The regal tale: Alsisar Haveli

It’s rare to find an oasis in the middle of the bustling town of Jaipur. The unabating beeping of horns, drivers cutting lanes and taking inconvenient detours through narrow alleys of old Pink city to avoid traffic snarls, Jaipur is crowded and baffling. And then you take a turn, and enter an arched doorway leading to an open area with tall trees, birds singing and an earthy flavour of the air; enough to leave the frenetic bustle and throb of the city behind. I had found my oasis. A tall arched wooden door separated me from the real world and took me to a world enmeshed in a time wrap of old world royalty. I was at Alsisar Haveli, in the middle of the city of over 5 million, yet so different; quiet and with a feeling, that is meant to linger.

ALSISAR HAVELI FRONT FACADE

My eyes were fixed at the heavy, Belgian chandelier; occasionally drifting to the brightly painted glasses and the elaborate frescoes, while the formalities were performed at the reception. Another door, and there the stately Alsisar Haveli stood, in a golden shortbread, with terracotta coloured jharokhas.

Before proceeding to my room, I wished to catch an eyeful of the Alsisar Haveli. Built over a century back, the Haveli retains the finesse of Rajputana architecture, and no doubt is a sight to behold. Heading up to my room, I was told that each room has been uniquely designed and most of the furniture is the one traditionally used by the family or restored and given the century old look. My room, overlook the pool and still held the charms of the era far gone by; the intricate patterns on the wall and roof, the multi-foliated arches, door of dark deciduous wood and variegated windows. Elements of Rajasthani architecture were evident in the room. The ceiling was embellished with a toran-style design and the arches were in a delicate pink with patches of green floral patterns. The room with its ebony furniture, the Cleopatra dressing table, frescoes and a general warmth, looked like a timeless beauty, with hundreds of tales engraved in it. For a moment I wondered who would have used this room when it was a royal property.

Alsisar haveli_Deluxe Room (1)
My stately room in Alsisar haveli

 

 

I remember a traveler friend once telling me about the way the idea of vacations has changed. He said, “vacationers are seeking an experience, a tale to boast”. To me, definitely, stay very much forms a part of this experience. The way we stay decides our vacation. And Alsisar, not for a moment, left me disappointed. There was a grandeur of scale, a bit of history, quirkiness and an intimate experience, to carry back. The Alsisar haveli literally looks like a distillation of the way of life of the royals. (Read more about havelis and Shekhawati here)

The haveli was built in 1892 and refurbished to a heritage hotel in 1994. Dhruv Singh Alsisar, the owner of this Haveli is from the Shekhawati clan, hailing from Alsisar, where they have a palace (Read about Alsisar Mahal here) which has also been turned into a heritage hotel. The richness in design, the regal texture, and the originality has been well preserved in both the properties.

Little treasures in Alsisar haveli

The real steal in Alsisar Haveli is the Sheesh Mahal, a common lounge area, which was once used by the ladies of the royal family. The walls of Sheesh Mahal, richly inlaid with hundreds of mirrors, richly coloured designs on the walls, the mirrored ceilings throwing uncountable reflections, stunning light fixtures and two kingly sized chandeliers; call for some attention. No wonder I was left in a camera frenzy mood in the Sheesh Mahal.

Alsisar haveli_Sheesh Mahal (Lounge)

The Sheesh Mahal Lounge

ALSISAR HAVELI SHEESH MAHAL

Speaking of heritage, there’s no taking away of cuisines from the cultural palette and Alsisar Haveli has just the perfect settings to abet your gastronomic desires and indulgences and a menu carefully crafted to bring the Oriental and the local Rajasthani flavor together. The dining space is impressive, truly fit for the kings, with a large table in the middle and smaller tables around. The place sports an old world ethnic charm; richly designed pillars, arches coloured with traditional motifs, painted glasses, and a heavy chandelier in the middle (comparable to the one I saw in Fateh Sagar Palace in Udaipur, which supposedly is the heaviest in India). The menu is limited but good to do justice to the fancied dining place. Alsisar’s wood baked thin crust pizza are an absolute delight, and from the Indian shelf, the Rajasthani lal maas brings the earthly flavor and the much sought after classics mutton korma and kadhai chicken, keep you wanting for more. For vegetarians, aloo gobhi mutter and kofta has been brilliantly reinterpreted and given a classic culinary touch and turned into ceremonious delights.

Alsisar haveli_Dinning Hall

The dining hall in Alsisar haveli

Probably the best time in the haveli is the evenings. The Alsisar haveli seems to have been designed for comfortable, long chats. There are spaces everywhere turned into comfortable sitting places. The courtyard is beautifully spaced with vintage iron chairs, facing the swimming pool, all for stealing moments for an impromptu get-together or relaxed moments to sip tea, read or just laze. Even the lounge area in the reception has been designed for a comfortable chat, the ambience is warm and beautifully decorated with murals of Hindu epics and gods. Not even the terrace has been left undone, teeming with traditional chairs, to enjoy evenings or double up as casual patrying place.

