The low-key town of Mandawa in the Shekhawati region of northeast Rajasthan (3hr from Jaipur) has had brushes with the three superstar Khans of Bollywood—Aamir, Shah Rukh, and Salman. The town’s dramatic canvas of ornate frescoes on crumbling walls—dating back to the rule of the 15th-century Shekhawat Rajputs—has made it a beloved backdrop for film location scouts. And yet, Mandawa’s heritage remains largely unknown.
Visiting the Shekhawati region had been on my bucket-list for years. I’d read of 2015’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan shooting in Mandawa, so when my husband and I planned a spontaneous trip to the region, we knew we had to visit some of its locations. The road trip from Delhi last April, was idyllic, cool breezes blowing over Rajasthan’s arid hinterland before the arrival of summer. Traversing the serpentine roads of the Aravalli Range felt like sliding up and down the back of a many-humped camel. In a heart-stopping moment when we stopped to stretch our legs, I saw two nilgai bound past me into the darkness of the receding twilight hour, as the skies cast purple-pink shadows on the barren hills. It was a rare magical glimpse at the resident wildlife; mostly, I saw foxes that seemed to have sadly ended up as roadkill.
Mandawa was once an important town, lying on the trade route between Delhi and Gujarat, and China and the Middle-East. At its heart was the Mandawa Fort, built in 1755 by its third Rajput ruler Thakur Nawal Singh Bahadur to protect his territory. To make the most of the trade opportunities, many Marwari merchants made Mandawa their home and built imposing havelis around the fort, only to abandon them while expanding their business over the decades.
Most of Mandawa’s once-magnificent edifices are dilapidated now. But their painted walls speak volumes, presenting many tales drawn from mythology, royal and colonial history, nature and local festivals—some even erotic! There are gramophones, trains, and scenes from the Ramayana. Little wonder that the frescoes have been the backdrop for a range of films over the years, from the supernatural romance Paheli, starring Shah Rukh Khan, to Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s period drama Mirzya. Only a handful of these properties are converted into hotels. The majority are abandoned or lying in ruins, which means travellers can often walk in with a local guide to soak in their grandeur.
When Salman Khan landed in town with the crew of Bajrangi Bhaijaan in January 2015, they stayed at Castle Mandawa (Mandawa Fort), which was turned into a hotel in 1978 by the royal family of Shekhawati that currently occupies the property. Salman’s character plays an ardent Hindu who decides to help a lost Pakistani child (Harshali Malhotra) cross the border to be reunited with her parents. All the scenes from the point where Khan’s character enters Pakistan until he reaches the white peaks of Kashmir, are shot in and around Mandawa. Incidentally, Kareena Kapoor (the fiancée of Salman’s character) didn’t shoot in Mandawa for the film, although she did visit the town for a song sequence in 2007’s Jab We Met.
The narrow by-lanes of Mandawa stand in for a desert town in Pakistan, along with key locations like the daily market Sarafa Bazaar; Gulab Rai Ladia Haveli Marg (a landmark haveli famous for erotic frescoes); and Harlalka Haveli (beautiful latticed archways and charming frescoes in colour and in black-and-white).
The facades of Mandawa’s ruins are more prominent in the film than the painted frescoes. It takes a visit to Snehi Ram Ladia Haveli for example, the exterior setting of a dhaba in “Pakistan” in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, to reveal the incredible frescoes of its rulers and of nature, painted in natural dyes.
We stayed at 200-year-old Radhika Haveli, where other members of the Bajrangi Bhaijaan crew stayed during shooting. The current owner proudly showed us an album of selfies taken with actors from this and other films, and I imagined these guests as I wandered the mansion.
The haveli, like many others in the town, has an open courtyard—the mardana, for men—that leads to an inner courtyard for the women and family, hemmed on all four sides by rooms with heavy, carved antique doors. The walls and ceilings of these double-storeyed havelis are enveloped in mosaic frescoes that attract historians, architects and travellers from across the globe.
