The highlight of the morning was a walk from the hotel into the village of Nawalgarh to visit a haveli.
The Shekawati region was on the old silk route, and provided water and stopping points for caravans taking goods from east to west & back until ports like Calcutta opened up. While it was still active, around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries a number of wealthy merchants built ‘havelis’ which were houses with central courtyards, multiple meeting chambers and characteristic paintings over the walls and ceilings. They have largely been left by their owners as they moved to live in other cities now that goods no longer flow along that route.
We visited the Podar haveli (http://podarhavelimuseum.org) which is apparently the best preserved of them in the area, despite having previously been used as a school. The owner had obviously been Hindu, and most of the art was of a religious nature. The local guide who showed us through the building was a Brahmin by birth, and very keen to present Hinduism in a way that might be more acceptable to those coming from a Christian/western background, gently avoiding some of the more ‘exotic’ aspects.
Within the building were a number of other sub-museums, focusing on areas as diverse as the caste structure, wedding costumes and regional turban variations.
The building itself had 3 floors inside, plus 2 levels of rooftop, and we were able to go right to the top to look out over the village. There were several other havelis visible, as well as temples and a double minaret/tower arrangement that signified the position of a well for use by travellers.
Most of the others travelled back to the hotel by tuk-tuk, but Liz, Judith and I walked back through the village, wanting the exercise since we’d done so little real walking on the trip. People stared, but politely, sometimes nodding. Children often waved, and we were allowed to observe as we walked through, uninterrupted except for motorcycles incessantly pottering up and down while sounding their horns. We were just beaten back to the hotel, where a couple of the more ‘adventurous’ were trying to see just how many people could actually be crammed onto a tuk-tuk (we got to 12 if I recall correctly).
Chris whizzed off to the pool, and I followed suit.
Just like the rooms, it was beautifully presented, clear blue water and with just a hint of chlorine to reassure us that it was safe. And breath-takingly cold.
Curry for lunch. :p
Couple of hours drive by coach to our next hotel – the Surajgarh Fort (http://www.kangragroup.com/fort.html) – which was another converted palace. The coach couldn’t get up the road to the hotel because it was simply too big to enter the village, so we wandered up through the outskirts while our luggage was taken by tuk-tuk.
This really was the ‘back of beyond’ and, even more so than Nawalgarh, it felt like a very rural and shut off village. As we walked up the village street, children in school uniforms streamed out a small side road, mingling with the other kids that had apparently not been to school. Animals were wandering freely, and we saw a large black cow attempt to enter several homes, being driven off with squirted water on one occasion. Camels and donkeys pulled carts (we saw horses elsewhere, but they tended toward the thin and unhealthy side) and there were the inevitable tuk-tuks, small motorcycles, bicycles and hand carts.
While the people were undeniably poor here, they also seemed not to lack for some modern equipment. Many motorcycles looked to be only a few years old at most, being driven with gusto by young males. We often heard mobile phones, and it was not unusual to see a woman reach under her sari for a phone, or a man in shabby clothes hunt for the source of the noise.
This was yet another spectacular hotel, although in places it looked as though it had been finished off in a hurry by an amateur DIYer. Again, previously a palace, the entrance hall and rooms were very grand. Our room was practically a suite, again with separate sitting area, pillars and arches, and in this case a good and fully functional bathroom. We were greeted with the usual red-spotting and garlands, and in this case the manager (a much taller and broader than usual Indian man with cowboy hat, pointy snakeskin shoes and a cowboy-style moustache) welcomed us with a “god bless you”.
Before dinner we went for a walk properly around the village. Beside the usual food, pharmacy and bike repair shops it was genuinely amazing to see how many stores sold bangles. I can only imagine that the hotel must bring in a lot of visitors who buy them: there must have been 7 or 8 shops, all selling what appeared to be the same stuff. The female portion our party entered and got lost in the nearest.
Chris and I wandered up the road further into the village as the night was really drawing in and it became very hard to see beyond the street lighting. Turning left at the T junction at the end of the main street took us to the village square, complete with tethered camel and statue of Gandhi (the glasses must have been so much a part of him, Chris said, that they have to be added to statues) and we circulated once before heading the other way.
Down the right fork we came across more havelis like the last village, some crumbling and mouldering, others in better condition, and with amazing carved stonework and some painting. I was told in no uncertain terms not to get ideas about moving out there!
On the way back past the shops we stopped briefly, and I tried to photograph in my mind one particular shop, for description here. There were 2 men sitting in the shop, one in a shirt and trousers, bald head, thick black moustache, the other with grey hair and traditional clothes of white collarless shirt, trousers created with a piece of cloth and sandals. The shop was painted a rich sky blue inside, and there were shelves on the left running the full height of the wall and a creamy marble counter at the front. Half the height of the shelves from the mid-point down were full of small square tins, coloured in bright reds, greens and yellows, each one seemingly slightly different. Above them from about 1m to the ceiling were curious square containers, each a deep royal blue, and with a ribbed or corrugated surface. The black on yellow sign above was in Hindi, and I have not the least idea what they sold, whether it was lubricants, aircraft parts or sweets.
Some of the shops had a kind of stove set up on the edge of the pavement, and were cooking food in large wok-shaped pans, about 24” to 30” across. Some were deep frying what I’d guess to be batter balls and battered vegetables, others had milky looking liquids bubbling away.
Children were still waving and smiling at us, and occasionally a stranger would speak a few words, asking where we were from. I’d thought that we’d escaped ‘financial’ attention, but just as we were entering the drive to the hotel a couple of teenage lads came up and told us that they needed 5000 rupees in a way that didn’t have the usual friendly overtones. We just walked on, and came to no harm.
That evening we sat in the rooftop courtyard of the palace, kept warm by the heat still radiating from the building despite the open sky above us. A family of local musicians played, while the 2 youngest boys danced and occasionally tried to get people to take part too. Unlike some of the previous performances we’d seen, I think a lot of this was improvised, although there was an occasional song. Patterns kept being repeated, not just within songs, but between songs, and either it was a very fixed local style or the lad drumming had a limited repertoire.
Dinner inside was yet another buffet, but at least a little more varied than so many we’d had before, and tasted fine. I’d not had beer with that meal, but when people asked for beer they were given Kingfisher Strong, which is a dark 8% lager! Almost everyone found 1 bottle quite enough.