We are stuck adrift in a sea of cattle that flood across the narrow two-lane highway. Our bovine neighbours bump along the sides of the Innova, heads and horns bobbing up and down. Some of them stop to forage through the lush monsoon foliage that lines both sides of Route 13. A stream of two-wheelers cleaves its way through the ranks of the cattle like a rivulet finding a channel through a sandbank. But the seas do not part for us larger vehicles. Welcome to Rajasthan where the cows are the kings of the road and Moses is nowhere to be seen!
Not Grandiose, But Authentic
An hour later we enter the town of Bagar and pass through a tall white arch with Piramal Gate written across it. Immediately to our left is our destination—the Piramal Haveli. At first glance, the hotel seems a bit of a disappointment compared with the grand edifices like the flagship Neemrana Fort-Palace or the recently opened Tijara Fort-Palace that I have experienced before. It is an impressive though somewhat dilapidated mansion with moss-stained balustrades and faded murals and a small garden and fountain enclosed within its two wings. The Innova comes to a crunching stop on the gravel in front of the left-hand portico and we are greeted warmly by the manager Raju and ushered into the cool interior of the building.
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Every Haveli Has a Story to Tell
In the case of the Piramal Haveli which was built in 1928 as the home of Seth Piramal Chaturbhuj Makharia and is currently being managed by Neemrana Hotels, there are eight rooms all of which open out onto the outer courtyard. We are given the Grey Room which is quite substantial in size with barred windows and an antique wooden almirah and dresser as well as a sitting area. The walls, lit by fluted glass sconces, are painted a pale bluish-green and rise up to a vaulted ceiling divided into three sections - they remind me of upturned canoes lined up side by side. Each room has been decorated in its own unique style and kept simple so as to be authentic to the austere nature of the original haveli. Right down to the wooden doors which slam shut and can give you a painful pinch if you are not careful!
One of the unique characteristics of the havelis of the region is their painted courtyards, walls and ceilings. The merchant class spared no expense in hiring the finest artists to decorate their homes with scenes from Hindu mythology but also of their customs, celebrations and community. The team of artists followed the Italian technique of painting called fresco buono by mixing the dry pigments with lime water and then applying it to the wet plastered wall. Cars, planes and trains were the fascinations of the early 20th century and these are in ample evidence in the Piramal haveli. However, the piece de resistance is the one of the Surya devta with his chariot drawn by seven horses, which covers the ceiling of the baithak. Wherever you stand or sit, the Sun God looks down at you from wherever you look at him.
The Unparalleled Warmth of Rajasthani Hospitality
The small staff of Piramal Haveli from the affable Raju to the room attendants Ajay and Pratap left no stone unturned in making our stay comfortable. Their presence was friendly but not obtrusive and we had the feeling of being in the hands of long-time family retainers, another hallmark of the Neemrana brand. The Rajasthani vegetarian food served in thalis and cooked with little oil, had a delightfully light quality about it. The cook Dhaniram whipped up some delicious local delicacies like ker sangri, papad mangodi and khachri phali ki sabzi, drawing on the limited green vegetables of the region. Both nights we were served dinner in the inner courtyard by the light of a full moon which made for quite a magical ambience.
A Day Trip to Mandawa
The biggest tourist attraction in Shekhavati is the town of Mandawa about an hour away and it is not to be missed. I first visited seven years ago when my elder daughter Tarini turned 21 and we took her and her friends to Mandawa for the weekend. So there is a sense of déjà vu as we are guided around the palatial rooms and grounds of Castle Mandawa, part of which has been converted into a heritage hotel. A walk through the town outside the fort will take you to several havelis, ranging from the grand to the modest, all decorated with beautiful frescoes which you can admire. However what they have in common is that they are all deserted and left in the hands of caretakers. The noble families that used to own and inhabit them, the Goenkas, the Jhunjhunwalas and the Sarafs among many others, have long ago fled in search of greener pastures. Now only the buildings and their faded murals remain forlorn reminders of a golden era that will never come again.
Read More: Hidden Gems of Rajasthan: Beyond The Major Tourist Attractions
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