Walking through the market in Nawalgarh on a lazy Thursday afternoon, I am struck by the realization that if pressed to identify a corner of the country that could qualify as the — ahem! — ‘real’ India, I would grudgingly point to the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan. To think that there would still be a corner of this over-photographed state not yet overrun by tourists and grimy touts or despoiled by trinket shops stocking faux silver and crates of ‘authentic’ miniatures would almost be like wishing away half a century. And yet, it exists: Shekhawati of the painted mansions, of the sleepy villages, of the bucolic markets, stretches languid in the winter sun.

To experience the best of Shekhawati, the visitor must employ some enterprise. Of course, there are opportunities to jump on the slick packaged bandwagon of horse and camel safaris with a half-day guided tour and star-studded night on the dunes. But a realisation of Shekhawati’s true splendours must be earned. You must step into town, linger a while on the streets and peer up at the lovely careworn homes to catch a glimpse of the eclectic menagerie of gods, merchants, freedom fighters, steam engines and sexual positions that the havelis here are world-famous for. Nothing can compare to that moment when you turn into an alley not mentioned in any travel magazine or backpacker bible and step into the entrance of a mansion where the art has not degenerated as much with the years and you can count each brushstroke on the vibrant painting of a prosperous reclining Ganesha over the doorstep. And there are many such undiscovered gems lying strewn all over the three districts of Churu, Sikar and Jhunjhunu.

The owners of the havelis read like a who’s who of contemporary India’s industrial elite. Caretakers of creaky old houses speak of masters who left years ago to found business empires in the faraway cities of Calcutta and Bombay. Innumerable properties have been left to decay and perhaps occasionally be discovered by curious tourists. Fortunately, some have been converted into heritage hotels, where the idea is to offer the itinerant a few moments of comfort on their journey, 19th-century Marwari style. The battle is on between conservation and modernity, and on occasion the heart sinks at discovering what used to be a courtyard of narrative paintings from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata now rudely slashed over with paint to hide water damage, or worse still, completely done over with psychedelic paisley motifs. This is, admittedly, slightly preferable to the outrages that Shekhawati has suffered in recent decades, with havelis being torn apart at the hinges and sold piecemeal to anyone who proffered enough dollars, euros or rupees.

And then, sometimes, you come across that singular haveli that has been rescued by someone with the soul of an artist.

My journey through Shekhawati brought me to such properties, some recently restored, others in operation for years, where the attempt has been made to rescue heritage buildings by opening their intricately carved doors to tourists.

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Koolwal Kothi
Even though I fully realise the fact that generations of Koolwals grew up in this newly opened heritage hotel, I was inordinately pleased to be one of the first people to be staying at the Koolwal Kothi in Nawalgarh. In operation for only two months, it was built in 1934 by Hemrajji Koolwal and offers all of 10 comfortable rooms. This is the quintessential painted mansion, with a sweeping driveway and lawn replete with a cracked marble fountain. The hotel remains in the family, and operations have been taken over by the WelcomHeritage Group. The furnishings and fixtures all belong to the family; indeed this might be the closest one can come to living in a lovingly treated traditional Shekhawati residence. The retainers trace their family back through to the young boy who witnessed the opening of the house, who — now a sprightly nonagenarian — very kindly offered to walk me though the building and the immediate neighbourhood. Do not miss the breathtaking Koolwal Haveli immediately opposite the Kothi. It was built a few decades earlier, by Hemrajji Koolwal’s father, and has a magnificent portico that boasts portraits of noted freedom fighters from the turn of the century. The portico was built after a battle of wits over the span of one night. This property is due to be converted to a hotel within a year or two and will definitely warrant a visit as well.

Accommodation 10 deluxe rooms spread between the main building and a secondary, newer one, all equipped with cable TV. Ask to stay in the main building. Best rooms Rooms 101, 102, 201 and 202 are larger and have more spacious bathrooms. Service Very warm and friendly. The staff is happy to send someone out with you to go haveli-hopping. Food A 25-cover vegetarian restaurant that serves North Indian food; with some encouragement the chef can bust out a hearty dal makhni and paneer pasanda. Tariff Rs 4,000 for doubles Contact 01595-225817, www.welcomheritagehotels.com

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Castle Mandawa
Some of the finest places to stay in while visiting the havelis of Shekhawati are not havelis. One such is the fort-hotel Castle Mandawa. Built in 1755, it stands at a slight advantage from the town of Mandawa, and commands impressive views for miles around. At first glance, it is a no-nonsense fortress with sweeping turrets and an imposing façade, an impression reinforced by the stiffly turbaned guard with the precisely coiffed facial hair who salutes you crisply every time you walk within twenty feet of him. However, from inside, the hotel blossoms into an almost feminine gaiety, with manicured lawns, a Pacific-blue pool and courtyards and archways of barely retouched paintings from the epics.

