Rajasthan : Delhi to Bikaner | Horn please, OK?

Rajasthan : Delhi to Bikaner

The Route :
Day 1 : Delhi -> Bikaner
Day 2 : Bikaner -> Sam Sand Dunes
Day 3 : Sam Sand Dunes -> Jaisalmer
Day 4 : Jaisalmer - > Jodhpur
Day 6 : Jodhpur -> Chittorgarh
Day 7 : Chittorgarh -> Bundi
Day 8 : Bundi -> Delhi

When : December 2014 | How far : 2400 kms | How long : 8 Days

The entrance to Haveli Nadine Le Prince
The beautiful havelis of the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan
The route map

Rajasthan road trip route map

Day 1 : Gurgaon -> Mandawa -> Fatehpur -> Bikaner 
How far : 423 kms | How long : 7 hrs 

Winter is coming

It's here and we couldn't be happier about it.  We're no summer children.
Our only worry was the fog.

Driving through Haryana
Mustard fields on either side of the national highway in Haryana
And it behaved itself. 
Except for one day when we nearly drove into a mountain wall. But that's a story for another post.

The Frescoes of Mandawa

Rajasthan is about palaces and forts but the real heroes are it's havelis (or mansions). Owned by rich Mawari merchants these edifices of opulence were a symbol of wealth. Skilled craftsmen were often commissioned to design and decorate these havelis which while similar in architecture (think scalloped arches, tapering columns and open courtyards) were set apart by colourful frescoes and murals that covered every inch of their walls.

The entrance to Haveli Nadine Le Prince

Mandawa falls half way between Delhi and Bikaner ( 230 kms from Delhi) and is part of the Shekhawati region famous for its havelis. 

To get to Mandawa we drove down NH8 to Dharuhera and turned on to SH26 towards Narnaul. This is where the road deteriorates. There are 2 alternate routes via Jhajjar but we can't imagine them to be much better. The mustard fields on either side did for the eyes what the road could not do for our backs. The drive took us 4 hours.  

Limestone quarries in Haryana
Limestone quarries 

Mustard fields line the highways in Haryana
Mustard fields line the highways in Haryana

Mandawa's Havelis

The Shekhawati region is said to have the largest concentration of frescoes in the world and is often referred to as an open air art gallery. 

Heritage Mandawa, a restored haveli turned hotel
The courtyard of Heritage Mandawa
But if you're expecting to land up there and find a sign that says "Havelis this way", you're in for a let down. Foresight had made us draw up a must-see list - Bin Sidhar Niwatia Haveli, Gulab Rai Ladia Haveli and Mohan Lal Saraf Haveli - which served us well.

When shown to a passerby it got us to Subhash Chowk, a place that got its name from an ill placed statue of Netaji. The road became narrower and less motorable until we reached a massive arched gateway. 

Town of Mandawa, Rajasthan

Peering at the buildings around us we focussed on painted arches covered in grime. 

Frescoes in Mandawa, Rajasthan

Heritage Mandawa's comparatively flashy, restored facade beckoned and we parked by the side of the road and ventured in. A signboard outside informed us categorically that it was not a hotel. It was a non-hotel hotel. Its identity crisis did not take away from the beauty of its frescoes and miniature art.

Entrance to Heritage Mandawa
Entrance to Heritage Mandawa
Courtyard of Heritage Mandawa
Courtyard of Heritage Mandawa

Travel Tip : Heritage Mandawa has a very pretty looking restaurant that looks like it serves good food. If you're nearby around lunchtime, its a good stop to make. You won't exactly be spoilt for choice when it comes to eating options in Mandawa.

There was no way of telling how old the haveli was but subsequent conversations with locals and visits to other havelis revealed that most havelis in the region had been built between the early 18th and late 20th centuries. 

The Shekhawati region was populated by largely by Marwari trading families who prospered because the trade route ran through Shekhawati to the port of Gujarat. Many of these families later moved away to Calcutta and Bombay and became some of India's biggest business houses. They built havelis back home in Shekhawat as proof of their success.

A haveli is to Mandawa what a gated housing complex is to Gurgaon. Some have been converted into shops and others godowns. Life in modern day Mandawa is utilitarian with very little place for non-practical things like art.  

Or maybe they've just redefined it.

Haveli Nadine Le Prince

Fatehpur, a half hour drive from Mandawa, is another haveli laden town.

If you have time to visit just one haveli go see Haveli Nadine Le Prince. 

Bought by a french artist 16 years ago the eponymous owner has meticulously restored the haveli to give visitors a glimpse of the grandeur that was. Set in the middle of muddy potholed roads, the haveli stands out like a mirage.

The doorbell sounded faint notes of a french song. A young kurta pyjama clad frenchman greeted us at the door and offered to show us around. All a bit incongruous initially the tour quickly took on a charming quality as we listened to a heavily accented account of the haveli's history.

