The sun is glaring down at us, its angry rays bouncing off the shimmery silver bonnet of the car as I drive down a two-lane road lined with the gnarly trees and shrubs typical of the sandy terrain of northern Rajasthan. We are on the road to the Shekhawati region, best known for its frescoed havelis with paintings depicting everything from elephants and horses to scenes from Hindu mythology. The region is made up of hundreds of small villages and towns criss-crossed by narrow lanes lined with faded havelis. The region’s rulers, the Shekhawat Rajputs, and the local Marwari communities built these beauties between 150 and 200 years ago. While some have been painstakingly restored and converted into heritage hotels over the years, most have peeling walls and fast-disappearing frescoes after being abandoned by the bania families who built them.
Ahtushi and I are happily unaware of the temperature outside since we are in the cool confines of the Chevrolet Beat, its powerful diesel engine purring as we ease it from even to mottled road and back. We had exited Delhi fairly early in the morning, hoping to beat the rush hour traffic; by the time the first office goers had left home, we were a good 100 kilometres outside the city, somewhere between Rewari and Narnaul, eating a breakfast of over-stuffed paranthas and dahi at Choudhary ka Dhaba.
The 220-kilometre drive from Delhi to Bagar can take as little as four and a half hours if you leave early enough, and you can traverse the 85-kilometre stretch on the NH8 before the rest of the world joins you. Once you’ve turned off the highway after Dharuhera, and crossed confusing Rewari (a series of left and right turns and roundabouts puts you on the road to Narnaul), you can breathe a sigh of relief and actually start enjoying the drive. This is when we discover what the Beat can do. It’s zipping at 90kmph, and yet it feels like it’s doing a stately 60. The road from Rewari to Narnaul and further is riddled with hidden speedbreakers and the Beat’s braking system does us proud: we manoeuvre over the nasty bumps with no casualties.
Past Narnaul, the weather changes dramatically. The wind starts picking up and grey clouds replace the white cottony ones we have been seeing along the way. A roaring sandstorm, followed by pouring rain, heralds our entrance into Bagar, where we are to spend the next two nights at Neemrana’s non-hotel Piramal Haveli.
The Piramal Haveli, built in 1928, is set in a large open garden and is actually two conjoined havelis owned by different branches of the family. The haveli has a colonnaded verandah, its walls tiled with beautiful green tiles. The main door opens into a reception area which leads to a courtyard around which the eight rooms are set. The courtyard itself is quite a masterpiece, with frescoes gracing its upper walls and lovely old wood-and-iron doors leading into guest rooms. As we settle in, the heavens open up again and let down a torrent that keeps us in our rooms till it’s time for a lunch of ker sangri, gatte ki subzi, rotis and lassi—a lunch worth getting drenched for. A short nap later, we set off with a guide to discover the wonders of Bagar.
The road into the village takes us past old wells, unique because of the four minarets that surround them, havelis—some in ruins, some painted over and some intact—cenotaphs and a stepwell that is used only during the Rani Sati Ma puja, when the bania haveli owners arrive in droves to pray to their family goddess. We walk into a huge haveli through a bright blue door and gaze spellbound at the frescoes inside—scenes on the façade and in the rooms depict Krishna in different stages of his life. The images come alive when the camera flash goes off, and disappear into their abandoned gloom as we leave.
The second day dawns bright and we leave Piramal Haveli early to catch some of the action in the rest of the region. We are on our way to Mandawa to see the gorgeous frescoes there. The road to the town, however, is far from exquisite—it’s a single lane road servicing traffic going in both directions, which basically means that the bigger bully stays on the road and smaller ones go off it onto a painful boulder ridden side road. The Chevy comes into its own on this road—small in size, but big in might. We veer on and off the road, being nice to some and terrible to other cars on the road and finally manage to reach Mandawa an hour and a half later, but unscathed.