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The hotel is doing reasonably well even during this ill-omened season of recession and terrorism, and is beset by hordes of linen-clad European tourists. The property remains within the family, whose photographs adorn the ornate lounges and seating areas, and time is gonged every hour by the resident timekeeper, or — in the words of the retainer showing me around — in “maharaja style!”

Accommodation 86 rooms, including a range of suites. Ask to stay in the older building, which is the heritage structure. Best rooms 303 and 314, either of the two-level tower suites, replete with a swooping staircase, private balcony and the best view of the town and the hotel. Room 308 belonged to the Rajmata, and still features her furniture and paintings. For rooms with large swathes of untouched paintings, ask for 208 and 210. Service Somewhat starchy, but prompt and polite. Food A lavish dinner buffet with a selection of basic Western fare as well as Indian staples. The baked spinach is delectable, as is the delicately spiced aloo-ki-tikki. Tariff Rs 5,500-6,500 for deluxe rooms, Rs 10,000-15,000 for the suites. Contact 0141-2372084, www.mandawahotels.com

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Roop Niwas Kothi
This erstwhile hunting lodge has been in operation for over three decades and lies just outside the town of Nawalgarh amid lush fields of bajra and sarson. The back-to-nature ambience is heightened by the not-unpleasant whiff of hay and the whinny of horses from the in-house stables. This is undeniably the most matter-of-fact, masculine establishment we visited, true to its original intent — the hallways are studded with game-heads and sepia-toned frames of impassive men posing with dead water-fowl. Roop Niwas Kothi (which split from being a single establishment into Roop Niwas and the new Roop Vilas Kothi — two completely different establishments, I am told repeatedly) offers to the tourist the experience of being a bona fide royal guest.

Safaris are organised to as far as Pushkar, and the party travels with the royal orange and red Hanuman pennant in escort. The structure is a piquant blend of colonial and Rajput architecture with its delicate archways and fluted parapets. During an early morning walk through the hotel, I register with pleasant realisation what must be the trappings of living in a royal hunting lodge, so close to — here it comes again — ‘real’ India. The billiards room and the swimming pool could be something straight out of a Merchant-Ivory movie, and the general air of the establishment is one of comfortable unpretentiousness.

Accommodation 25 deluxe rooms and one suite. The rooms are all twins and quite basic in furnishings and bathrooms. Best rooms All rooms offer similar amenities in terms of size and view, but if you can snag the one suite, go for it. Service Unobtrusive and polite. Food Rajasthani fare with the omni-present take on gatta kadi. Breakfast and lunch is made to order, with lunch being a fixed thali. Dessert is usually outsourced from the local halwais of Nawalgarh and packs plenty of flavour and freshness. Tariff Rs 2,700 for a deluxe, Rs 4,500 for the suite Contact 01594-222008, www.roopniwaskothi.com

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Piramal Haveli
I began my loop through Shekhawati’s painted havelis here, and found myself visiting it again on my way back to Delhi. Call it serendipity or a jacket left behind, I am glad to be back here. This is one of the most aesthetically pleasing houses I have seen in the region. Built in 1928 by Seth Piramal Makharia (scion of VIP Luggage), the haveli looks, for all the world, like it has been transplanted from an Italian countryside in Tuscany. Indeed, if it were not for the parapets lined with frescoes of gods and goddesses going about their business, offering benedictions, vanquishing demons and riding two-seater planes, I would have found it easy to visualise the building with its pale green columns and sweeping driveway, in a very different setting. Anachronistic or not, the haveli is a fine example of what sensitive restoration can do for a heritage structure.

The hotel is run by the Neemrana Group of hotels; Piramal Haveli fares well in their hands. Nothing is forced onto the building. The paintings in the central courtyard are faded from age, but are left alone in their dignity. The lounge is a rare example of haveli art that has stayed completely sheltered from the elements. Do not miss the central ceiling panel which is a mélange of artistic influences: a distinctly Hindu sun god drawing a chariot of seven horses, circled by 17 cherubic Cupids.

