by Marie McCarthy
The main attraction at Jhunjhunu is the beautiful Rani Sati Temple. The center of the main building is five stories with three-storied wings on each sides, all colonnaded. The building is painted pale green. The temple is behind another gateway within the complex and looks like a mansion. Typical of so many places in India, there was a garbage dump next to the parking area, just across the road from the temple, where bony holy cows and skinny dogs nosed through the refuse, looking for something edible.
Prem had told me that sometimes drivers are not allowed in monuments with their guests. Depending on the location, there are rules against it. At any rate, I knew that sometimes he’d be able to come with me, and sometimes he wouldn’t. At the Rani Sati Temple, he stayed with the car.
Near the entrance there were the usual touts trying to sell postcards and trinkets to tourists. One man, who looked like he was mentally challenged and was rather large, started following me yelling hallo, hallo, ever more loudly and insistently. Just as I began to get alarmed, a security guard at the temple entrance came down the steps and shouted at the man in Hindi, who then retreated.
I left my sandals at the shoe room. At Rani Sati, photography is allowed inside the complex everywhere except inside the temple, so I didn’t have to leave my camera behind. As I walked through the first gate, I saw a pretty, plump Indian woman in a sari accompanied by three daughters. Two of them were dressed in contemporary clothes, but one was dressed in a gorgeous, deep fuchsia, sparkling salwar kameez with a long scarf. I smiled at her.
“Beautiful!” I said, indicating her clothes.
They were all instantly pleased and clustered around me, speaking mostly in Hindi. One of the girls spoke a little English, enough to ask me where I was from. They were all smiles when I said Washington, DC. The beautiful lady indicated I was to come with them.
They walked me through the entire complex, pointing at various things and waiting for me to take pictures. We walked down an aisle in one building where there were several bells overhead. I knew to ring them, just as they did, in order to let the gods know that I was there. They smiled when they saw me do that. Then the lady beckoned me inside the temple, where music and dancing were going on. I put my camera away immediately. Had I been alone, I wouldn’t have gone into the temple, out of respect for the people worshipping within.
The sweet scent of burning incense filled the air. Flowers, mostly orange marigolds, adorned the shrine area where the donation box was. A priest in saffron robes handed all those making donations a small, sweet cookie. The lady put her donation in the box, turned to me and said, “ten rupees.” I put a ten rupee note in the box and received my cookie.
Behind the shrine was a passage which went around in a circle, leading back to the main room. I followed the lady and her daughters, who touched various symbols on the walls, then touched their hearts and their foreheads. Back around to the front of the shrine, there was a spot where a plate with vegetable colors was set. One of the daughters dipped a finger into the vegetable paint and applied a vertical line of red on her forehead just above the eyes. Then she did the same to me. Next she pressed a few grains of rice into the center of the red mark. I wondered if it had something to do with fertility.
We walked outside a bit more and saw a peacock. The girls were excited and wanted me to take a picture of it. Just before the shoe area, I asked to take their picture, which made them very happy. The youngest had wandered off, so I took the lady with her two eldest daughters. When I returned to the car, Prem smiled, noticing the red mark on my forehead.
“Where did you get that?”
“I met a lady and her daughters inside who showed me around. One of them put it on me.”
“That means good luck. It is called a tikka.”
We had to take the same streets out of town to get back on the main road. Prem asked if I were interested in making one more stop at a very small but beautiful temple a short distance from Rani Sati. The temple was white marble, and there were no other visitors there. The temple was very small and compared to Rani Sati was much less photogenic. Still it was a pretty and peaceful place, and I was glad we stopped.
Before we reached the village of Mandawa, where we would spend the night,we had a couple more hours of driving on a badly potholed road which narrowed down to a single lane in many places. The itinerary had us staying in Jhunjhunu, but Prem thought we should continue all the way to Mandawa. This was the first of many times when his suggestions to change the itinerary greatly enhanced the trip. I believe he knew that I’d be thrilled with the accommodations there.
We finally pulled to a stop around 7:30 p.m. When I opened the car door, my first thought was, “It smells like the desert.” The sandy soil my sandaled foot sank into confirmed what my nose had already told me.
Glancing up, it seemed like we were going to be staying in a chapter of 1001 Arabian Nights, Indian style. The Mandawa Haveli Hotel twinkled and sparkled in the night. Two magical places in one day! I was thrilled, charmed, mesmerized! Walking through the huge, twelve foot high gateway doors, I saw that the cement steps up to the reception were lined with potted plants and tiny running lights. The scalloped entrance just before the reception doorway was brilliantly painted with ancient frescoes. A stone archway to the left delineated a garden dining area. To the right a covered veranda protected seating for taking the air and enjoying the delightful surroundings.
A haveli is a style of private, multistoried mansion built in India and Pakistan in the 1800s by rich merchants. They commonly contained courtyards with fountains and were large enough to house extended families. A distinguishing feature of the havelis is the painting of elaborate frescoes both inside and out. Some havelis, such as this one, have been converted into hotels. I was thrilled silly to be spending the night in a historic, restored Indian mansion.
My room had a medieval looking studded set of heavy double doors, locked with a giant padlock. The room was tiny, just barely large enough to hold the double bed and a chair, but it was very pretty. More important was that the bathroom had sparkling and modern fixtures. We would only be in Mandawa for one night, so even though I was tired, I wanted to take pictures of as much as I could of the hotel in its nighttime, fairytale ambience.
One of the hotel staffers noticed my interest and invited me upstairs to see the library. After climbing the steep, narrow stairwell, I was glad my room was on the ground floor. At the top of the stairs, I saw how very narrow the upstairs passage around the interior courtyard was. But what was really nerve wracking was that the wall at the edge of the passage overlooking the courtyard was only knee-height, not enough for safety if you got dizzy, which I was beginning to feel.
The library had an old writing desk but few books. There was a large reclining area in front of the latticed window where the women could look out and not be seen. After photographing as much as I could of the interior and exterior of the hotel in the dim light, I climbed another precarious stairway to the restaurant. The walls were covered with frescoes of individuals, perhaps depicting family members of the haveli’s former owners.
Even though it was late, I was unfortunately not hungry enough for a full dinner. I would have loved to have sampled something more substantial from their enticing menu, but I was happy with only the daal and spinach soup, which was delicious, and a roti. Back in my room, I enjoyed a warm shower before sinking into bed. This hotel was perfect. My new driver was great company. I was amazed at my great luck in having found Namaste India Tours and ending up here.
Travels in India, © 2012 by Marie McCarthy
Reprinted with permission.
See more photos from this trip at my blog: http://indiatravels2011.wordpress.com