Though Jaipur is not a place, where you can or would like to stay in the hotel, Alsisar haveli, with its warmth and antiqueness, does manage to hold you. I believe that is the biggest win for any hotel, to make even the most impulsive of travelers, surrender their heart to it. And that probably is what I loved the most during my stay in Alsisar haveli.

Alsisar haveli_Sitting Area

Alsisar haveli seems to have been made for intimate chats.

Alsisar Haveli_Courtyard

The inner courtyard of Haveli

Swimming Pool

The pool area: The granduer in design is unmissable

Alsisar Haveli_Special Setup 1

The place definitely warranties some special occasions

Alsisar haveli_Front Facade

On special occasions, at night

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A painted doorway to the past

With every new step, I could find myself getting closer to the rich past of this town. The symbols are faded yet loud, the stories are forgotten yet live in every colour on the wall waiting to be read and when everything seems to have moved, one look at these marvels, takes you back ages. This is Nawalgarh, in Shekhawati region of Rajasthan; a jeweled past of Indian trade history and here are magnificent havelis built by Marwari traders, who hailed from this area, and the frescos on these havelis are a storyteller, waiting to be discovered.

Podar haveli_nawalgarh

Nawalgarh is a small dot in the map of Rajasthan, but like many other places an indelible one. This was once a cradle of India’s richest families who built grand havelis and celebrated them with frescos of jaw dropping ideas and details. These rich families have now dispersed across India, but their marvels stand. Nawalgarh breathes in its traditions and rich past. Pass through any alley in the city and you will come across a haveli to mesmerize you. Many of the havelis, today stand in a forlorn state for maintaining them is too expensive an exercise.

fresco_nawalgarh (2)

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Shekhawati: India’s Open Art Gallery

I know I am not admiring at Mona Lisa at the Louvre or wandering on the streets of Met; but there is something tantalizing in these streets which is making me do the comparison. It is not Sistine Chapel or any art museum of Paris, but it is surely an open art gallery. It is not a mural on the wall but a mansion full of them and a village full of such mansions. Tucked away in northern Rajasthan, in the districts of Churu and Jhunjhunu, is this outdoor art gallery or the Shekhawati region. Shekhawati was once a cradle of India’s richest families who built these grand havelis and decorated them with frescos of such jaw dropping ideas and details. Though the Marwari diaspora has now dispersed across India, their marvels remain in Shekhawati awaiting discovery.

haveli_nawalgarh

Shekhawati still breathes in its finest painted traditions. The rich Marwari families brought some of the finest European and Indian artists together to bring alive their walls. These walls were enlivened with artistic retellings of Indian epics and fables, murals of locomotives to depict a rail journey for citizens, Europeans in a horse carriage or taking off in a hot air balloon, trade treaties between Indian rulers and French and British merchants, playful depictions of Radha and Krishna, Rajasthani love story of Dhola-Maru and even scenes from Kamasutra. In these havelis, through baithaks or sitting room, ornate silver hookahs, Belgian glass chandeliers, stinted glasses imbued with folksy perspectives and tales, arched gateways, courtyards and durbars; fresco art was celebrated and thrived with family’s growing wealth and prosperity. And this didn’t end at frescos and havelis, the region saw development of many structures from architecturally well laid schools to stepwells to ornate temples as a result of educational and cultural philanthropy of these rich merchants.
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A slice of Shekhawati in Alsisar

The desolate roads, the pastoral calmness hung in the air, changing colour of the mud-dunes from clayey brown to camel yellow, the nomadic hue of the lifestyle, frequent calls of a peacock and the half-forgotten monuments set against the backdrop of an azure, blue sky, this region seemed to have soaked its beauty in the rustic chill of its lifestyle. It was six in the morning when I reached and was welcomed by the precious silence of the Alsisar village.  A slice of Shekhawati floated in the air; the charm of havelis, cenotaphs, stepwells strewn around me and the mighty Alsisar Palace standing in front me against the backdrop of a struggling sun amidst the monsoon clouds.

The Alsisar Palace stands like a royal guardian of the village.

The Alsisar Palace stands like a royal guardian of the village.

When Raja Shekha established the Shekhawati region in the 18th century, he made it a tax free zone for commerce and trade and invited rich merchants of the erstwhile Marwar belt of Bikaner, Jodhpur, Kota and even Jaipur to settle and establish business in the Shekhawati region. Many of these merchants, the Goenkas, Piramals, Birlas, Poddars, Agrawals and the Khetans settled in this tax free state with a condition that they would be ready to provided financial help when the state asks or requires, thus setting the base of a thriving business and cultural center of Rajasthan. In the 19th century when these merchants moved to and prospered in new commercial centers of Bombay, Gujarat and Calcutta, they sent money back home and build grand havelis to tell their families and villagers of their prosperity. And as more merchants moved out, more havelis and cenotaphs were built. And thus a ‘never to die’ Shekhawati was born.

The story of Alsisar is a bit different. Alsi and Malsi were two sisters. Unable to bear taunts aimed at his sisters who went to draw water from the village well, Thakur nawal Singh decided to dig his own well. He dug through the night until he struck water. Alsi settled at this sar (water source) and the place came to be known as Alsisar and the village where Malsi settled became Malsisar.

