When the weather is balmy it’s easy to give in to the siren song of the road. Especially it’s sung by a spanking new Chevrolet Optra, raring for adventure. Our destination is as extravagant in its charms as our mood. We are going to explore the painted towns that dot the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan. Short cuts and snappy tours are not for travel-happy souls like us. Armed with maps and guidebooks we set out to enjoy the Aravallis, generally drifting along a circuitous route to our first destination, Bagar.

At Kot Putli we leave the highway and our car gamely bounces over potholes and non-existent patches of road. We focus on the hills to take our mind away from the jolts. The rugged hills have a beauty of their own. Most of them have sparse vegetation, and some are bare with awesome rocks. The vivid red and orange odhnis of the village belles add a splash of colour to the dun coloured villages. Herds of goat wander in search of grazing, and camels lumber by resignedly pulling carts laden with fodder or firewood. We reach a town bcalled town Khandela which is nothing like its more famous namesake in Maharashtra; the landscape is flat and uninspiring and the road terrible. Udaipurwati, the pass in the Aravallis, is only 22km from here and we look forward to the reappearance of the hills. The narrow but smoother road begins a steady climb and the view improves. The sun dips and the approaching hills are framed against the reddening sky. In the hamlets that flash by, heavily veiled women draw water from the wells, with typical decorative columns on all the four sides. Once we cross the 17km of road through the scenic hilly terrain, the rolling dunes begin to appear.

At the Surya Kund in Lohalgal, a subterranean stream from the hills flows into the reservoir adjoining a temple. It is said that after the Great War of the Mahabharata, the Pandavas came here to do penance. They threw all their arms into the river and the water of the stream melted them, hence the name Lohargal. Here we see the first example of the famed frescoes of Shekhawati. The temple has several panels of excellent murals and we are told that on the amavasya of Bhadon, 7,00,000 pilgrims congregate here. After eleven hours on the road, we are at the Piramal Haveli in Bagar, a heritage property turned into a hotel by the Neemrana group. The cosy interiors of the stately haveli built in 1920 welcome our travel-weary souls and an excellent Marwari meal served under the angels flying around in the decorative panels of the courtyard ushers us into the world of the painted havelis.

Under the shadow of the conical Kona Hill stands the neighbouring district town of Jhunjhunu. Our curiosity takes us to its famous Sati temple. The complex is massive, with 700 rooms for the pilgrims. We are uneasy with this overwhelming reverence for a barbaric system. But soon we are lost in the cheerful bustle of the mandi. Bihariji’s ancient temple in its midst is serene. A woman chants prayers under a dome, which is richly painted with scenes from the Krishnalila. Making our way through the alleys of the cloth market, we are among stalls spilling with bright winter vegetables and fruits, and amidst the bustle of men and cattle rises the massive Modi Haveli.

A little ahead, on the walls of the Tibrewala Haveli, a train full of European passengers, chugs and sepoys march holding bayonets. A cloud of dust greets us at our next destination. The steps of the Metrani Baoli are being swept, perhaps after a hundred years, for a film shoot scheduled for the next day. Through the haze of dust we admire the elaborate structure that surrounds the huge square well, which has chambers at various levels for weary travellers to rest and refresh themselves. May there be many more film shootings, we pray; this baoli, built in 1783 by the widow of Sardul Singh, who ruled over much of the region, is worth preserving. The chattris of Sardul Singh’s sons also stand in the town.

Bissau is a small dusty town. The owners of the havelis in the old part of the town have long ago migrated to the cities of Kolkata and Mumbai and impoverished caretakers and their families live amidst the splendour of painted courts and rooms that lie behind the massive metal-studded doors.

We walk through the courtyards and rooms of the twin havelis of the Sigtia and the Tibrewala families. Time has erased much of the frescoes yet what remains is varied and beautiful. The 19th century saw an extraordinary migration of rich merchants from the neighbouring states to these three districts of Sikar, Jhunjhunu and Churu and they used their great wealth to create these havelis. Artists from Jaipur and Udaipur moved in to fill the walls of these havelis with exquisite details of the world around them and the various moods of their favourite deities – royal India rubbed shoulders with British India along with automobiles, locomotives and the first aeroplanes.
At Churu, which is a larger town, we again pass through deserted lanes to the grand mansions in the older part of the town. Half the mansions here seem to belong to the Kotharis and the other half to the Suranas. Each of their immense ‘double havelis’ requires at least half a day to explore. The 24 Jain tirthankaras make a surprising appearance on the inner court of the Kothari haveli, while 1,110 windows adorn the huge Surana mansion, much of which is dilapidated.

