During the past few years I have often wandered in the desert of Rajasthan, aimlessly, admiring forts, old mansions, some dilapidated, and the carefree people in the villages who sing like a bird after sunset. Men play music and women dance singing folklore in coloured dresses. Musical notes from their traditional instruments vibrate through the heart giving a feeling of joy. Often I have stayed back at small places enjoying the hospitality of the villagers who have no greed for money. Tiny villages, where a guest is treated with high respect. Driving towards Jaisalmer, I have noticed herds of camels crossing the highway; the sand dunes in Sam village where tourists flock to enjoy the sunset. When the sand starts getting cold after the scorching heat of the day, camels line up to return back home. There are no jarring noises of a city, a magical calm takes over the desert.
There have been times I was almost lost on the directionless roads in the desert – a black serpentine road amidst sand all over, which, sometimes makes the road invisible. During the day the ‘moving bush’ rolls itself into a ball and travels miles with the wind to settle down elsewhere, perhaps in search of water. The rolling bush appears on the sand and then disappears into infinity. The sand dunes themselves are a mystery; a large sand dune suddenly goes up in a whirlwind and disappears, then miles away, it settles down. Unimaginable is the rain in the desert. Think of sun shining on the sand making it scorching hot and intolerable and then suddenly clouds appear from nowhere, there is loud noise of the lightening and then it rains heavily. Minutes later, all is gone. The desert is quiet and calm. No clouds, the sun shines and no mark of the rain is left behind. The desert remains as dry as ever.
The wind plays a strange note at night. Walk in the open, under the sky full of stars in the desert and one can hear a wailing sound of the wind, at times frightening. Driving alone in a car at night through the desert can be a scary experience. It is dark all around if there is no moon, only the car headlights light up the black tarred road to a short distance ahead and further it is deep, dark abyss.
However, Rajasthan has always been my favourite for its myriad shades of life. I recall my last drive through the well- known Shekhawati region which has many old mansions and forts. Some of them stand abandoned with their owners gone, maybe forever. They look like old ghosts which no longer scare anyone. This time it was not an aimless wander, I had decided to go to Mandawa – a small sleepy town which attracts overseas tourists for its Castle.
The narrow lanes through the town are just enough for a vehicle to pass by. During the day the lanes are busy. By evening the traffic thins down, people turn back to their homes and life gradually comes to a halt. Castle Mandawa is the most sought after place for a halt in the region. The 18th century Castle is said to have been built by Thakur Nawal Singh, the Rajput ruler of the region. History says this used to be the route of the rich traders travelling between China and the Arab world. On this ancient route, Mandawa was a trading outpost. After the Castle was built, traders settled around it and today Castle Mandawa stands surrounded by small houses on all four sides.
The main entry is shadowed by small shops that have converged on the narrow lane which has just enough space for a tourist mini bus to reach the Castle. Crossing the lane, one comes to a spacious parking area in front of a large entrance to the Castle. The left wing of the Castle seems pulsating with life. Mini buses and cars can drive in up to this point where a broad flight of stairs leads up to the reception. As the descendants of the royal family still live here, this part of the Castle, now turned into a heritage hotel, is restored and well kept, maintaining its old glory.
Enter the verandah leading to the ‘baithak’ or the sitting lounge which is decorated with family photographs of generations of the royal family. Splendidly painted, the ‘baithak’ appears a piece of art in itself. Two large silver chairs for the royals and rich wooden furniture around adorn the large hall which has high ceiling, over 20 feet. Stairs lead up to the restaurant from where one can look on to the ‘baithak.’ The restaurant is spread out on the entire area of the floor; the walls are full of framed photographs of celebrations in the royal family.
Rooms in the castle are different shapes and sizes, not looking alike. They have been well maintained for guests with all amenities without disturbing the old architecture. On the roof of the Castle is a place used for evening dinners for groups of tourists. In winters, folk dancers entertain guests at dinner on the terrace floor. The view is picturesque.
The Castle has expanded further with a swimming pool, a large lawn and a residential block which extends out to the farthest end. Rooms have been added to provide more accommodation to tourists. The poolside has been maintained for evening drinks and relaxation with water jets creating waves in the dam built at the upper end of the pool. While summers could be warm enough to use the pool during the day, it is ideal for a swim the whole day during winters. The large piece of lawn between the old and the new block is a superb location for sun tanning during winters.
Castle Mandawa is not new to me, but each time I visit the place, I find it new with additions that add to a comfortable stay. During my last visit I had stayed in a room when the block at the far end was under construction. Before that I had once stayed in one of the Castle rooms and this visit I landed on the third floor of the new block. The large suite where I stayed gave me a panoramic view of the town spread around the Castle. The town has not grown much in size and one could see the houses fading into barren lands half a kilometer away.
A stay at Castle Mandawa has always rejuvenated me. The food always left me craving for more even after I had my fill. While the restaurant serves continental preparations too, the regional dishes are always a delight. I always loved my favourite ‘rogan josh’ and ‘lal maas’ preparations of mutton at the Castle. The bar leaves one satiated. The poolside bar is romantic in the evenings.
While Castle Mandawa remains invincible in its offers to the guests, it has added yet another interesting feature for those who love adventure – the Mandawa Safari. A Few kilometers away the Desert Resort also houses a stud farm of the Mandawa family. During off season, horses are trained for desert safaris. The season for safaris starts off somewhere in October and lasts almost six months.
Unfortunately, my visit was during the offseason which deprived me of the chance to go on the safari. Believing that there is always ‘yet another day’, I drove back from the stud farm after taking some pictures of the horses.