We caught an extremely bumpy and busy bus a few hours east of Jaipur to an area called Shekhawati. We chose to stay in Nawalgarh, a town which only being three hours from famous Jaipur felt quite remote and 'off the beaten track'. In fact I think there was only ourselves and another couple of tourists staying there. The more common tourists there seemed to be day trippers coming on a coach to look around for a few hours then hop back on to another destination. But as we were in no rush we decided to stay a few days and ended up being rewarded by a truly authentic experience of India at its least developed.
The main sights people come to see are the impressive painted havelis, houses that were built at the beginning of the 20th century by the rich businessmen prospering from Shekhawatis location on the Thar desert trade route. With the development of the ports of Calcutta and Bombay business dried up and thus all the businessmen left for the big cities years ago, leaving these stunning buildings in a date of picturesque delapidation scattered around the towns they left behind. The majority have been left empty for most of the year with the owners only visiting now and then, if at all. A housekeeper or guard is usually there to look after the place and prevent squatting. Some Havelis were turned into schools, and some now house many families, or such as one we visited is now a museum with fully restored paintings.
We stayed in the lovely Shekhawati Guesthouse. We were the only guests there at the time. It was pretty cold and our room felt colder inside than the outsid, but luckily blankets were in abundance and our hoodies were finally put to good use after lugging them round Indonesia and not wearing them once. And they also help Olly look like a happy elf.
The friendly owner provided us with a delicious dinner every night and even prepared us a tasty chapati wrap for our bus journey when we left. We didn't bother looking for another restaurant (there weren't really any anyway) to try because the food was just too good! Fresh, organic and homegrown ingredients and a variety of flavours our taste buds were tingling with pleasure. It was also the first time we had what we called the sweet sugary balls, but later found out are called Julab Jaman. They are probably closest to a sticky toffee pudding and are delish.
If you are going to Nawalgarh you have to chose this guesthouse it still stands as one of our favourite and most hospitable places in the whole of India.
We wandered around the town, children ran up to us and waved, adults said hello and we were even offered a ride on the back of a mans donkey cart, but politely declined because the donkey looked close to collapse and I don't think it could bear the extra weight of two Europeans. All of these people had no alterior motive or desire to take us anywhere for money, they were just pleasantly curious of us. As soon as you get out the big cities or tourist packed areas this always seems to happen and although at times, especially in India due to the relative lack of language barrier, it can get a little tiring telling every next person where you are from, where you are going, are you married etc, but I guess it just adds to the experience. A sad thing we noticed in Nawalgarh however was the amount of stray puppies there were! We saw a good few litters of puppies abandoned looking ridiculously helpless and you just wanted to take one home. stray dogs are a big problem across the whole of India, but when some people cannot afford to look after themselves or their own families, how do you expect them to take in a pet too.
We even got to have a quick nose round the grounds of the government building on the edge of town
The next day we visited a haveli and had a really interesting tour around by an enthusiastic man, who we thought was just going to give us our tickets, but actually showed us all the way around. He didn't just tell us about the haveli but explained to us many aspects of Indian and Hindu culture and the complicated caste system. The haveli architecture and artwork was an eclectic mix of Mughal, Hindu, and British style and influence. Next to a painting of Shiva was Jesus Christ or next to a horse and cart was a britishman in a steam train. Every piece of wall and ceiling space had fantastic drawings that tell a story or are simply beautiful patterns, you could spend ages just staring at the walls. After the owners moved out this haveli it became a school for a while which was actually where our guide used to go and eventually the estate of the owner restored the art and turned it in to a museum.
Shiva and his wife Parvati...when 2 become 1
We also learnt how to tie a turban, Olly looked rather fetching in his!
The women would sit at the balconies and listen in on the mens conversations, but were not allowed to contribute.
The next day we decided to walk to a neighbouring town Dundlod, knowing little about it apart from the few lines in the rough guide. The book said it was 7km across fields but it was definitely longer than that and we walked along a road most of the way, unless we went the wrong way but we asked for directions every now and then. Every time we asked we would be offered a rickshaw to take us there but would decline and explan we would rather walk, in which we would receive a confused face in reply "walking?!" I don't think many people walk if they have a choice not to. People found it funny that we wanted to walk out of choice. We have to burn off all those delicious curries somehow. It was a chance to see some of the Indian countryside and farmland and the dry beginnings of the Thar desert.
We arrived in dusty Dundlod and had a quick look around the town and stopped for some samosas and other tasty spicey snacks. They are, like most things, dead cheap in India, 10 or 20 p and you can get them on any corner albeit not the healthiest snack, the smell of spices is never far.
We then went to the fort which seemed empty so we just wandered in and had a look around.
Half of it is a hotel didn't look like many people stay there anymore) and some of it is where the current maharaja still lives. We finally bumped into someone who asked if we had tickets and then he showed us round again, whilst we pretended we hadn't been around ourselves already..whoops. They keep a few rooms in traditional style and we saw the maharaja working in a large dark room with one light on, maybe to save on electricity bills? The maharajas once received a checque for upkeep from the Indian government post independence but since Indira Ghandi in the 1970's this is no longer the case. Heavy tourist footfall keeps many kingdoms afloat, however the tiny town of Dundlod doesn't really resemble a kingdom any longer. The furniture could have been plucked out of a stately home in Britain.
To make up for lost income the maharajah in Dundlod breeds, in partnership with an American heiress, a rare breed of horse, the notoriously hyperactive Marwari and apparently they have some fancy stables nearby. We left the fort and had a drink outside, and conveniently a worker at the fort was driving back to Nawalgarh and offered us a lift so we hopped in the back of the jeep back to our guesthouse, ideal.
Nawalgarh was an interesting place, not particularly picturesque apart from the havelis, but it gave us a really clear image of a normal Indian town untouched by any great tourist footfall.