The cheerful bustle of Mandawa with tourists from all nationalities crowding its narrow bazaar choked with camels, donkey carts and automobiles, is a welcome change from the sleepy towns that we have so far been exploring. The Castle Mandawa, established in 1775 by Nawal Singh, has turned into a luxury hotel. The lord of the castle, Thakur Keshri Singh, has contributed much to the development of tourism in this region. The locals are tourist-savvy and many speak in more than one European language. They aggressively sell antiques, handicrafts and their services as guides to the havelis. One slick, aspiring guide sidles up to me and says, “Madam, I am wondering which part of the world is sorry for your absence.” I am spellbound by his eloquence.

Throngs of chattering tourists meets us at neighbouring Nawalgarh, where the Poddar family has fully restored its haveli and turned it into a museum. We find that the Goenka haveli in Dundlod has also been partially restored and is a museum with some old carts in the forecourt and antique cooking utensils in the kitchen. We are saddened that the murals in the havelis of the other towns that we visit are blackened by wood-smoke, partly whitewashed or disfigured with posters.

Our last night is spent in the Desert Resort at Mandawa. The resort atop a huge dune is beautifully laid out and like the castle provides a sumptuous buffet dinner by a bonfire, with folk dances and puppet shows. The dunes are all around us, stretching till the horizon, pierced by the occasional kikar or khejdi tree. We watch a spectacular desert sunset and shiver at the sudden chilliness in the air. The romance of the region lives in every little town.

We touch Chirawa on our way back and are amused to notice that inside the dome of a chattri of the Seksaria well, Ganesha races in a bullock cart while princes ride on elephants. In a nearby haveli, Rana Pratap shares wall space with Shivaji, Nehru and Gandhi. The paintings are obviously of more recent origin. The magical towns of the Shekhawati, where every turn holds a surprise, fade into distance as the consumer bustle of Delhi rushes to meet us. But a part of us continues to linger in the cool interiors of the magnificent havelis under the spell of the forgotten artist’s brush.

The information

Getting there
Route (from Delhi): NH-8 from Delhi to Dharuhera (96km) – Kot Putli (81km) – Nim ka Thana – Kanwat – Khandela- (22km) – Udaipurwati – Sikar – Bagar.
Route (to Delhi): Mandawa – Chirawa (54km) – Singhana (30km) – Narnaul (30km) Rewari (96km) – Delhi. Total: 265km.This route is recommended as the roads are good and the pass at Singhana is picturesque. For those coming from Jaipur the distance is only 168km and there are train links to Jhunjhunu, Sikar and Churu.
For a weekend trip, drive to Mandawa from Delhi by the shortest route. Nawalgarh and Mukundgarh and Dundlod can be covered the next day. The day after that one can visit Fatehpur or Jhunjhunu and drive back to Delhi via the same route.
Towns visited on our trip: Jhunjhunu, Bissau, Chirawa, Mandawa, Nawalgarh, Mukundgarh, Dundlod, Fatehpur, Bagar. But there are several other towns in the region that can be explored if you have the time, such as Laxmangarh with its hilltop fort; Ramgarh, which has now become infamous as a market for relics of the havelis. Also, Alisisar, Churi Ajitgarh, Khetri, Mahansar and Sikar.

