Mandawa is the most popular town when it comes to the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan. A typical tourist town buzzing with tourists from all around the world. It is one of those places where you see more tourists than locals and the economy revolves around them. It is also a favorite of the filmmakers who have shot many films in the colorful lanes of this town. I wonder if the decision was driven by the colorful Havelis or the ready availability of hotels around.
Mandawa is an 18th CE town, a contemporary of other Shekhawati towns like Nawalgarh. It falls in the district of Jhunjhunu and in character it is just like them, but a lot more vibrant. I visited the town from Bagad near Jhunjhunu which was my base for exploring the colorful Havelis of Shekhawati.
Come with me to explore the tourist town as I saw it.
The Mandawa Fort is now converted into a heritage hotel. So you have to stay with them to have access. Else, there is a hefty cover charge to enter the premises.
Like any royal palace in Rajasthan, you see a lot of paintings, old portraits, and vintage furniture here. There is a swimming pool bang in the middle of all the heritage.
What I remember most from the fort is the courtyard with a Chowk in the middle. This is an open space that is bare earth with no flooring done, decorated with auspicious designs. This kind of space is typically used for conducting rituals like weddings. I remember even my ancestral home had a place like this.
Another is a small narrow room with some exquisite paintings in the predominantly blue color. It has the 10 avatars of Vishnu painted in a series of panels.
There are some lovely examples of composite art. Where the body of one living being mostly an elephant or a horse is created using many other living beings. This is not very common on the walls of Shekhawati Havelis.
It is one of the most visited Haveli turned hotel in the town. Built-in 1890 CE, this Haveli has been lately restored and converted into a hotel with a rooftop restaurant. The management is open to showing you the Haveli. Even if you just want to admire the paintings on its two floors.
You can see an airplane, a train, human life, and royal processions in the paintings. Krishna and his Leela of course dominate the scenes painted on the Haveli walls. Since this Shekhawati Haveli is in use, you see furniture all around, rooms that are being used, windows overlooking the streets used by the guests. The Ganapati on top of the entrance has a fresh flower garland on it. This all brings the Haveli alive for a visitor. Unlike other uninhabited Havelis, which are either lying empty or have been converted into museums. It is also interesting to see how the rooms and other spaces have been re-worked to make into guest rooms. Smaller spaces have been made into sit-outs.
From the rooftop, you can see the town of Mandawa, with a mélange of rooftops with some artistic expression peeping in from here and there. The fort with its tall walls and temples with their shikharas cannot be missed.
A flight of steps leads you to Raghunath temple, close to Mandawa Haveli. It is built like another Haveli. But the boards and the flag on top gives away that it is a temple. Just like the Gopinath Ji temple in Nawalgarh, this temple also has lively paintings on the ceiling of the temple porch. What I found interesting is the small labels on the paintings that explain the scene painted. You of course need to know the characters to understand the story. How I wish some guides would be available to do some storytelling.
Golden Room at Jhunjhunwala Haveli
Jhunjhunwala Haveli looks like many other Havelis in the neighborhood with fading paintings on its walls, except that it advertises its golden room in English and French. I entered the gate to land in an open courtyard, the left part of which was inhabited and the right one had a painted porch. A man took a small fee and opened the door in the painted porch. This was the golden room, where the paintings have a dominant golden hue.
This room is maintained like a museum in an otherwise neglected Haveli. There are board games and vintage furniture. The best-preserved paintings are the ones on the ceiling and the ones higher up on the walls. Mostly the Krishna Leela is painted here. But I also saw Shiv Parvati, Devi, and Ram Darbar. Windows have colorful stained glass, adding their own color to the room.
Harlalka Well of Mandawa
This a well located at the far end of the road from Jhunjhunu Haveli. The well is reached by a flight of steps where the well is guarded by two pillars. There are small canopies around it. They say the well is very deep. I assume so because it is a desert, and water is not too easy to find. In the good old days, this must have been a place where women came to get water from all the Havelis nearby.
Walking around the lanes leading to the well, I was admiring the paintings on the walls around. The children playing there told me about all the Bollywood films that have been shot here.
Chaukhani Double Haveli
There are many double Havelis in Mandawa. I visited the Chaukhani double haveli as I saw the board announcing the name and the word ‘Double’ intrigued me. I entered and the caretaker agreed to show me the big Haveli for a small fee. On a small guided tour, he explained two co-joined identical Havelis. The logic being the wealthy man having two sons looking into the future. So, the two Havelis are built for two sons in a way that if they get along, it is a single large Haveli. If they don’t, well, just close the doors on the wall in the middle and live independently.
What I would remember is the sheer size of the Haveli with large courtyards.
Murmuria Haveli has an aura of being an Italian mansion. It has subtle colors like pale pistachio instead of the usual bright ones of the region. The highlight of this Haveli is a painting that shows Nehru riding a horse, a portrait of George V. A board outside the Haveli duly announces it.
Inside I found a curious mix of a Shekhawati Haveli and a European mansion. The walls have a collage of contemporary paintings in large squares. There is a portrait of Bharat Mata along with scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharat. A panel on the wall has portraits of all the leaders of the Indian independence movement like Gandhi and Tilak.
Surrounded by many typical Havelis, this Haveli stands out for its unique fusion style.
Goenka Haveli at Mandawa
It is another nicely preserved Haveli with colorful Saris hanging all around. Making it look even more colorful. I saw a rare Yamraj painting on its walls.
The streets of the town belong to the time when the city must have come up. They proudly flaunt their era in their architecture.
Fatehpur is another Shekhawati town, not too far. It is famous for its French Haveli.
Nadine Le Prince Cultural Centre
This is like any other Shekhawati Haveli, built two hundred years ago by Nandlal Devra. It was purchased by French artist Nadine in 1998. She worked on conserving the Haveli. So now, it has a French name and a hefty ticket to see it. I liked the giant elephant paintings in indigo blue. The caretaker was rude, probably looking only for white-skinned tourists. Apparently, European art school students come to study the paintings here. Ironically, most people in India are not even aware of these wonderful painted Havelis.
Walking around the town of Fatehpur, one can see streets lined with painted Havelis. Each unique in its own way.
Temples in and around Fatehpur
Goenka Shakti Temple – This was the first Dadi Sati temple I visited in Shekhawati. Biran Barji – the ancestors of the Goenka clan are worshipped here in a beautiful temple. The deities are worshipped in the form of a Trident or Trishul. There is a temple dedicated to sixteen forms of Shakti or divine feminine. This opened up another window for me to explore the region.
Just outside the Goenka temple, I found a signboard pointing to the Kuldevi of Bindals. Basically, the Kuldevi temples of all the Gotras of Agrawal’s are found in this region.
Panchmukhi Balaji Temple is a lovely temple dedicated to Hanuman. The term Balaji in this region is used for Hanuman. There are quite a few Balaji temples in this region.
Janti Balaji Temple is another very popular temple where I saw a wall of offered coconuts.
Here and there one sees wells that are well marked and preserved. Indicating their relevance for the people of the town. What is interesting is that each well, each water storage place has a unique name. Mostly named after the person who built it. You can shop for Rajasthani souvenirs like Lac Bangles here.
Roaming around the city is like time travel to the times when aesthetics ruled the architecture.
The tourist town is well equipped to handle tourists. You would not have any problem finding a hotel or a restaurant.