The royal durbar which once saw meetings between rich merchants of the area.

The royal durbar which once saw meetings between rich merchants of the area.

Alsisar keeps its soul in its palace which stands in the center of the village as a royal guardian. We entered through a massive arched gateway, protected by a wooden door and were led to a massive courtyard. On one side of the courtyard was the reception room, which once functioned as the main baithak or durbar hall, where all the trade related meetings used to happen. The rich frescos with intricate gold leaf work done on them, the stinted glasses depicting various scenes from Lord Krishna’s life, heavy chandeliers bought from France and heavy work done on the Belgian glasses; all create a fine play of luxury in unison. There was a screened off latticed windows, above the durbar, for women to look at the proceedings of the durbar. The grandiose of the durbar looked like a leaf taken from a lavish Bollywood movie set in historical times.

On the other side of the main courtyard is the men’s palace (Mardana Mahal). We moved inwards towards the suites or as our host said ‘towards the women’s palace (Zanana Mahal). We were basically led from one courtyard to the other and as we were told there are ten courtyards in the palace. The courtyard arrangement, with its thick walls, provided plenty of shade to cool the rooms, a basic necessity in this sun scorched land.

The rich frescoes in the now turned dining hall area a treat to watch.

The rich frescoes in the now turned dining hall area a treat to watch.

And being in palace, isn’t the only thing one can do in Alsisar. Set off for a village tour and you will be amazed by the richness of architecture in the village. Shekhawati stills lives in its past, decades or centuries old temples, cenotaphs, wells are still the main landmarks in the village. There are havelis which have been restored and converted to schools. There are havelis which are now abandoned and looked after by a caretaker, but these weave a story for us, they tell a tale of the era when this region was a strategic trade point. These random havelis are emblematic, existing as symbols of lost pleasure, wealth and easy life. Today they are dwelled by pigeons, grasp for some fresh air to live their rich past in their present, but they still pull you. Alsisar has uniquely positioned itself as less touristy but more restored of Shekhawati villages. Many of these havelis are now been restored by the present Thakur Gaj Singh ji and will be converted into more useable form than just exist as symbols.

The one of many cenotaphs in Alsisar.

The one of many cenotaphs in Alsisar.

And a rugged landscape of Shekhawati belt with its mud-dunes, charming panoply of frittered trees, rocky terrain dotted with acacias and every unutilized piece of land flowered with sunflowers; never fails to mesmerize the travelers. What’s better than to go for a desert safari to acquaint oneself with the hardships of life in this scorched belt as women dressed in their traditional dresses laden with bangles struggle to get potable water from far off or men walking languorously with their camels or camels walking aimlessly down the road, pulling their carts with their frustrated owners behind them wearing an air pessimism. The safari jeep takes you through narrow muddy roads or sometimes through fields (where once roads existed), but every bump looks inviting as you look around you; the inescapable melody of the landscape, calls of gazelles from some hidden corners, hoots of owls, a carpet of wild sunflowers and the optimism in the maize plants planted on the slopes. And then the jeep takes you to a hillock; step down and breathe in the moment, the magnetic beauty of the nothingness of the arid landscape is before you. Your chauffeur will lay down a table for you for you to sip in the most memorable coffee of your life.

It's like rewinding your life to the start @sanddunes in Alsisar

It’s like rewinding your life to the start @sanddunes in Alsisar

It seems that in Alsisar there’s always something more to be offered. Travelling here is a shift in perspective, landscape is tricky and amazing and constantly changing, there’s value in nothingness, centuries old cultural panorama, incredible tales, the colourful tuk-tuks dressed like princess and the long forlorn acacia trees – everything commands an inviting charm in unison and then a palace standing as a royal guard of this historical cultural and natural vista.

Fast facts

To go – You can get down at Churu railway station, Alsisar is 40 kms from there and you can get a taxi from the station at a rate of Rs 1000. If you are coming from Delhi, you can get down at Saddalpur that will save you an hour.

To Stay – Alsisar Mahal is a good option that will fit in your budget too, with rooms starting from around 3500 a night. Apart from being historic, Alsisar Mahal has options unparallel in Shekhawati. Imagine fresh pizzas being served to you in a roof top restaurant, a discotheque with all the elements you can list and an unique lounge based on the concept of World War II.

More to plan – You can plan a trip to Shekhawati belt from Alsisar, it should take 2-3 days to cover the entire belt.

Alsisar Mahal also doubles up as a venue for three days of music, art and food festival in December. Magnetic fields (as it is called) promises to bring the newest Indian sounds and music from worldover with 30 DJs and parties that promises to be none other. It wears a different hue these 3 days, brighter enough to beat the charm of our metros. Bonfires in the wild, camping like vagabonds, a taste of regal life in the palace, workshops from local artists and artisans and a grand display of culture and cuisine, Magnetic fields has set an unmatchable scale.

Photo credits – Mohit Goel