Where to stay
Mandawa: There are two excellent and popular options here, run by the same group. The heritage hotel Castle Mandawa has singles/doubles and suites. The Desert Resort offers rustic chic with all the conveniences of a modern hotel. Contact: 15972-223124/23480, www.mandawahotels.com   
Jhunjhunu: Hotel Shiv Shekhawati, located a little out of town, is close enough to all the ‘sights’. Air-cooled singles/double rooms and  air-conditioned rooms. Contact: 01592-232651, www.shivshekhawati.com
Nawalgarh: The Roop Niwas Palace, on the outskirts of Nawalgarh town, is a good place to enjoy some peace and quiet in the heart of Shekhawati. Contact 0141-2622949, 01594-222008. Apani Dhani is an ‘ecotourism’ initiative that showcases the rural heritage of Rajasthan (01594-222239, www.apanidhani.com). Ramesh Jangid’s Tourist Pension offers simple, clean budget accommodation (contacts as for Apani Dhani).
Mukundgarh: The 18th-century Mukundgarh Fort is now a heritage hotel that also offers air-conditioning and a swimming pool. Contact 01594-252398.
Dundlod: The Dundlod Kila is another 18th-century fort well-located for a Shekhawati tour (01594-252519/199).
Bagar: Run by the Neemrana group of heritage hotels, the Piramal Haveli is an excellent example of the Rajasthani-colonial style of the some Shekhawati’s havelis. Contact: 01592-221220, www.neemranahotels.com.   
For those on a budget, government bungalows are available at Churu, Jhunjhunu, Sikar and Pilani

Where to eat
This is the land of pakoras, kachoris and adrak chai. Try the local delicacy, sangri (though you might have to search for it on the menus of some good restaurants). Don’t miss the pedas of Chirawa. The small towns do not have any good restaurants; most eating is at roadside eateries, which serve the standard spicy vegetarian fare. Tip: have a substantial breakfast at your hotel before setting off on the day’s tour, snack in the day, and thereby earn a good night meal at your hotel.

What to see
There are numerous painted havelis and other monuments in every town in this region. A selection of some of our favourites:
Mandawa: A small town, in which most of the important havelis are close to the Mandawa Fort. Caretakers sell Rajasthani puppets and picture-postcards at the outer court of the Gulabrai Ladia Haveli (1870). The Chokhani double haveli (1910) is out of bounds when the family is in town. The evening aarti at the Raghunathji temple (1775) is worth attending. The Goenka Chhatri (1855) and Mohanlal Saraf Haveli are also within walking distance.
Jhunjhunu: The Rani Sati temple is famous, opulent and garish. The Mohanlal Ishwardas Modi haveli (1896) and the Kaniram Narsingdas Tibrewala haveli (1883) are open to visitors and situated near each other. The Metrani Bowri (1783) and Memorial Chhatris of Shekhawat clan (1740-1840) are historically significant.
Bissau: The three important havelis of Jasraj Sigtia, Govindram Sigtia, and Ramlal Jayanram Tibrewala are in the same dusty lane. The caretakers are eager to show you around the havelis (will expect a tip).
Churu: The Manik Chand Kothari haveli is massive and its neighbouring Surana’s huge double havelis house some shops. The tenants of Banthia haveli have got used to strangers walking into their home at any odd time. The green, stagnant waters of the Sethani Ki Johara (1783) makes a pretty picture amidst the barren sandy plane.
Nawalgarh: The Poddar haveli (1920) has an entry ticket of Rs 75; the restored haveli and museum are worth a visit. Murarka haveli (1900), next to it, is a picture of neglect and the caretakers asks for Rs 20 to show you inside. Aath Haveli (1910) is an interesting group of eight havelis and Bala Qila (1737) is yet another fort.
Mukundgarh: If you’re not already staying here, the Mukundgarh Fort (1859) is a good place to stop for lunch. Look out for the erotic paintings at Jagannath Rai Ganeriwala Haveli (1865) if the caretaker is around.
Dundlod: Visit the Fort (hotel). The Satyanarayan temple (1911) is a revered destination. For Rs 20 one is admitted into the partially restored Goenka haveli museum. Chhatri of Ram Dutt Goenka (1888), a short distance away, overlooks the farmland of the Goenka family and an old well.
Fatehpur: Haveli of Nadine Le Prince is a must-visit. One is most likely to meet some interesting art lovers from France, staying there to study the unique architecture of the havelis. The Jagannath Singhania Haveli (1855) and Bowri step well (1614) are interesting.
Bagar: The Piramal Haveli (hotel) is the town’s most prominent haveli. The vegetarian Marwari meals served here are excellent. Fateh Sagar (Johara) is the only other interesting site in this town.

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