Originally owned by a cloth merchant by the name of Nandlal Deora, the haveli was built sometime before 1830. The walls are covered with scenes of Radha and Krishna and paintings of the people living in the house. Even though the family belonged to the trading class they commissioned portraits depicting themselves as warriors - a step up in the strict caste system that defined their society.

The entrance leads to an open courtyard that was used to greet guests. The fountain is a new addition. The central area previously housed a pit to keep a fire burning, something considered auspicious and purifying.

The most heavily decorated room was to entertain guests and the spartan one was for business transactions.

This was the Zenana or the women's living quarters. 

A mix of Mughal and Rajasthani art was used to decorate the walls of the Nadine Le Prince Haveli. Traditionally the blue pigment was made out of Lapis lazuli and only the rich could afford it. In the early 19th century someone discovered a chemical compound made out of copper that could be used to create the same shade of blue. The merchants soon switched to using this compound to decorate their homes.

Over time the level of the road has risen by an entire storey burying the original ground floor of the haveli. The new owners excavated it to find stables and an open courtyard. They've converted a section of it into an art gallery where the artist/owner's work is on display.

Travel tip : Take the guided tour, it costs Rs 200 per head. We can't promise you a similarly charming, accented recounting (because our guide was an art intern who's leaving next month) but the stories give you a perspective you won't find on your own.

Entering Bikaner

We arrived in Bikaner soon after sunset. NH11 from Fatehpur to Bikaner is smooth and divided (except where there's a road widening exercise in progress ). We managed an average speed of 90 kmph and completed the journey in under 2 hours. 

Laxmi Vilas Palace was our stop for the night. 

Driving in through a grand looking archway, the road led us to the main portico.  It took us a few minutes to absorb the fact that we were booked to stay here.  

Had we come to the right hotel? 

Turns out we had.
Built 120 years ago, Laxmi Niwas Palace was home to Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner. It was designed by architect Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob in 1896 and made entirely out of red sandstone in the Indo-Saracenic style. It has hosted many important guests like King George V and Queen Mary of Britain. It was turned into a hotel a few years ago and now it has the distinction of having hosted us. 

We spent the evening running around photographing every inch of the palace for as long as the fading light would allow. 

Pretty christmas lights were strung up around the courtyard

Lights winked at us through intricate jaali (filigree) panels 

Red carved sandstone fooled us into thinking it was wood.

Except for this carved panel which is actually made entirely of Rosewood. 

Most Rajput Maharajas were big game hunters and their palaces all have a hall of shame.

Laxmi Niwas Palace, Bikaner

The hotel had organised an evening of entertainment by the pool. This, we found out, was standard fare at all hotels in Rajasthan. Folk music and dance were consumed along with many glasses of Old Monk and Coke to warm our shivering bones.

At dinner, a conversation with the man waiting our table sent us in search of a paan vala called Moolsa Phoolsa in the old city market. "Have the sweet paan", he said.

What choice did we have in the matter? Off we went to explore the market and walked into the first sweet shop that we found. There were stacks of freshly made hot sweets calling out to us. We picked an assortment and ate them while watching a man dish out steaming, thick, kesar milk to some customers.

Moolsa Phoolsa was next door. He makes a mean sweet paan.  

Stuffed to the gills we headed back to the hotel to sleep like a king, for one night.

Stories from the entire trip
Day 1 -> You just read it
Day 2 -> Bikaner to Sam sand dunes
Day 3 -> Sam sand dunes to Jaisalmer
Day 4 -> Jaisalmer to Jodhpur
Day 5 -> Jodhpur the blue city
Day 6 -> Jodhpur to Chittorgarh via Kumbhalgarh
Day 7 -> Chittorgarh to Bundi

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Maria George said...

You know, we had this argument or rather discussion in our family how most of Indian culture is contributed by Mughals. And there was a point taken of how even MOMA has only a tiny room dedicated to India and features mostly Mughal artifacts. I tend to disagree especially so after all the things I see through your eyes on this blog.
Someone I showed this to recently asked me haven't you seen it in Bollywood movies? But no, its far more than that. There is far more detail and those tiny little stories weaved around each picture gives a better impression of the culture than any bollywood movie could do.

Trip-a-doodle said...

Thats an interesting observation. I suppose recent history, say the last 400 years was dominated by the Mughals. And given the extent of their influence on art and architecture, its easy to believe that anything that was created or emerged under their has to be attributed to them. We visited Bundi later on this trip and came across some beautiful miniatures. Apparently miniatures were not a Mughal art form, as is commonly believed, but indigenous to Rajasthan. It got to be known as Mughal Miniature because it thrived under the Mughal reign!

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