Rajasthan Havelis

Rajasthan Havelis

2/4 – 2/7/04 Shekawati Region

We boarded a late evening sleeper train from Delhi, heading into small-town northern Rajasthan. We toasted the start of our journey with a bottle of India’s finest red wine (Australia and South Africa needn’t fear their wine markets), and had a pleasant overnite journey in our 2nd class, 2-tier compartment. trainwine We dashed off the train about 6am at a podunk station, the last of us having to jump off as the train was gathering speed out of the station. First stop was at an eco-resort just for an excellent breakfast and a few urgent calls of nature. It was the last time we would feel clean for the next 3 weeks.

After breakfast, we plunged into the back corners and alleys of our little town. This was our first taste of rural India, and it was an eye-opener for a lot of people on our tour: Sand paths instead of paved roads, an old central well that has been replaced by a community water supply; open sewers carry all nature of waste through canals in the streets. Watch your step. sandvillageroad

We’d toured here to see the havelis. Haveli is the Hindi word referring to palatial (both in size and opulence) buildings — complexes — of staggering size and remarkable beauty. These are remnants of the time when local traders made their fortunes, mainly during the 1700s and 1800s. They are especially noted for their elaborate paintings (cenotaphs) and/or carvings that adorn almost all available surfaces. Entire extended families lived in these buildings, and competition ensued between havelis for the most rooms, the most opulence. It is remarkable how elaborate (and expensive) these buildings must have been. Elaborate cenotaph murals adorn many of the haveli walls . The most entertaining of these were sort of “word of mouth” “news” of the west; a painting would be made based one a visitor’s description of something as yet-unseen in India — a motorcar for example. Typically, Western people would be represented in caricature — prominent noses; elongated or bloated bodies.

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Many of these havelis have fallen into disrepair, the families having lost their wealth and ability to maintain the structures. Others have been chosen as World Heritage Sites, and are being slowly restored to their previous grandeur. Several however, have opened their doors to Tourists (and their money), allowing us to  experience — sort of — the magnificence of these places, and imagine how they once would have held families and their complete entourages.Quite a number have been made into hotels, and Intrepid made a point of booking us into these whenever possible..

Later than day, we moved onto Mandawa, a larger town where we stayed in a semi-restored haveli hotel and got used to life in small town India. As fascinating as the havelis were, it was even more interesting to wander through streets that seldom saw tourists, visiting the local markets and observing day-to-day life in a place that’s very different from where you and I grew up. Being in the Thar Desert, the prefered form of local transport was the pack camel, which were ubiquitous (along with the cows). Tiny little shops lined the street, often with the craftsman performing his trade when not serving customers – tailors using foot-pedaled sewing machines, a cobbler cutting out camel-skin soles, a bangle-maker setting stones in a bracelet. There were colorful vegetables, spices, and grains for sale.

Intercity buses hurdled themselves through the town at high speed, scattering people and camels in their wake. Tribal women from the countryside, with their brightly colored and spangled saris, were about town, picking up staples and a few more bangles. We were far less harassed here than in Delhi, with the exception of the adorably cute street urchins, who followed us everywhere we went, and seemed to be looking for attention more than baksheesh (“share the wealth”). From Bikaner, we headed out for one of the most exotic parts of a tour, an overnite camel safari into the Thar Desert.

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