Trip Meter

Gurgaon 0 - Rewari 60 - Narnaul 160 - Chirawa 200 - FATEHPUR 281 - MANDAWA 305 - JHUNJHUNU 335 - Chirawa 370 - Narnaul 430 - Rewari 500 - Gurgaon 560

[Numbers beside the place are trip meter readings in km at that point. Places in bold indicate sight-seeing destinations.]

'Nemo, drive pe chalna hai?'

'Bata dena kab.'

'Zazu, drive pe chalna hai?'

'Bata dena kab.'

Shekhawati had been on radar for over year and a half now (I first came to know about Shekhawati's fresco havelis during my Rajasthan drive in Aug 2006). Himanshu recently bought his Swift and was happy to go on a long drive. Anant was excited about traveling, as he hadn't done a trip in India for a long time. I was going to move from Delhi to Bombay very soon - this trip had to be done before I moved. So the cards aligned perfectly on a Friday night. We picked up Eicher road map, our cameras, packed some stuff in our backpacks and threw them in the trunk.

Soon we were heading west out of Gurgaon on NH8. Himashu took the wheel, I took the passenger seat and Anant spread out in the back seat. Shekhawati was a jewel tucked in the interiors of Rajasthan. Our plan was to drive to Fatehpur, the furthest point in our trip, and sleep there. We would start driving back the next day and stop at other towns enroute.

After a while, we stopped for dinner at a dhaba on national highway. After the dinner, we left national highway and picked up state roads - the roads and traffic weren't too bad. We enjoyed the occasional breeze when we rolled down the windows and midnight tea at small towns.

'So what's the popular thing to see in your town?' we asked the tea vendor in Hindi. He sold ginger spiced tea on a small cart in the dark of the night. Winter had just retreated; the nights were still cold. Local men enjoyed warm tea on a couple of benches around the cart in the cold dark night.

'What?' came blank expression in his native accent.

'Popular ... famous,'

'Nothing really. You can try the pedas,'

'Ah, the pedas,' we smiled.

We should have expected the tea vendor's surprise when we asked him the question. After all, not many tourists frequent his town in Rajasthan. They mostly stick to the Big J's (Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer) or pick up Udaipur as an alternative. And we should have expected the accent. Language or accent or both change every 200 km in India. We sipped our tea, changed drivers and drove on.

As I took the wheel, I thought of the night when Panda and I were driving back to Delhi from Barmer in 2006. We had started from Barmer in the morning and had driven 800 km when we reached Shekhawati district. We were still 200 km away from Delhi. We were tired, our bones ached and our eyes smarted due to lack of sleep. The roads weren't our best friends - a dreaded single lane with twists, turns and potholes at regular intervals.

I was expecting to see the same single lane roads again - this time a little more psychologically prepared. But we only encountered a 30 km stretch of single lane just before we entered Jhunjhunu. Pretty neat! That's a lot of progress for two years. We drove through Jhunjhunu and Mandawa to reach Fatehpur around midnight and checked into the RTDC hotel. The room was large, basic and neat. The tariff was reasonable - Rs. 500 per night. Our friend Himanshu, founder of Nemasis: The Art of Forgetting program, realised that he forgot his backpack at home.

Next morning I stepped into the balcony of our hotel room and stretched myself out of slumber. The Fatehpur townscape was made of single and double storey buildings - some old and some new; vertical minars, which were unmistakably Islamic architecture, jutted out at regular intervals. Muslim rulers in Shekhawati? I turned the pages in my Lonely Planet to look for any references. Fatehpur was the capital of Muslim nawabs between 1450 and 1700s before Shekhawati rajputs took over.

An hour later we were strolling through the main bazaar of Fatehpur. I could not take my eyes off the numerous havelis, some of them now in a state of severe disrepair, which dotted the high street. When we think of Rajasthan, we think of colorful dresses and huge turbans. While this is more feigned in cities like Jaipur and Udaipur to attract tourists, the colorful dressing habit came more naturally to people in this region. I was dressed in khakhi cargos and half-sleeve jacket; sunglasses perched on my head and camera hung on my shoulder. I looked a complete misfit and an easily identifiable outsider in this vibrant amalgamation of colors.

We walked towards a better maintained haveli. The portico was painted in bright green and an elderly gentleman with a thick black rimmed glasses and a colorful bandhani turban sat leaning against one of the pillars.

'Can we go inside to have a look?' we asked politely. We anticipated we needed to pay him some money to gain access to the haveli.

'Indian or foreigner?' he asked us.

Sure we the city kids were dressed in cargos and t-shirts. But didn't the color of our skin give away our nationality? Of course we were Indians! Why don't you just take the money you want and let us in. I was irked that this keeper of haveli was perhaps trying to shoo away Indians while allowing occasional foreigners and tour groups to go in.

