It will not be wrong to describe Rajasthan as the desert State of India which is sprinkled with colourful culture where valiant royals ruled in regions of the State in yesteryears – the royals of Jaipur, the rulers of Jodhpur, the family of Udaipur, the legacy of Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner and many more smaller rulers many of whose deeds of valour are still sung by village bards across the sandy terrain of Thar desert.
It is these stories of the past which have always fascinated me and made me drive down from Delhi to Jodhpur crossing Ajmer and Jaipur on the way; often through the Shekhawati region towards the mysterious town of Churu, town known for its extreme temperatures, and to Bikaner and Jaisalmer. Each of my journeys through this mosaic of cultures left me yearning to go once more to see the beautiful ‘Kalbelia’ dancers after sunset on the sand dunes. Folk music fills up the air from villages when the locals are celebrating.
The tiny town of Pushkar had impressed me during the annual fair where I had seen herds of camels being led to the fair ground and then back after they had been sold to a new owner. Often the return of the camels at dusk created a picturesque view when they blew up clouds of sand shadowing the already pale sun in the west.
It will be unfair to say that one part of the State is more fascinating than the other. Travel through any village and you will find history spread out all over – old forts, palaces, castles and ‘havelis’(mansions). Many times I drove through the Shekhawati region admiring old havelis, most of which stand like ghosts at night with the rightful owners no longer living there. The ones who owned them were rich and left them to go to bigger cities in search of modern living. Many of these havelis stand locked today, forgotten and crumbling to the vagaries of Nature over centuries. Some continue to be inhabited by caretakers and their families who have reduced them to ruins or have become owners of the place they were entrusted to look after by their masters – the Marwari ‘Seths’ (rich businessmen).
One very prominent businessman from this region has made a mark in the world with his steel business. There are several others who are owners of big business houses across India.
It was the fleeting springtime when I happened to make my last recce of the region. The sun had already become warmer with temperatures becoming uncomfortable during the day. Summer was almost knocking at the door.
I decided to drive down to Mandawa, a town known for its castle and havelis at a distance of 150 kilometres from Jaipur. It would take three hours to the town of Mandawa, my cab driver had informed me and advised that I must leave in time from Jaipur to reach my destination well in time for lunch.
Unexpectedly the drive was quite smooth. I recalled how six years ago the same road used to be a narrow single carriageway. The cab driver was driving almost rash at times making me tremble at the thought of banging into a bigger vehicle.
I am always destined to be late for one reason or the other. This was not a different occasion. Stars had made their appearance in the sky by the time we neared Mandawa.
Short of Mandawa, a signboard showed a village road leading into darkness towards my destination – Vivaana. The sign read “Vivaana Culture Hotel”. Inappropriate term! Vivaana cannot be termed a hotel, it is a haveli, a haveli restored to most of its lost grandeur, a fading echo of the past culture. A story from the pages of history obliterated by passing years.
The village ‘Churi Ajitgarh’ had already gone to sleep. A stray dog barked at the cab as it anchored at the gate of haveli Vivaana. I walked in through a man-size window in the large iron gate opening into a courtyard, the man sitting at the reception in the left hand side hall got up with folded hands greeting me the traditional way, but I had my own apprehensions. I looked into his eyes suspiciously and enquired whether there was a standby power generator in case of a power failure which is quite common in this part of the State. Not only this, I asked him if there were any other guests and, if not, will the generator be switched on at night. Taken aback and a little bewildered, the receptionist assured me that there is a standby generator which switches on automatically within a few seconds of power failure. He was not able to understand why I had raised this question even before my check-in. well, thereby hangs a tale of one of my previous visits to Mandawa when I had stayed in a small haveli, paid substantial money for the stay and at night there had been a power failure. I was the lone guest in that haveli and was woken by the warm weather disturbing my sleep. I had walked out into the gallery in the dark night and looked around for assistance. Finally I shouted loudly to call someone to make some provision. A man had appeared after 15 minutes to inform me that they have a small genset which had run out of diesel and I will have to bear with it.
I still don’t forget that lonely night in the haveli.
