Rising among ribbons of dust, a labyrinth of potholed bylanes, wood fires and baking cowdung cakes and a maze of wheezing buses, bullock carts, rickshaws and cycles, is Castle Mandawa. Don’t look for a sign--you won’t find one. As you enter the bustling town of Mandawa, you won’t see the imposing ramparts of a fort. You’ll probably get lost.
We were looking for Thakur Nawal Singh’s fort, built in 1755, we wailed at yet another haveli splattered with gaudy paints. Help finally came in the form of a mustachioed guard in a resplendent achkan, who directed us up a narrow lane to the castle. As the magnificent gates creaked open, we entered a place where time seems to stand still.
Castle Mandawa opened in 1980. The darbar has ancestral portraits, weapons and two plush blue thrones with silver lion-head armrests. Women were not allowed into this room; but the central arch, strikingly, has frescoes only of women. Above are 15 carved zenana windows—now the main dining room.
Don’t come here for the food—it’s disappointing Indian, Chinese or Continental buffet.(But the ‘fire dancer’ is great: a geriatric angel holding two blazing sticks, he moves around arthritically, winking and gently swaying his hips.)
Come for the 75 rooms, a harmonious blend of traditional and modern. Each is in white marble, reds and blues, with antique furniture, old paintings and discreet electronic comforts. The doors open onto private balconies.
Some rooms have been left virtually untouched. Number 210 has the oldest fresco, dated 1790. Room 314 has a low balustrade of filigreed marble connecting the living room and bedroom. The turret room has walls seven feet thick and offers a spectacular view. Room 401, the Peacock suite, is divided into three sections with a marble water fountain in the center.
The friendly staff ensures that being here is like staying with a family. You sleep to the distant strains of folk music. You wake up to a shower of bougainvillea cascading onto your balcony. This is not a place you leave willingly.
But when you do arrive and begin to search for the castle, remember to pronounce the ‘t.’ Else nobody will be able to guide you.