Sound FX

The dusty village of Alsisar in the Shekhawati region is as much about sights as it is about sounds, finds out Nishiraj A. Baruah

4It’s bizarre and eerie. In the dead still of the night, the cacophony, amplified many times, seems ominous and surreal. A dusty desert town abandoned by those who built it. An ancient haveli. And our first night – you would understand why we have our reasons to be confused and uneasy. The night is spent in a sleepy haze: Half awake, half dreamy. What is it? Is it a cat fight? Or are these the last muffled screams of a dying animal?

If Alsisar, a village in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, is about sights by day, it is certainly about sounds after dark. At the evening aarti in a century old temple, the conch, the cymbals, the camel skin drum and the brass bell combine to create a Tantric trance, hypnotic and monotonous. It is a spiritual experience for sure as we sit solemnly, but the loud pounding unnerves my little one. She gets fidgety, her tiny fingers plugging her ear. This over, we return by the narrow lightless roads, the tinkle of a cowbell around the corner. But no, it isn’t some cow heading home after dusk. A group of turbaned villagers are actually lifting a massive ox on a cart: It isn’t injured. It is dead.

We pace up the roads, as fast as one can on these narrow ancient lanes woven with uneven stones, and reach our haveli. Called Indra Vilas, it is the largest in the area. Converted into a 48 room heritage hotel now, this ten-acre property is a part of hospitality group Laurent & Benon’s Heritage Collection. Soon we are ushered into the comforting environs of the open air courtyard where more sounds await us. This time, however, it was the divine folksy rhythm of a crooning couple from the village whose music has become a standard fare at several international heritage music festivals. “I have been to London and Paris and Berlin,” says the man, while his wife stands demurely behind a veil. Dinner later we are back to our room that boasts of period furniture like a four poster bed, but sadly it commands no view: The windows simply open out to a dusty bylane. And to make things worse, those bizarre sounds of the night keep us half awake all though.

It is only in the morning that we find out. Much to our disbelief, the guy who brings in our bed tea tells us, the source of the noise are the peacocks! And they are everywhere. On rooftops. On microwave towers. On satellite discs. On the boundary walls. And now under the bright morning sunshine, as if to make up for the nuisance they inflicted upon is throughout the night, they are dancing away to glory for our viewing pleasure.

By day, of course, Alsisar is all about sights – splendid and colourful. The paintings of flowers, faces and animals on the walls and the ceiling of our haveli have come alive; the sky is crystal blue. A no-nonsense breakfast later, out we go with a guide to explore the abandoned havelis of the rich Marwari merchants who built them in the 17th and 18th centuries. Famous the world over for its frescos, these havelis are painted in brilliant depictions of mythology and folklore. The merchants have left for greener pastures – as trade centres moved, the families moved on – leaving these havelis to caretakers, daily wage earners, farmers, shopkeepers and a handful of craftsmen.

As we walk around the near empty lanes of this sleepy village, we find that most havelis are in complete disrepair. Apart from the one we are lodged in, there have been no attempts to restore them. However, with a steady influx of foreign tourists – you can see the signs in the form of prominent ISD signboards, money change signboards and cybercafés – Alsisar may just get back some of its lost glory. Following Indra Vilas’ success, others may follow. We meet a local resident who usher us into a haveli which he owns now – he had bought it from the original owner for just Rs 5 lakh 15 years ago. Now valued at Rs 55, he plans to open a boutique hotel after refurbishing it.

The finest example, however, of such restoration comes from the Alsisar Mahal, the largest building in the area. Complete with chandeliers, impressive frescos, gun and sword collections, leopard skin, palanquins, extravagant door handles and chairs, spacious interiors, this mahal that belonged to merchant Gaj Singh, has also been converted into a hotel now. The dining hall alone has been rebuilt at cost of Rs 4 crore. But, we decide, living in the middle of all the grandeur can be intimidating.

Which is why we are rather happy with our more modest accommodation in Indra Vilas which actually feels like a real home. The restoration work here hasn’t really disturbed the original architecture and interiors. There are no add-ons. It also has the homely comfort of a Guest House. “It’s an honest hotel with no pretensions; the service is offered without any fuss; the food no no-nonsence with limited variety and no fancy fare and tableware,” says Alec Cohen from Sweden, a resident tourist. Indeed, the ever smiling manager will charm you with his small-town hospitality. The haveli hotel has a swimming pool, and a new restaurant is being been built up. Giving glimpses of the past, the walls of the haveli are adorned with black and white photographs of the extravagant life of Indrachand Kejriwal who built the haveli. It’s another story that his grandsons squandered away the wealth and now live in a rented house in Kolkata.

Being off season meant there are not much to shop around. We go all the way to Jhunjhunu town, but the market there is more China than Rajasthan. But never mind, the camel cart safari is an amazing experience as it slowly carts you around the village under a desert sunset.

A lazy weekend and it’s time for us to go home. As I throw one last glance around my room to make sure we have left none of our belongings behind, my eyes fall on the open window. Beyond, I see one of the most awesome views of nature. On the roof of the house across the lane stands a peacock in all its magnificence – its feathers up like a throne in all its multi-coloured splendor doing a private little jig for me. It is almost as if it is trying to address my complaint that the room doesn’t come with a view. Rajasthan never disappoints.

BOX
Location
Alsisar, a semi desert region, is in the Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan. It is 4-5 hours drive from New Delhi

Attractions
Camel cart rides
Village walks
Painted havelis
Shekhawati Festival (Jhunjhunu)
Temple of Rani Sati Mataji (Jhunjhunu)
Sit around the village pond and chat with inquisitive kids, artisans and wizened old folks.

Getting there
By Air: Delhi, Jaipur
By Rail: Sadulpur Jn. (Rajgarh), Jhunjhunu (Bikaner Mail) (Shekhawati Exp.)
By Road: Distance from Delhi: 265 km
Stay at: Indra Vilas, Alsisar; Tel : +91-1595-275567, +91-9928010386/87; email : Info@IndraVilasAlsisar.com; Web: IndraVilasAlsisar.com
Special summer offer: Rs. 9999 (Delux room); Rs. 11999 (Suite)

Nishiraj A. Baruah

Former Executive Editor of Air India's in-flight magazine and Harper's Bazaar Bride. Lifestyle journalist, travel writer and blogger who collects knives and plays the drums.

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