Just 170 km from Jaipur and about 260 km from Delhi lies an erstwhile little town full of colours and devoid of noise. Mandawa, a village in the Sekhawati region of Rajasthan, is bordered by the Aravalis in the east and the desert sands in the west. Situated in the district of Jhunjhunu, Mandawa is also known as the town of havelis, some of which also double as hotels. Almost every house in the tiny town seems to pop out of a period drama. If one is careful of the little lanes fanning off the main street, it is a cakewalk to cover the entire town on foot in half a day.
Once upon a time, Mandawa was a flourishing merchant town in Rajasthan. These merchants, with their silk, opium and hashish businesses thriving in the old port cities of Calcutta and Bombay, had established successful trade connections with China, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. A town with almost every family into such high-profit business dealings, Mandawa grew up as a resident town of wealthy merchants living in big, beautiful havelis.
With little or no big vehicles, the streets of Mandawa are populated with occasional cows and oxen, and rural men and women mostly busy doing handiwork. The Mandawa sky is unbelievably blue. While the mornings here are colourful, chirpy, and fresh post 6 pm, Mandawa becomes a deserted town. Shops are shut, windows closed, and there’s not a soul to be seen on the streets. They say, Mandawa is very spiritual. The temples nearby seem like the only source of entertainment, where I chanced upon some young kids singing bhajans on a mic, out of tune, dancing and swaying with their hands up in the air. These are school goers and college kids, clearly. Their version of karaoke, I thought. I wake up hearing azaans followed by a Ganesh vandana. And yet, they do not conflict each other. But there’s something eerie about this town. An unmistakably spectral air veils this town in the dark. A stroll around 7 pm got me face to face with an owl, screeching on a branch glazing upon this intruder.
A 300-year-old residence turned into a heritage hotel, this Sarovar property is named The Messenger - Harlalka Haveli. Previously owned by the Harlalka family, this pastel green haveli is one of the most well kept ones in Mandawa, which has been further restored by Sarovar. Peaceful, sunny, and beautifully adorned with Sekhawati paintings as frescoes, Harlalka Haveli harks of a luxurious past while tucks you in a comfortable couple of days. The guests get their personal butler with every package, outstanding food, artistic views, and extremely warm staff, very signature Sarovar style.
The Harlalka Baoli, opposite the Harlalka Haveli was a community bath with a 200 ft deep well. I tried peeping down the thing, which is weirdly, just recently been sealed with iron clasps, and honestly my vertigo pranced up in action. This Baoli, developed by the Harlalka family for the villagers and not for personal use, had separate bath spaces for men and women, the remnants of which can be seen even now.
The Murmuria Haveli was established back in 1930s and is one of the most gorgeous buildings in Mandawa. The ornately decorated residence with the traditional Sekhawati designs on its southern wall features an interesting story. One can notice a long frieze depicting a train and a railway crossing. There is also a painting of Nehru on horseback holding the Indian flag. Quite surprisingly, on the southern side of the building, one can see paintings of gondolas on the Venetian canals. The ticket for Murmuria Haveli also includes entry to some of the Goenka Havelis.
The Goenkas were a wealthy family in Mandawa with several beautiful havelis to their name. The Seth Dayaram Dedraj Goenka Haveli and the Goenka Double Haveli are some of the buildings worth mentioning. The image of Indra on an elephant smoking opium on the entrance wall of the Seth Dayaram Haveli is quite a famous landmark. The Double Haveli, with its two wings -- Vishwanath Goenka Haveli and the northern Tarkeshwar Goenka Haveli, has some of the most gorgeous pictures of animals on the façade. These frescoes have been restored, but there needs to be a passionate undertaking by the government to bring these gems to their glorious states.
The main fort of Mandawa, with its medieval origins, dominates the town with a painted arched gateway spectacularly adorned with paintings of Krishna and his cows. This is the very castle around which the merchant and peasant civilization was set up that eventually formed the town. A great place to discover the legacy of Shekhawati, the original fortress of Mandawa has now been converted into a luxurious heritage hotel. Family portraits, antique cannons and arms add to the charm of this family-run resort where tradition still runs strong. A huge brass gong struck by the resident timekeepers at the fort every hour gives the guests a surreal feeling of being probably lost in some ancient era.
These erstwhile wealthy houses cannot be compared to palaces, which are abounding in other cities of Rajasthan. Most of the havelis that have not been converted into hotels need our attention now. Crumbling walls, broken antiques, and splendid hand-printed designs are what is left of them. Their present owners thrive on selling tickets and souvenirs, and occasionally renting the havelis off to Bollywood shoots. You must have seen some of these locations in Paheli, Jab We Met, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, or PK.
Mandawa can be easily accessible by train from Delhi and Jaipur. Get down at Jhunjhunu and take an auto rickshaw or the hotel pick-up shuttle to reach the town of Mandawa, which is about half an hour away.