The village of Churi Ajitgarh, with its broad roads and frescoed houses, is barely ten kilometres from the popular Rajasthani town of Mandawa. We drove there through an arid landscape of babul and keekar trees to stay at the Vivaana Culture Hotel, a fine example of a 19th-century heritage haveli. The building preserves the two-courtyard style of wealthy Marwari merchants’ houses of Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region. It incorporates two of Churi Ajitgarh’s biggest havelis, built by the Nimani family, who made their fortune in the cotton trade. Like other Marwaris who prospered in big cities under British patronage, the Nimanis poured their wealth into their havelis, which became status symbols.
A cheerful orange Ambassador at the haveli’s entrance announces its name. As we walked past the intricately carved facade and huge gateway, I couldn’t take my eyes off the fresco of a horse and an elephant in a hunting party.
Shekhawati is referred to as an “open-air art gallery,” but the frescoes at Vivaana are in better shape than most. This is due to the hard work of conservationists Atul and Devna Khanna, a Delhi-based couple who zeroed in on the Nimani houses as a potential restoration project. After careful collaboration with architects, design consultants, and the village sarpanch, Vivaana was created with a blend of art, tradition, and modern comforts.
The haveli is full of comfortable corners and spots to spread out in. The spacious courtyard is adorned with 200-year-old frescoes and set with old-fashioned baithaks (low seating) on either side. Beyond it is an inner courtyard, surrounded by what used to be the zenana. During the wedding anniversary celebration I was attending, the poolside was the perfect spot to spend a leisurely evening, washing down moong dal pakoras with kulhad chai. The revelry carried into the wee hours, with a bonfire blazing on the lawns and candles flickering on the parapets. We felt very much at home—if home were a joint family house from another era.
The next morning, some of our party cycled through the village while others took the kids on a camel cart ride. My son and I explored the property’s collection of vintage knick-knacks: An antique Remington typewriter from the early 20th century caught my eye, while my son loved the grandfather clocks and transistor set.
Above all, I marvelled at the frescoes. Besides mythology, these paintings provide a sociopolitical chronicle of 19th- and 20th-century events and a record of family history. The beautiful birds and animals, and the images of Krishna and Radha were expected. But the paintings of trains, aeroplanes, cars, and even moustachioed British sahibs were a startling expression of the cosmopolitan history of the country.
Appeared in the March 2016 issue as “Home Sweet Haveli”. Updated in November 2017.
Vivaana Culture Hotel has 23 tastefully furnished rooms in three categories. No two rooms are alike: some have wall-to-ceiling frescoes, while others are more minimalist. The hotel’s restaurant serves world cuisine and traditional Rajasthani fare. Elephant House Spa (in the erstwhile elephant stable) offers Ayurvedic and Southeast Asian treatments (www.vivaana.com; 98112 76231; doubles from ₹7,000 including breakfast).
The town is 250 km/5.5 hr west of Delhi and 160 km/3 hr north of Jaipur, which is also the closest airport. The nearest railway station is in Jhunjhunu, 32 km/ 45 min northwest of Churi Ajitgarh.