He handed out a bunch of keys to a moustached attendant whom I followed through a narrow flight of stairs and then through a lawn, up again into another block of rooms, on to the first floor. He opened a room and showed me a large balcony outside. I was pleased. The room was spacious and airy. Satisfied I returned to the reception, but this time the receptionist was a little hesitant. He explained that the room was in the adjoining block which was unoccupied and I might feel lonely. Instead, he showed me another room in the first block. This, he said, had a garden view too.
This room too turned out to be large and comfortable. It had windows opening towards the lawn. The interior was not painted with frescos as in other room, but that was not a deterrent. I settled for the room.
I realized that it was getting late for my evening meal. Once again I picked up the phone and dialed the restaurant. I had my doubts about getting food of my choice in this village. The order-taker informed me that I can order any dish, but the order will take about 20 minutes as every dish will be freshly cooked. I ordered some preparation typical to this part of Rajasthan and then went down to the restaurant on the ground floor facing the lawn. There I realized that I was not the only one to be staying in the haveli, there were at least seven others, all overseas tourists.
By now I was relaxed and looked around for bar to have a drink before my meal. My drink was a small, modest order – a chilled lager beer. The quick steward served me a bottle in the restaurant. My order was served faster than I had anticipated. ‘Lal Maas’ and some yogurt along with ‘tandoori roti.’ Back after the meal in my room, I had slept like a log.
The morning was full of discoveries. I am, by habit, not a late riser, but also not one who jumps out of the bed at an early hour. An avian melody had softly woken me up. Out in the lawn, the shrubs and the lone tree was full of birds. The lawn had been laid out for an outdoor breakfast. On one end of the lawn was a live station serving eggs to order and waffles.
The cool breeze from the window of my room indicated the pleasant weather outside. The breakfast was a buffet. My breakfast lasted an hour and a half, not because I ate heavy, but I enjoyed each morsel in the morning breeze of the village. It was planned to take a round of the village before the sun went up in the sky. I had preferred to ride a camel through the village, but the camel was already out on a safari, so I decided to map the area on foot accompanied by a local guide.
As we walked through the sandy streets, our shoes sinking deep each step, peacocks cooed on the houses around. We passed by some other smaller havelis which were locked. There was to take care of these havelis, uncared their walls had turned black over a period of time. Frescos had turned faint, wooden windows seemed cracked like the skin of a hundred-year old woman, but the havelis have stood their ground for decades. Wading through thick sand, we arrived at ‘kothee’ (huge mansion) surrounded by an equally large garden bounded by a wall that ran all around the property. The main entrance was locked, but a small entry through the gate was open. My guide explained to me that tourists who come to the village often are shown this ‘kothee.’ The owner no longer lived here, but visited once in several years. A flight of stairs led to the main building. All windows and doors were locked, pigeons had established their kingdom in this old human settlement. Pictures on the walls were covered with a layer of sand and cobwebs. The building was perched on a huge platform that overlooked the garden which also was neglected. Shrubs had overgrown and the grass had dried up, still birds perched on the trees that were green. Though the building had a caretaker, we never came across a soul. On one flank of the building there was another structure which was supposed to be a temple of the family that must have lived here. However, everything was locked. At night this kothee would appear like a haunted place with its peculiar construction.
Coming out of the compound we made our way to a sandy ground in the middle of which stood another ruin. No one exactly knew what it was and who made it.
All during our walk the guide continued to narrate the history of village Churi Ajitgarh. Like all stories related to history, this too had an interesting background.
By noon, we were back in Vivaana haveli. A quick shower refreshed me and I was ready for my lunch.
The weather had become warmer; temperature had soared and the best I could do was to visit the Vivaana Walkthrough – pictorial narration of how the present day Vivaana was resurrected out of a 100-year-old dilapidated haveli. The walkthrough has pictures of the haveli as it was taken over by the present day owner, who in search of a haveli also lost money to unscrupulous agents, but finally got the deal through and took up the task of restoring Vivaana to its present day glory. The pictures of bats that hung in the ruins of the old building and many other stories of the village Churi Ajitgarh and surrounding villages.
Vivaana, I insist again, is a culture haveli and not a hotel; one that reminisces of the days of the rich people of the Shekhawat region who lived here ages ago.