2nd day in Shekhavati (camels)
Jan 25, 2005
After breakfast the next morning we left the compound and saddled up - on camels! Each beast got two people, with the camel-driver walking in front holding the lead. Getting on was easy enough, as the camels knelt down for us. But there's nothing smooth about how a camel gets up, and we found it all a bit unnerving to be lurching high above the ground during the process. The photos we took of each other show our startled expressions clearly! We rode off through the desert, past trees with all of their branches whacked off for kindling, past a large and now abandoned well with a very, very large, stepped pool attached. A real treat was stopping at a village house for a cup of chai (flavored, sweet tea). Headed toward home, we rode past and through several of the small villages around Mandawa, peering down into their outdoor courtyards to witness their daily activities.
In the 360 villages of Shekhawati, multi-storied courtyard homes (havelis) were built by the rich 'Marwari' merchant families who honed their skills on the silk routes between Delhi and the coast, and between India and Central Asia. To serve their rulers and gain their protection, they were often the maharajas' financiers and extravagant patrons of the arts. Most of their descendents have now migrated to more urban parts of the country along with their trade routes, although many keep their buildings, returning at festival times. Some of the havelis have been modernized beyond recognition and others are in sadly dilapidated condition, rented to several families who corral their animals in the courtyards, turning the walls to black with their cooking fires. Others, however, are in the slow process of restoration. The frescoes reflect the well-traveled nature of this community, depicting scenes from many different places, images of everyday life and technologies in the 18th and 19th centuries (especially trains and flying machines), along with floral patterns and the familiar gods and goddesses.
HOTEL MANDAWA HAVELI
In Mandawa we were put up at a well-maintained haveli that's now a fascinating, "rustic chic" heritage hotel. It was built in 1890 by a Marwara jeweler, and is totally encrusted with elaborate frescoes. A majestic entrance leads to an inner courtyard where we sat out at night around a burning fire pit. Our spacious guest rooms had modern bathrooms and the most varied arrangements you could ever begin to imagine. We traipsed fairly giddily in and out of each others' rooms in complete amazement and delight. In one, for example, to reach the bathroom we had to climb up onto a plastered ledge/shelf and crouch down a bit to enter the area that was formerly a porch overlooking the street, a toilet and tub now shielded from view by translucent sheets of glass.
Our guide, Abhi, arranged for a knowledgeable fellow to lead us on a walking tour of the havelis. With him, we were able to go into the interiors of several which are being rented/squatted by multiple families and falling into increasing disrepair. Along the way he also paid an itinerant magician who gave us a memorable sidewalk show with his facile slight-of-hand tricks. Later that afternoon, accompanied by Scott, Dave and I bought two fair-sized spangled wall hangings from a very cultured, Westernized merchant with a tikal (red dot) on his forehead. They are both done in the patchwork-cum-embroidery method typical of the area.
The camel ride was one of my favorite parts of the trip. At first, it was disconcerting to sit eight feet above the ground on this large beast. But after a short while, I became accustomed to the slow, stately gait of the camel.