Following the lost trail of the rich marwari culture of Rajasthan
A and I have been best friends for a long time. Fate has it that both of us landed in Delhi almost at the same time!
A is an architect and I am a lawyer by profession, so naturally, we have pretty wound up work lives. Fed up with the Delhi pollution (and the traffic), we decided to call it quits (just for two days!) in August, 2016 (Independence Day weekend) and decided to take an off-beat trip to Rajasthan, within our budget and time constraints.
A’s background as an architect is a very useful tool for culture-related travel in India. She recommended Le Prince Haveli (https://www.leprincehaveli.com) as a destination, which I would say, for a pair of women travellers, is quite off-the-road in terms of travelling in India. With no background, and no definite plan in mind, on a hot August day, we decided to take this uncoventional path to (what we would discover to be) one of the hidden gems of Rajasthan.
We started our journey early in the morning by hiring a cab to take us to a small province in Rajasthan called Shekhawati. The region is famous for its haveli heritage, i.e. mansions once occupied by the landlords of Rajasthan. With its rich frescos and traditional marwari architecture, the havelis and restored forts of Shekhawati offer a chance to visitors to travel back to the 19th Century and live the princely lives of rich marwari business men (unfortunately women at that time were not encouraged to be at the forefront). Typical attractions in that area include towns lined with havelis with rich, hand-painted frescos, forts once occupied by the royal families of Rajasthan of the Rajput heritage, and various other Indian architectural marvels such as bawadis (step-wells).
Unfortunately, accessing Shekawati can prove to be slightly tough, especially if your driver is not aware of the region. While our initial leg of the 7 hour journey began smoothly, by travelling across the national highway, google maps then steered us toward the State-run highway that was nothing but a two-lane, pot-hole ridden nightmare. Add to that the suspicious entry into the town of Fatehpur, where Le Prince Haveli is located. Once you enter the town, you are greeted by narrow kuchha lanes (mud lanes) full of local hawkers and large abandoned havelis. Right at the end of the town though, the view gives way to one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Here it is:
When we visited Le Prince Haveli, it was a beautiful homestay run by an enthusiastic team of French and Indian (local) people. Food was simple and home-cooked, and the rooms were tastefully done. The idea at Le Prince is to give their visitors an experience of living in a 19th Century haveli, albeit with modern amenities. Thus, the rooms have been restored to their original glory, with functionalities of the modern day times, i.e. shower fittings in bathrooms, etc. Here’s what our room looked like:
As if this did not charm your pants off, Le Prince also houses interns from all over the world, who stay for a few months to study the history, culture and architecture of that time. The interns also double up as tour guides for visitors at the haveli, who visit during the day. Le Prince thus, offers a unique experience of not only staying in a haveli, but also a unique opportunity to interact with one of the brightest people from around the world.
Since A and I had quite the adventure of reaching Le Prince on the first day, we decided to stay in for the rest of the day. We ended up having a perfect day catching up on our reading on the swing, experiencing the fading rains, and having a fantastic dinner with our hosts at night. Here’s where you can mull over your thoughts at Le Prince:
The next day, we decided to venture to the neighbouring towns of Mandawa and Nawalgarh. Mandawa is one of the bigger towns in Shekhawati, and houses the Mandawa Fort, which has also been converted to a (slightly expensive) heritage hotel. For those who have seen enough and more forts, the Mandawa fort would not be as enchanting a place to visit. Mandawa also houses some of the bigger havelis of the time, so it may be worth the travel to see those during the day. Our hosts at Le Prince recommend Ramgarh for haveli hopping, for those who want to truly soak in the marvels of the haveli architecture.
Nawalgarh though, was a discovery for us! A and I have studied in Mumbai, at a school that owns a chain of institutions run by a trust established by the Podar family. Luck has it that we stumbled upon the Podar’s family haveli! While the havelis in Shekhawati lie untended and neglected by the families (experts will tell you that maintenance of these havelis is very expensive; so the families decide to either abandon or sell them to venture to bigger cities for better opportunities), the Podars have done a fantastic job in maintaining theirs, and it now serves as an attraction in that region to exemplify the richness of the marwari tradition and heritage. Here’s A and me at our alma mater’s roots:
Notice how beautiful the fresco of the haveli is! And how I wish I could see a day when Ramgarh, Mandawa, Nawalgarh, and Fatehpur of Rajasthan could be restored to their old glory to show case the rich and heritage of our country!
As we made our way back to the big bad city, A and I couldn’t help but be thankful for this two-day respite. Props to the Le Prince Haveli’s family for letting us be a part of the wonderful experience that they are trying to recreate in the country! Here’s a happy picture to part with happy thoughts: