It’s June and the heat is on. The trip is short and my expectations high. I am afraid I will crush all resort-like enjoyments under the weight of my Quest for Knowledge. I have never been to Shekhawati, a big painted hole in my mental Rajasthan map. A simple ‘been-to-Shekhawati’ won’t do for me; I am all geared up to get a sense of the region.

There’s a ray of hope on the horizon, called Vivaana, the heritage haveli I’m going to. I learn that ‘Vivaana’ means almost exactly that — the first rays of the rising sun. The hotel occupies two restored nineteenth-century havelis, rich with frescoes. Maybe I can experience the Shekhawati of ‘open-air museum of painted havelis’ fame without actually having to step out into the open?

The first sight is promising. A typical haveli façade, paintings enlivening it, old-world jharokhas, a grand entrance door — it is all in place. Plus, there is a bright orange Ambassador that announces the name of the hotel on its number plate.

Stepping inside the outer courtyard is even more rewarding. Playful multiple levels, beautifully painted frescoes all around, a bel tree in the middle. A baithak, once meant to host munims sitting cross-legged amidst white sheets and pillows, thumbing through their bahee-khatas, is now the reception. Another is now a recreation area with a chaupar board painted on the floor. The rear door from the outer courtyard leads to an inner courtyard, with guest rooms around it. This is typical haveli behaviour. Havelis are sometimes designated as one-court, two-court or three-court — the front court would be more public and the inner ones relatively private, often called the zenana.

So then, here I am in Shekhawati, in a pair of typical Shekhawati-style, painted, two-court havelis, comfortably, tastefully and often deliciously restored without disturbing most of the frescoes. With air-conditioning, sumptuous mattresses, swimming pool, bar, spa, lawn and the luxury of mysterious narrow passages to explore. But after lunch, instead of sinking into the goose-down pillows, I’m walking the village streets, trying to put the haveli into perspective. Thankfully the monsoon is with me. It has become breezy and cloudy, and soon the skies are pouring their approval on Project ‘Let’s-quickly-understand-Shekhawati’.

The village, called Churi-Ajitgarh, is unlike any I have seen. Not a cluster of houses that has spread and grown haphazardly, it’s more of a planned arrangement. Its right-angled grid of wide streets, spacious houses, wells, schools and hospitals, its readiness to play with diverse architectural styles in its nineteenth-century havelis and temples — all speak of local merchants out in the world discovering, loving and wholeheartedly embracing a rich new life.

And that is the story of Shekhawati. The region was on the trade routes connected to the ports of western India, and Marwari business families flourished here. In the nineteenth century, these entrepreneurs moved to cities such as Bombay (Mumbai) and Calcutta (Kolkata), building businesses and fortunes there, and havelis (and schools and temples and wells) back home. The havelis were decorated with paintings that depicted stories from the epics and details of everyday mundane life. A Krishna stealing clothes while the gopis bathed; a Raj-era sipahi; floral patterns — the themes and quality of the paintings varied. Usually, the havelis were hardly lived in. The dream of returning to the roots remained a dream and it’s only in recent years that the Shekhawati havelis have emerged as a tourism hub.

In Churi-Ajitgarh, the leading Marwari family is that of the Nimanis. Vivaana is put together from their havelis. They earned their money and name trading cotton in Bombay. Their biggest house here is simply called ‘the kothi’ and is the imaginative centre of the village, up on a small hillock. There are also Kejriwal and Saraf havelis in the village.

However, Vivaana is now the property of Atul and Devna Khanna, who also run a lovely homestay in Delhi. Interested in heritage, they travelled miles through Shekhawati looking for the right haveli. Their story itself makes a bit of an epic adventure. The buying of a haveli — a process that involved convincing and negotiating with multiple owners spread out in many cities. The process repeated for the twin haveli — for which they waited a good five years. The restoration — how to convert a late-nineteenth century family house into a twenty-first century heritage resort. Indeed, how to have rooms with attached bathrooms in a building whose architects had no inkling that one day loos would be acceptable inside a house?

New spaces carved out, rooms combined, staircases shifted, plumbing and electricity in place, frescoes treated, crumbling plaster stabilized… and the ‘Ram Pratap Nimani’ and ‘Kalicharan Nimani’ havelis did metamorphose into a contemporary and comfy hotel. Add a nice lawn, a swimming pool, a modern kitchen and garnish with a spa. Yet, the triumph is that at Vivaana they still manage to leave you with a strong sense of living in a haveli.

Food? In the best tradition, it’s simple but tasty. They serve mainly north Indian fare but, importantly, different dishes do taste different while the rotis and paranthas come out hot and perfect. Soups and desserts add the Continental inputs.

Besides being a base for exploring Shekhawati, Vivaana seems a great place for family get-togethers and parties. Camel rides and village walks are organized, and more activities are on the anvil — such as a spiritual retreat this September. Vivaana, the first rays of the morning sun, does promise a lovely day ahead…

The information

Where: Churi-Ajitgarh Village (10km from Mandawa), Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan; nearest airport Jaipur (175km), then drive via Sikar, Nawalgarh and Mukundgarh (3.5hours)
Accommodation: 12 deluxe rooms, 7 luxury rooms and 4 royal suites
Tariff: Rs 7,000 (deluxe rooms), Rs 10,000 (luxury rooms), Rs 12,000 (royal suites), taxes extra.
Contact: 9811276231, vivaana.com



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