Mandawa is not only the hub of the Shekhawati region, but also that of Rajput art. We drive into town full of anticipation and are not disappointed. As soon as we cross Subhash Circle, we see the Sonthaliya Gate, built by the bania population to teach the royals a lesson in humility. The story goes that the wealthy banias were angry that they had to bow down to a king who was not as wealthy as them. So they built the gate saying that if they were to bow to the king, he too would have to bow down to them.
A few metres before the gate is the spectacular Mandawa Heritage Haveli. Painstakingly renovated over ten years to almost its full glory, the two-storey haveli has the most beautiful frescoes covering its walls and ceilings. The floors of some of the rooms on the first floor are frescoed as well—blue and red stripes run across one and a beautiful painting graces another. We tear ourselves away from the frescoes and stop by Noor Jahan and Jehangir’s lac bangle shop. I sit on the floor next to the elderly couple as they twist a hot lac bangle onto my wrist and set it in shape for me. My custom-made bangle purchased, we catch a quick breakfast at the much talked-about Castle Mandawa, and come away with lighter wallets and a couple of selfies.
Our tour of Mandawa begins with a visit to Jhunjhunwala Haveli, where we admire the gold-painted frescoes, and ends several hours later after visits to other havelis, stepwells and antique shops in front of the subtly named Hotel Royal Rest, a cenotaph-turned-hotel.
We stop at a sari shop and as we riffle through the bandhej saris, the proprietor tells us about the beautiful door at the back of his shop. No, it wasn’t a haveli, but a place where the local elite came to watch nautch girls perform titillating dances. We sit for a good hour listening to stories about the town in a pleasing mix of Hindi and Marwari. Glasses of phool, a local speciality made with crushed ice, Rasna, rose syrup and salt, accompany the lilting voices. Later, the town’s special kulfi arrives from Subhash Circle. We finally bid goodbye to our new friends after repeated promises to visit again.
On our way back to Delhi the next day, I begin to wonder if the fuel gauge is faulty. We have driven almost 600 kilometres and the fuel tank is almost half full! We’ve stayed cool even at temperatures above 45° C, and thoroughly enjoyed driving the car, made the most of our time away from the city and managed to stay well within our budget.
Route (550km): Delhi–Gurgaon–Dharuhera–Rewari–Narnaul–Chirawa–Bagar–Jhunjhunu–Mandawa–Bagar–Chirawa–Narnaul–Rewari–Gurgaon–Delhi. Try to leave Delhi latest by 6am so you can complete the NH8 stretch before the Delhi–Jaipur traffic starts in earnest. When you reach the crossroads before Rewari town, turn left and ask for directions to Narnaul (ask for the ‘ghode wala chowk’ and the ‘flyover wala rasta’). Keep asking for directions as and when you get confused; locals are very helpful and the few signboards exist are confusing.
Dhabas are few and far apart on this route, so keep your eyes peeled for Choudhary ka Dhaba after you cross Rewari. You can also stop at Rahul Dev’s sweet shop (you can’t miss the bright yellow board on the outskirts of Narnaul) for some delicious, almost frozen rasmalai and fresh pedas.
Chevrolet Beat LT: For a hatchback, the Chevrolet Beat is surprisingly spacious. The car’s interiors are snazzy and full of hidey-holes where you can perch just about anything. The diesel variant gives you excellent mileage and its airconditioner works well even at 40-plus degrees.
Stats: Engine: 1.0 XSDE, 3-cylinder in-line TCDi (diesel); Power: 57.1 PS @ 4000rpm; Torque: 142.5 NM @ 1750rpm; Price: Rs 5,05,300 (ex-showroom Delhi).
Accommodation: The Piramal Haveli is a perfect combination of heritage and luxury. It is located away from the touristy towns in the Shekhawati region, but still manages to give you a sense of what the region is about. The staff is very friendly and goes out of the way to look after you. The food is excellent—the chef will churn up local delicacies such as lal maas, ker sangri and gatte ki subzi on demand. TARIFF from Rs 2,500, inclusive of breakfast CONTACT +91-9414050058, www.the-piramalhaveli.neemranahotels.com