Accommodation 8 similarly proportioned rooms decorated by colour theme. The Green and Red are slightly smaller and priced accordingly. Best rooms Ask for the White room, it is slightly larger with a seating area and is done up in cool summer themes. Service Very amenable and courtly. Food Excellent Rajasthani cuisine served in thalis. Breakfast has an array of fresh fruit, preserves, toasts and an option of Indian and Western entrées. Tariff Rs 1,500-2,000 Contact 01592-221220, www.neemranahotels.com

The information

Shekhawati is studded with havelis, forts and palaces, many of them now ‘heritage hotels’.  A selective listing:

 

ALSISAR

 

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Indra Vilas

Accommodation 35 rooms, 11 suites Best rooms Those with a view of the pool. Tariff Rs 3,500 rooms, Rs 4,500 suites Contact 0141-4005564, www.indravilasalsisar.com

 

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Alsisar Mahal

Accommodation 30 rooms, 20 suites Best rooms Suites 208 and 209 are popular — with a few extra mattresses you can fit up to a dozen people in the latter! The furnishings and paintings in room 204 have been left almost intact. Tariff Rs 3,900 rooms, Rs 4,550 suites Contact 01595-275271, www.alsisar.com

 

DUNDLOD

Dundlod Fort

Accommodation 22 rooms and suites Tariff Rs 2,600 rooms, Rs 4,400 suites. The proprietors of the hotel own a large stable of Marwari horses nearby, and are more than happy to send someone with you to walk you around. They also organise horse safaris in the region. Contact 01594-252199, www.dundlod.com

 

MAHANSAR

 

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Narayan Niwas Palace

Accommodation 14 rooms Best rooms All the rooms here are a pleasant combination of old-world kitsch and understated royal effects. Ask for the spacious Room 5 with the Ganesha and Krishna frescos, or for the blue-toned Room 6, which is slightly smaller but has some nice examples of artwork. Tariff Rs 1,200 single, Rs 1,600 double Contact 01595-264322, 9928331467, www.mehansarcastle.com

 

MANDAWA

Singhasan Palace

Accommodation 41 rooms, 4 suites. Situated in the market area, the hotel is young, and in the process of adding amenities including a spa and a swimming pool. Tariff Rs 3,000 rooms, Rs 5,000 suites Contact 0414-085111, www.welcomheritagehotels.com

 

Hotel Mandawa Haveli

Accommodation 18 rooms, 2 rooftop tents Best rooms Ask for the Gopesh Suite overlooking the market street below. Most of the haveli is left un-retouched but is in respectable condition. Avoid the rooftop tents. Tariff Rs 1,250 single, Rs 1,950 double, Rs 3,250 suite Contact 01592-223088, http://hotelmandawa.com

 

Heritage Mandawa

Accommodation 30 rooms Best rooms Ask for Room 111, where the paintings are in good condition. Tariff Rs 3,600 singles, Rs 4,000 doubles Contact 01592-223743 www.hotelheritagemandawa.com

 

NAWALGARH

 

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The Grand Haveli and Resort

Accommodation 28 rooms (duplex and deluxe) and suites Best rooms Ask for rooms with a view of the chhatris next door — suite 103 and room 204. The latter also features some panels of paintings that are in very good condition. Tariff Rs 4,000 deluxe room, Rs 6,000 duplex room, Rs 8,000 suite Contact 01594-225301, www.grandhaveli.com

 

Roop Vilas Palace

Accommodation 15 rooms, 3 luxury tents Best rooms The terrace rooms are spacious and command a good view of the surrounding fields and villages. If you are into that sort of thing, the luxury tents come complete with an attached and private bathroom. Tariff Rs 3,500 rooms, Rs 4,500 suite and tents Contact 01594-224321, www.roopvilas.com

 

SURAJGARH

Surajgarh Fort

Accommodation 8 rooms, 13 suites Best rooms Suite 7 with a view of the pool. Suite 6 is similar, but with a more luxurious bathroom. Tariff Rs 2,800 rooms, Rs 3,400 standard suite, Rs 3,800 deluxe suite Contact 9810383711, www.surajgarh.com



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