On a visit to four different regions of Rajasthan, Maithili Chakravarthy discovers a few things – The love for luxury and ostentation among the maharajas, the prowess of rich Marwari businessmen who built artistic havelis to show off their wealth, dal-baati which can release serotonin and that religions could coexist peacefully without society complicating their bonhomie
To my mind, Rajasthani hospitality is unmatched. For the local guide, hotelier, server, shopkeeper, the guest is like god. Book yourself at a local haveli hotel or palace hotel and you will feel like you have been airlifted out of your house and transferred into a dream, one whose scenes keep flashing before the eyes like mirages. From four poster beds, to frescos, to gold-plated crockery, every detail of a regal haveli or palace hotel stands out. Shafeeq Mohammed, Alsisar Haveli’s General Manager, says, “Our hotel was established in 1994. We have had lots of famous people stay with us, for example Virender Sehwag, Muttiah Muralitharan, Dale Steyn, Irrfan Khan and Sakshi Dhoni. Our motto is Atithi Devo Bhava. Our aim is to give our guests a feeling of being in ancient times.”
I went on a seven-day trip to Rajasthan. As I drove from the airport to my hotel in Japiur, I was greeted by a bustling city, and buildings like the Vidhan Sabha, the Rambagh Palace, and the Birla Mandir. In a nondescript location was Alsisar Haveli. The entrance was modest but as I moved inside, the magnificence and beauty of the haveli started to unfold. Bit by bit, like a movie whose climax was nearing, the haveli opened its doors to me. In the reception area, I was face to face with days from yore, with ornate lamps, stained glass windows, massive crystal chandeliers, and framed black and white photos of Rajput dynasties. The doors of rooms had mother of pearl inlay work and doorknobs had deity figurines on them. German tourist Derek Viman says about the hotel, “Alsisar Haveli is extremely pleasant. It’s comparatively relaxed. It’s understated. It’s a very nice hotel. It looks genuine.”
Maharajas splendour and largesse
When in Jaipur, a visit to Amer Fort is a must. The walls of the Amber Palace inside are full of frescos, and paintings where vegetable, gem stone and fruit dyes were used. The penchant for art, for luxury and for design was evident in the palace’s convex Belgian mirrors, Turkish hammams and Persian carpets. My guide, who spoke with rehearsal, told me about the wheelchairs that were kept for queens dressed in their finery and jewels. So weighty were her garments and ornaments that she often needed to be taken around on a wheelchair! Clearly the maharajas believed in the philosophy of more the better.
The festive food
Dal-baati-choorma is the stuff of legend. In Jaipur, the Virasat restaurant is the right place to try some. Their choorma was flaky, porous, pleasing to the taste buds and a perfect combination with the spicy dal and hot baati. The restaurant also serves thalis starting from Rs. 800 (plus taxes).
Fashion is affordable, supreme
Pushkar is Rajasthan’s Goa. Outside the Brahma Temple and along a pathway adjacent to the Pushkar Lake, there were several shops brimming with bandhanis, mirror work, bags and costume jewellery. My friend has a shop in Pushkar. He teaches people how to make jewellery. I paid him a visit and saw the steady entry and exit of his clientele, many of them foreigners. They were trying to coerce him to showcase his jewellery internationally, emphasising that his designs needed to travel far and wide, and shouldn’t stay confined to Pushkar. Pushkar is a haven for experimentation and a tourist can often buy harem pants, wrap-around skirts, stoles and t-shirts with religious lettering in different colours.
Coexistence of religions in Ajmer
When in Ajmer, Urs was going on, and I was warned not to visit the Ajmer Sharif Dargah because the crowds would be immense. I decided to go to the Nasiyan Digambar Jain temple instead. With inscriptions and paintings on its walls, the temple had massive doors and giant murtis inside. Stained glass adorned the doors and the work on the walls was bejewelled and ornate. In another enclosure of the temple I got to read about the life of Jain Tirthankara Rishabdev and his path to enlightenment. A golden scene depicting Ayodhya had been constructed showing the birth of a king and his journey to sainthood, his realisation that the world was a material, ephemeral paradise from which he wanted to be free. The scene also depicted the dreams of a mother when she was pregnant, where she dreamed that she would give birth to a great man.
Havelis – Epitome of Marwari richness
If you like long drives and want to get away from the city when in Jaipur, Shekhawati is the perfect place for you. Shekhawati is barren, interspersed by beautiful greenery here and there and dotted with havelis. These were havelis of rich men from the past. Those with big businesses whose offices were in their homes, and whose havelis could house almost 45 people. The walls of each of the havelis I visited, whether it was the Morarka or the Podar haveli in Nawalgarh, or the Arjun Das Goenka Haveli in Dundlod, were studded with artistic frescos often depicting gods like Rama and Krishna. The havelis, or the hawa walis (houses of wind) were testimony to the prevalence of the joint family system in Rajasthan. Sometimes they acted like a screen. Brothers who didn’t get along lived separately inside but to the outside world they were one.
I stayed at the Vivaana Culture Hotel in Churi Ajitgarh while in Shekhawati. I was greeted by flower petals which were strewn from the top and offered a rose sherbet welcome drink. The hotel was the result of the restoration of two 19th century havelis and had palatial bedrooms with oversized beds, courtyards, fresco lounges, a well-stocked library and a carrom room with gold chairs. The hotel also had a swimming pool and spa, called the Elephant House Spa. The spa has been named after a local elephant who inhabited the room before. At Vivaana, apart from the warm, helpful service, what stood out was the moong dal sheera! It was just right. Not sickly sweet, it was creamy, textured and sumptuous. “Our aim is to create a ‘wow’ factor for our guests. We want to keep the heritage theme alive. People should come to our property and feel relaxed and at peace,” says Pankaj Kaloya, Receptionist at Vivaana Culture Hotel.
Many hotels hosted puppet shows inviting local puppeteers to perform in the dining areas of the havelis, showcasing various skits, fire acts and stories between puppet characters. The shows were beautiful with puppets in myriads of colours, on make-do stages, with king and queen motifs decorating stages. These artists even sold their puppets for as less as Rs. 200 – Rs. 300. Says Mukesh Bhat, the puppeteer in charge of a show at Alsisar Haveli, “Puppet shows are an ancient tradition. Kings and queens would watch puppet shows. These are more for tourists. Indians are bored of them. My grandfather did a puppet show for Nehru.”
My last hotel stay was at Alsisar Mahal at Alsisar village. While at Alsisar, I did a safari in the semi-arid surroundings of Alsisar, spotting peacocks on the way, before embarking on a tumultuous ride in the desert land. My driver showed me herds of deer and wild bulls known to be destructive. The air was crisp, and as the sun set it took away with it the remnants of a beautiful day in Rajasthan. What was left was the night – a night of magic, of music, of dancing and good food.