Gently the lush greenery of Delhi gives way to the sparse aridity of Rajasthan on the road to Mandawa. The frenetic energy is replaced by a slower speed – as though the gods themselves have switched everything to slow motion. The women’s saris reflect the surrounding landscape-all reds, yellows, umbers and brilliant oranges.
As there is no train to Mandawa and the 7- hour bus drive looks gruesome we have splurged with a driver. Unfortunately personal hygiene can sometimes lose in the translation so as I get behind the driver I am enveloped in a miasmic fog of BO. (Learning from the 7- hour experience that downwind and directly behind is the epicentre of olfactory hell, for the next three days I cannily position myself further away and ensure there is a lavender-oil-forcefield between me and the front seat. )
Shekhawari is Haveli- Central – The typical townhouse or mansion in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. In Shekhawati these houses are richly decorated with virtually every surface covered. Sometimes faded with the ghostly patina of age, others starkly bright in bold colours. Marble floors and stone rooms and of course the punkahs keep the temperatures down during the height of the heat. The layout is uniform. A central ornate entrance to receive visitors (with perhaps a gallery above for musicians.) Off to one side the hospitality- business area. Off to the other the zenana- family and women’s area. Usually at least two open courtyards with rooms around.
The motifs are repeated over and over again – like the pumpkin-adoring giant rabbits of Varanasi – but each subtly different depending on the artist, the town, the region. Celebrations of the ancestors in portraits under the eaves, the Ramayana, naughty Shiva up to his hijinks again with the milkmaids, flowers almost Florentine in style and colour.
Our guide to the mysteries of the Havelis is Habi. Since they are spread out in the Shekhawarti district: (Fathepur, Dundlod, Navelgarh, Ramgarh,) it’s handy to have someone with local knowledge and good English (Habi also speaks Italian, German, Spanish). He was anxious to give us our money’s worth so by the end of the second day, climbing to rooftops on perilous stairs our legs had turned to jelly and we had a strange staggering waddle.
An interesting architectural feature that we noted with these repeated climbs (inured as we both are in OH&S procedures) is that the treacherous stairs down from the roof end at a thin, below-the-knee rail on the first floor – perfect for toppling geriatrics with mobility problems, drunks or over-excited children.
Habi is from the Gito caste, the gypsies, which he explains in the rigid hierarchical scheme is above the Dalits (untouchables). His family have a textile shop.
The four main castes in India are:
Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas/Rajanyas (rulers, administrators, warriors), Vaishyas (artisans, merchants, tradesmen and farmers), Shudras (labourers, servants) but there are in fact thousands of castes and sub-castes.
All the restaurants in Mandawa seem to be on rooftops
We are there three nights and sample the pick of Mandawa – The Shekhawarti, The Monica and Jiman.
Rooftop restaurant…Now in your mind you are probably envisioning colourful Rajasthani fabrics, fluttering gently in the night breeze. The twinkling lights of mosques, forts and palaces rising clearly around you, making you feel like gods on Mount Olympus. The ramparts lined with trees and bright flowers, the scent of exotic plants heady on the night air.
Alas reality is a tad more down-to-earth.
Chairs, tables and maybe a plastic-covered tablecloth.
The curries redeem the lack of atmosphere.
The Shekhawarti is good not gourmet.
The Monica does a crispy Afgani Chicken that is bursting with favour (& calories we suspect – nothing that delicious comes without guilt), and an Aloo mutter, spicy and rich (the Monica chef is lavish in his ghee). It’s delicious.
The Jiman is recommended by our guide Habi. The word has spread in Mandawa and Mr Jiman bails Bill up begging him to promise to come to dinner (low season in Mandawa is a worry for shopkeepers and chefs alike).
We try the Handi chicken – a Rajasthani specialty.
The chicken is first marinated in turmeric and lemon juice then a second marinade of red chilli, yoghurt and coriander. The chicken is then cooked very slowly with onions and tomatoes and its own juices in an earthenware pot. Gatta masala (which Google promised was a veg dish) turns out to be chickpea flour (besan) dumplings.
Both are in red sauces but quite different. The Gatta is paprikaey, with cardarmon and hints of clove and asafoetida. (Unfortunately the rooftop is so dark it was impossible to get a decent photo.)