'Indian,' I said maintaining my calm.

'You can go in,' he said.


'No need. It's free,'

I felt embarrassed at my impatience and early judgment. Although I had not said anything to unsettle anyone, I regretted that internal moment of impulse. Travel, like meditation, can open your eyes to a lot of things.

We stepped inside the Bheramal Kedia ki haveli. The pale mud colored structure consisted of two central courtyards and rooms on two storeys around it. The doors and window frames had intricate woodwork and lattices, some of which were shabbily repainted in the recent past. Every inch of the haveli walls was a painted mosaic. The murals ranged from gods and goddesses to portraits of family heads to soldiers to cars to planes. Most of them were creative imagination as it was highly unlikely that an artist in Shekhwati may have seen an airplane close and upfront.

One of my friends, Kashyap Deorah, had an ancestoral haveli in Fatehpur. We wanted to see if we could hunt it down.

'Do you know the whereabouts of Matrumal Deorah ki haveli?' we asked the keeper as we stepped out.

'Don't really know. There are a couple of Deorah havelis in this region.'

'Which way?'

'Go straight and take the second right.'

You would be surprised what a rupee can buy in this region! As I write this, I am considering buying a 2BHK flat in Bombay and we're talking atleast a crore here. In Fatehpur, you can own an entire haveli for about Rs. 30-40 lakh. Add another Rs. 20 lakh to restore it to its former glory.

And that is exactly what a French artist did here.

After the second right we reached the Nandlal Deorah ki haveli, now rechristened Haveli Nadine Prince, a scintillating piece of architecture among other surrounding ruins that shone like pole star in dark sky. The exterior walls were painted with fine red and blue murals, most of them painstakingly restored. Nadine bought a large haveli and completely restored it. It is now her winter home and art studio; she spends six months in India living a life in an environment similar to the 18th century nobles and rich men. She also rents part of the haveli to visiting artists who are here for extended stay. The entrance to her haveli was Rs. 100 - a fair charge for such good work.

We visited another haveli owned by the Singhania business family before leaving Fatehpur for Mandawa and Jhunjhunu. The other two towns had their own share of havelis, baodis, fortresses, temples, antique sellers and local art vendors.

The havelis of Shekhawati were a strange concept. Why were so many of them built anyway? Why were they not inhabited anymore? And why were they in a state of neglect and disrepair? We didn't have exact answers to our questions. But a vague theory constructed around them was this.

The business community of Shekhawati region, the Marwaris, migrated to different parts of India for business. Most of them made it big and eventually settled in other cities. As a sign and display of their newly acquired wealth, they built havelis back in their hometown. This is the reason why so many towns in Shekhawati belt are dotted with huge havelis. They sprung up as part of a pompous show prevalent in that era. The next and next-to-next generations of the original builders never considered staying in Shekhawati and appointed keepers to take care of the havelis. Some never bothered to do that too.

Today these havelis were a somber reminder of the pomp, opulence and resplendence of Shekhawati Marwaris, a destination for off-beat travelers, a meagre source of income for locals, and another spot on a cultural treasure hunt for urbanites.

After hearty Rajasthani meal of chawal, dal and gatte ki sabzi on the outskirts of Jhunjhunu, we started driving back toward Delhi. The landscape outside our window pane was dry and arid. Black tar road rolled ahead of us in serpentine curves and red earth on either sides supported sporadic desert trees. The trees were a far cry from any regimented garden I have seen but there was a certain beauty that flowed from them in spite of the aridity. Camels strolled around the landscape, cattle tied outside little village homes mooed us, and occasional flocks of sheep grazed on occasional patches of grass.

The sun was beginning to descend towards horizon in the west. We pulled up our car to enjoy the evening. The sky was a pale pink and painted earth and trees in a soft orange. A camel was hauling a two-wheeled cart through the sand, kicking up a cloud of orange diffused light as it slowly passed us. We stood there watching the camel, cart and the dust cloud it kicked up.

As we neared Delhi and as it got darker, the exoticism of the environment dwindled with the light outside. And inside began the game of analysis paralysis. Our discussions ranged from personal strengths to weaknesses, from hobbies to ambitions, from organized lives to madness; that metal shell rolling on four wheels transformed into a fast moving bubble bursting with wisdom.

True. Long drives are much more than just an escape from the urban chaos.

Tags: Drive, India

Post a comment

  1. Great work Zi.. no need to say this though.. :-) - Anant Inani
  2. Boy-o-boy that's a fundoo blog.. how could you possibly remember so many things in the trip. I don't even recall you making a note of any of the haveli/haveli owner names.. awesome post. - Himanshu Nema