THE road was velvety; a narrow bitumen strip that cut through a landscape as flat and yellow as a pancake for the most part, relieved by rare patches of dirty green, where hardy xerophytic herbs had taken root and a strange creeper with fruit like small melons, crept stealthily along the sand in patches. On enquiring with the driver, I was told that camels ate this strange fruit.
The landscape hardly varied and as we neared Mandawa, got even more stark, if possible. By mid-morning, even though it was winter, the sun was burning an already scorched landscape. Protected by the air conditioning in the car we journeyed on, but at 1.30 pm, when pangs of hunger hit, it was hard to find a spot where one could halt awhile to eat the packed lunch. Driving down the treeless road, we finally did come to a spot where a large Prosopis juliflora bush cast a short shadow across the road. Under this welcome shade we finally halted for lunch. Prosopis juliflora was introduced in the desert to halt its march, but ironically, it is overtaking the desert itself! Lunch over, we moved on and around 3.30 p.m., entered through a maze of narrow streets, the castle town of Mandawa, centrally located in the Shekhawati region.
Our entry into Mandawa was uneventful. For a town of historical importance, it was sadly sleepy, fairly dirty and unkempt. Unimpressive in fact, with narrow winding streets between large mansions that were going to seed. The first haveli (mansion) that we came upon as we entered and which was in good shape, was the Goenka Haveli. The Goenkas remain a prosperous business group to date, and are well known to the public at large on account of the Indian Express, a well received newspaper throughout the country. Their haveli is prominently located along the road and well maintained. From this point on, wherever we turned, we encountered painted walls. Weaving in and out of narrow streets, checking with locals at every turn, we finally entered a slim alley that brought us before the massive gates of Mandawa Castle. As those gates were pulled open by a couple of liveried guards, literally in the blink of an eye, we were transported to another world and transformed to royalty.
The gates swung close, as our vehicle pulled up by the portico. The car doors were held open for us deferentially by more liveried personnel and as I stepped out of the car, indeed, I was a princess.
I found myself in what was once the durbar hall. It was so highly ornate that I felt distinctly uncomfortable taking a seat there, while check-in formalities were being completed. Two throne chairs occupied a central position. They were flanked by carved camphor chests and topped by enameled lamps. A large crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling and the walls were crammed with paintings and antiques while the arches were painted from end to end. The overall effect of this blend of eastern and western opulence was rather overwhelming. Even the low arch carried portraits that were obviously restored, and the work was in gold leaf, no less! I am told that no two rooms are the same here! How could they be in this maze, where rooms are tucked away at various angles? They have been remodeled to suit the modern tourist, but with its old world charm left untouched.
Formalities complete, we were shown to our room on the first floor via an extremely narrow stairway. As the staircase came to an end we had to double up under a really low arch that opened on to a terrace. Rooms fronted the terrace. The bellboy brought forth a bunch of huge keys and fitted one to the padlock of room 208. Then he flung open the wooden doors with a flourish and bowed us in. I don’t recall now if my jaw dropped at what was before me; a good sized room in which a carved four poster bed dominated. An enclosed verandah ran the length of the room along which was a narrow divan covered with woven silk and strewn with cushions of several sizes. Above the divan was a row of skylights of coloured glass that set the room aflame with varied hues. Granite pillars supported the low arches that were figure painted and framed with flowers. A coffee table, refrigerator and a few other pieces of furniture were inconspicuously, but elegantly placed in the room. A passing thought – I wondered how such massive pieces of furniture were hauled into the room given the narrow access? But there was much more to occupy my mind.
We gathered our cameras and were soon bending through the connecting arch and moving up to the battlements of the castle. Erected on a hillock, the castle dominates the town below as it is meant to. From the battlements we garnered a bird’s eye view of the town sprawling below. We clicked away!
We returned to the castle as dusk was setting in. A messenger came to the door to inform us that dinner would be served on the spreading, manicured lawns; His Highness Bhim Singhji, current owner of the castle would dine with his guests. Dressed in our limited finery, we entered the dining area. Attentive waiters materialised, wine flowed into crystal glasses, the firelight glancing off them. There was romance in the air. We clinked glasses, sank back into the deep armchairs happily and sipped the excellent Chablis. Completely relaxed, we began to enjoy the bracing cold without and felt a warm glow within.
Warmth from the braziers placed around the lawns began to counter the chill in the air. The embers glowed fluorescent red and gold, and the stars looked down from a clear indigo sky. Magic floated around making an everyday routine sublime. Guests began to fill the lawns and soon after, a troupe of rustic musicians came into sight, led by an old man, with well oiled and curled handle bar mustachios. He carried two flares and was followed by musicians carrying a dholak, cymbals and other instruments. He sang a folk song in the local lingo moving from table to table, while the musicians followed, accompanying him with a lilting tune. We looked on enthralled and forgot to eat for a while, completely immersed in the music. The veil of a time bygone lifted for a while and led us into the embrace of a gracious past.
Regality prevailed over every aspect of the evening from the heart-warming hospitality to the regal buffet spread. We ate at a leisurely pace and watched the stars hang low in the sky. Guests began to leave, but we lingered, and as the lawns emptied we savoured the privacy accorded to us. We strung each moment, a precious pearl in the string of memories, sitting in companionable silence. The staff waited unobtrusive and uncomplaining in the periphery of the lawn….
And for a day and a night, we were ‘royalty’.