Beyond the large inner courtyard— slightly eerie with its dim lighting and pin-drop quiet—was our room. Exquisite furniture and batik bed linen awaited us, following a scrumptious, ghee-laden Marwari dinner. The specialty ker sangri, a spicy dish made with the ker berry and the sangria bean, was served with other regional delicacies such as kurkuri bhindi (fried okra), garlicky lehsun papad, missi roti, gatte ki sabzi (gramflour curry), and dal baati churma, which is dal made of various pulses served with baked dough balls. We ate like royalty.
Seventy per cent of Rajasthan’s green cover is comprised of the khejri tree, which bears the sangria bean and is cut for its wood. The tree featured prominently in Bajrangi Bhaijaan’s song “Zindagi Kuch Toh Bata” as Salman, Harshali, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui (playing a Pakistani reporter) pass by in a camel-drawn cart, and later in a tempo laden with corn cobs. When we left Mandawa for our drive back to Delhi, I too saw rows and rows of the wild, dusty trees outside my car window.
It had been a short, but fulfilling trip, a rare occasion where I could get my Bollywood fix while learning lessons about our country’s rich past. Mandawa’s historic beauty was as irresistible as it looked in the movies.
Mandawa is a town in the Jhunjhunu province of Shekhawati district in northeast Rajasthan.
By Air The nearest airport is the Jaipur International Airport, 180km/3.20hr away. Jaipur is connected by frequent flights from Delhi, Mumbai and other Indian cities.
By Road Mandawa is around 260km/6hr drive from Delhi, about 188km/5hr from Bikaner, and about 168km/3hr from Jaipur.
By Train Mukundgarh (17km/24min) and Jhunjhunu (34km/27min) are the nearest railway stations. A Delhi-Jhunjhunu train journey takes about 5 hours.
Mandawa Fort Visit for the well-restored frescoes.
Havelis The list is exhaustive, and each haveli is unique. Definitely visit the Double Goenka, Vishwanath Goenka, Jhunjhunwala, Gulab Rai Ladia, and Binsidhar Newatia havelis.
Faux antique furniture Ramgarh, an hour away by road, has good deals on window panels, coffee tables, and cupboards made in the Rajputana style, with intricate lattice-work and carving.
Tal Chappar Sanctuary Popular for its blackbuck, Tal Chappar Sanctuary is just a two-hour drive from Mandawa. It also hosts desert foxes and migratory birds such as white-eyed buzzard, steppe eagle, sparrow hawk, hen harrier, tawny eagle and skylarks.
Camel ride and dunes Mandawa’s camel ride through the town, and jeep drives over sand dunes, pale in comparison to the ones in Jaisalmer, but are a good option nonetheless.
A Marwari thali with ker sangri, gatte ki sabzi, missi roti, kukuri bhindi and other vegetarian dishes at Gwala Restaurant, Radhika Haveli is good. For a multicuisine restaurant, stop by the rather expensive but worthy Jai Niwas in Castle Mandawa.
Hotels in Mandawa usually organise horse and camel rides, and guided city tours. Most have al fresco restaurants where one can take in sunsets over the desert.
Radhika Haveli Rooms are comfortable with all modern amenities, and the hotel staff is quick to respond. The best part is its central location, walking distance from the fort and other havelis. ₹3,000 per day for a doubles room in peak season (between October and March). radhika-haveli-in; 9001334736.
Vivaana Culture Hotel (10km from Mandawa) is a luxurious 19th-century haveli converted to a four-star property with a swimming pool and spa. ₹6,000 per day for a doubles room in peak season. www.vivaana.com.
Castle Mandawa Stay at this erstwhile fortress for a luxurious experience. Its terraces and sprawling balconies give a 180-degree view of the surrounding town. Walls decorated with family portraits of kings and queens, and old firearms and cannons, offer atmospheric windows to the past. The rooms make for a perfect period film setting, with its carved furniture, latticed windows, and frescoed ceilings. There’s even a huge brass gong struck by the resident timekeepers at the fort every hour to tell the time! ₹7,500 upwards per night in peak season. www.castlemandawa.com.
Updated in November 2017.