I had read and heard a great deal about Mandawa being referred to as ‘an open air art gallery’. Little did I know that that was just a little snippet of the spectacularly rich experience that Mandawa was going to be. What proved itself to be undeniable during the course of my stay was that this small town is copiously endowed with art, allure and a captivating history.
We were welcomed into our hotel, Radhika Haveli with a hot cuppa and cookies. Being one of the many age old havelis in the region converted into a hotel, it bore morden and ancient attributes equally well. For instance the Mardana, which is referred to as the place just beyond the entrance of the haveli where only men were allowed to assemble which is traditionally spacious had been reduced to a small lobby at the entrance of the haveli. The inner chowk, or the janana, i.e the place where women were allowed originally had an open roof. Today it’s been covered with plastic roofing to shelter guests from the rain during monsoons and scorching heat during the summer. We sat in the janana for a while sipping our teas and soaking in the glorious architectural details and symmetry of this meticulously constructed courtyard.
It was around 7 pm in the evening that we headed out to Mandawa Fort to witness the Holi Dahan, a ritual conducted a day before the festival of holi. This was to be our first glance at the majestic Mandawa Fort. Standing before us was this colossal palace basking in the moonlight. A few street lamps that paved the way to it’s entrance. Inside the fort there was a vast open courtyard surrounded on three sides by the Royal Palace. The facade of the palace is brightly lit with the light changing colour every few seconds. I was enthused by this and instantly took out my camera to capture this while the castle synthesized into hues of pink, purple and blue. After a while of exploring and frollicking in this spellbinding atmosphere, we finally head out for the holi dahan. The current Thakur of the Haveli, Thakur Kesri Singh ji, sat on a mat with a sword on his lap as the priest performed a few prayers. Next to this was a bonfire waiting to be lit. People gathered around this ritual pulling out their cameras and snapping away at this indelible moment. After a while, the Thakur finally threw in a flamed stick into the wood and the bonfire finally roared to life. The locals danced around the fire to the drumbeats. The air was filled with gaiety and celebration and even the ones who don’t fully fathom the significance of this ritual impetuously join into the festivities. Once the ceremony came to a halt, we tiredly headed back to our hotel where a scrumptious dinner awaited us.
The hotel owner, Mr Joshi suggested we order ethnic delicacies such as Besan ke Gatte (which is a curry prepared with Gram Flour as the base ingredient.), Mirchi ka Tapora( green chillies cooked with spices) and Bajre ki roti( which is a roti made of millet flour). These exquisitely flavourful and spicy dishes which are a staple of the Rajasthani cuisine and the Mandawa region owe their popularity to the lack of vegetation in a desert. Due to not being able to grow too many fruits or vegetables in a desert, people resorted to experimenting with ingredients such as gram flour and millet flour which gave birth to this one of a kind cuisine.
The next day we set out to explore the much awaited havelis. We met our guide at the entrance of the hotel; a warm middle aged man who introduced himself as Bhola. In no time, he began enlightening us about the the town history and that of it’s mansions.
‘Radhika Haveli was built in 1940 and belonged to the Ladia family. Once the family left the haveli and migrated elsewhere, the haveli stayed empty for ten years before Mr. Joshi bought it and converted it into a hotel’ he began unravelling an anecdote about their hotel’s past. On walking around, we discovered that Mandawa was quaint with a maze of narrow and winding roads dotted with Havelis every few steps along the way. They were interspersed with not so grandiose residences and shops. The number of people on the streets could be counted on our fingertips. It was the colourful frescoes on the walls of the havelis that had started to intrigue me. Upon questioning Bhola, he began tracing the past of these paintings, which had images of Radha and krishna, Rajput rulers, gramophones and trains. ‘The reason why the frescoes consists of Indian as well as European influences is because their owners travelled abroad and commissioned painters to paint the sights the owners witnessed on their travels. There was always a subtle competition running between the then businessmen of the region to flaunt their wealth. Paintings of European influence indirectly conveyed that the owner has the privilege and wealth to travel to foreign lands and have experiences that his contemporaries might covet.’ He further added that in the olden days a caste system prevailed in Mandawa. At the top of the rung, were the Brahmins or the pundits, the people who performed prayers to God. At the second rung, were the Kshatriyas. In mandawa, the Kshatriyas were the Rajputs, they were the ruling community and took care of farming and forming armies. At the third rung, were the Vaishyas or the Marwaris. They were business community of Mandawa, they were the ones who had constructed these glorious havelis all around town. At the lowest rung were the Shudras, they included carpenters, builders, artists, cobblers etc. ‘The Businessmen had abundant wealth and wanted to provide livelihoods to the poor, hence they commissioned painters to paint their havelis with beautifully intricate frescoes. Other reasons behind these frescoes were that they decorated the havelis as well as acted as a testimony of the Haveli owner’s diverse and rich experiences’ Bhola told us. After exploring a chunk of the havelis in town, Bhola offered to introduce me to a restoration artist who worked with restoring frescoes in the havelis. We met Shyam Singh, the restoration artist who owns a small handicraft shop in Mandawa. He had his own share of anecdotes about the town which he jauntily uncovered. ‘I’ve been painting for around 15-20 years. Recently I did restoration work in Radhika Haveli and Shekhawati Hotel Haveli.Though there is a sea of difference in the colours that were used back then and now. Earlier only natural colours deriving from stone and vegetables were used they remain intact till date.’ The evening followed with all of us sitting and animatedly listening to him,conversing and sharing our own experiences over hot cups of tea.
On our last day we were to witness the last of the grand architectural marvels of the region. Half an hour away from Mandawa, in the Shekhawati region itself, lies the town of Nawalgarh. One of the most famous havelis of the region, The Podar Museum, awaited us. Belonging originally to Anandi Lal Poddar and his family, this colourful haveli has been converted into a cultural museum today. As we walked around this splendid haveli turned museum listening to the vivid histories of Rajputs and Marwari Businessmen, our minds were fully satiated with the last dose of culture, history and vibrance the region had to offer.
Text & Photography Supriya Jain