onwards Shekhawati’s towns were important trading posts on the caravan routes from Gujarati ports. The story goes that in the 18th and 19th centuries, Marwari merchants constructed grand havelis in Shekhawati as a token of their wealth and affluence. As the ultimate symbol of their opulence, the Marwaris commissioned artists to paint those buildings.
- Referred to as the “open art gallery” of Rajasthan, the place is believed to have one of the largest concentrations of frescoes in the world.
There were two main reasons behind zeroing down on this region for a weekend trip from Gurgaon. The first was to go to a place that was off the “tourist” radar. This meant that my friends and I did not have any set plan, no conventional sunrise to sunset itinerary with a bucket list of places to see. We wanted to head to a place and be lost in time. This brings me to my second reason: Shekhawati offers the wanderer an opportunity to linger. Shekhawati offers a chance at the sheer pleasure of looking closely and at a more leisurely pace at the images presented before our eyes. The rich heritage of art and their state of disrepair provides a pause for thought. The frescoes invite observers to linger, to cast their eye more slowly over their surfaces, to engage with their subject matter and symbolism and to admire their formal qualities, their color, texture and composition. We might marvel at their intricacy, be invigorated by their energy or even frustrated by their seeming lack of craft.
How should one plan a getaway to Shekhawati? First thing is to decide on the towns that one intends to visit. For us, we zeroed in on Mandawa, Nawalgarh, Dundlod and Ramgarh. We gave Jhunjhunu and Tal Chhapar sanctuary a miss.
Once in Mandawa, one needs to put on his/her walking shoes and listlessly roam around. Soak in the magnificence of the beautifully painted havelis. Lane after lane offers the wanderer a visual treat. Note the peculiar structures built around yester-year wells. Sit on one of the zillion pavilions and watch people go about their daily chores, children flying kites, donkeys being used as beasts of burden. There will be havelis endorsing gold murals and charging Rs.100 a ticket. A strict no for those; definitely not worth it. What one sees inside is utter disappointment. An image has been provided for reference. The Mandawa fort, now Castle Mandawa Hotel can be visited. Local guides offer their services, wanting to show to the conventional tourist the places where some XYZ bollywood movie was shot.
The multitude of roof top restaurants in Mandawa and the cool breeze after sunset provide a perfect setting for drinks (or just introspection!). Sitting on the terrace, with the cool breeze in your hair and a bottle in your hand, with havelis no matter where you look is an experience that lends a unique charm to the place.
Nawalgarh & Dundlod
After spending half a day in Mandawa one can head to Nawalgarh (situated at a distance of about 30 kms). A must-visit here is the magnificent Poddar Museum (belonging to the Poddar family that runs the eponymous educational institutions in Bombay). The museum gives a glimpse into the culture of Rajasthan. The guide at the museum (comes complementary with the ticket!) does an amazing job of explaining the frescoes and telling stories of the region.
On the way back to Mandawa, one can stop over at the Dundlod fort. Since we were taking our own sweet time in walking around these quaint towns, we reached Dundlod well beyond sunset. Dundlod fort proved to be quite an adventure for us- while the gates to the fort were open, there was not a soul to be seen or a sound to be heard. Such experience: of being the only one inside a fort after sunset is quite rare.
Next on our agenda was Ramgarh in Sikar. Wikipedia gives a very interesting story of Ramgarh’s origin: “It so happened that in Churu, which was a part of the Bikaner state, a particular Poddar clan rose to great prominence as the main merchant family trading in woollen products. Nothing was wrong with that; trade was the main occupation of the marwaris of Shekhawati. But things became really bad when the state funds dried up and the thakur (chieftain) of Churu imposed a new levy on the wool trade. This obviously angered the Poddars. They thought this was unfair and opposed the hike. But the thakur was adamant too. So the Poddars lifted their bag and baggage and off they went to settle themselves in a new place and with the help of the Raja of Sikar, the Poddars founded Ramgarh in 1791. The displaced Poddars then vowed to make Ramgarh so beautiful so as to outdo Churu.”
While there were a few tourists that we bumped into at Mandawa and Nawalgarh, Ramgarh offered us the perfect setting. The desire to walk aimlessly through ruins of a bygone era with no tourist guides accosting us or no sounvenir shops trying to sell us their wares was finally fulfilled in this quaint little town. We drifted through the narrow streets trying to find where a certain Poddar chhatri was located. We still do not know if we found it! We did find some interesting cenotaphs and temples.The neat high wall and gateways and the cenotaphs exhibited a scene that left us enchanted.
Things to be kept in mind when travelling to this region:
- The place has very basic food. You will be disappointed if you expect the lavish Rajashtani cuisine.
- Given that it is Rajasthan we are in, the scorching sun is what we have in store for us. Summer months are a strict No.
- Mandawa is the place that we were based out of. The town offers a plethora of hotels. Quite a few havelis have been converted into hotels. Hotels close to the market place are recommended. On a friend’s recommendation we stayed in Hotel Shekhawati. It was close to the market and had basic amenities. The food however was deplorable. Monica Rooftop restaurant had decent food. Hotel Heritage Mandawa looked promising!
- Travel time to Mandawa from Gurgaon was 5 hours (roughly). Google maps was what took us there. Once inside Mandawa, Google map loses its precision, so beware! Its a good idea to keep asking people for guidelines.
- A two day trip (in a hired swift desire) cost us (3 people) roughly 6k (all inclusive). We would like to thank MakeMyTrip for its awesome discount of 55% on our hotel room tariff!