For the uninitiated, ‘Derawals’ refer to a community of people who originated from the Dera Ghazi Khan and Dera Ismail Khan region of present day Pakistan. During partition in ’47, the Hindu and Sikh Derawals migrated to India while the Muslim Derawals stayed on in Pakistan. Derawals speak a dialect of Seraiki called Derawali, which comes loaded with a healthy complement of choice cuss words. Other than their unique language, they are also revered for their exceptionally good taste in food, their exotic recipes (which are rarely shared with others) and easily the best ‘achaars’ (pickles) anywhere in the world. More than anything else, they know how to have a good time, especially when in large groups – like the one we found ourselves in, at the end of December last year.
Welcome to our 3rd annual Derawal family reunion!!
The Shekhawati region of northeast Rajasthan derives its name from the 15th century Rajput chieftain, Rao Shekha. Today, it comprises the districts of Sikar and the melodious sounding Jhunjhunu. Within Jhunjhunu sits the town of Surajgarh, which was originally the ‘Thikana’ (estate) of Thakur Bhojraj Ji. The Thikana was established in the late 18th century and a fortified palace was built for the good Thakur’s use.
Surajgarh literally means ‘castle of the sun’ and with the Thakur long gone, that very castle has since been transformed into a heritage hotel, where we stayed!
After a 4+ hr drive from Delhi, my mother, sister and me were the last of 23 Derawals to arrive. Still, not to late for some evening tea and just in time to watch the sun set over Surajgarh – all this from the castle of the sun itself!
Come darkness and it was time for a handsome Rajput to take over the proceedings. Standing tall and proud, Jhalawar Singh was everything the hospitality industry could possibly have asked for and more – he doubled, sorry tripled as a guide, entertainer and ‘hookah’ bearer extraordinaire !
Dinner, the first night, was far from exciting and didn’t quite hit the Derawal sweet spot. But there was a DJ, with temporarily erected dance floor complete with flashing lights, to tide us through the evening. Never mind that it probably kept all of Surajgarh’s eighteen thousand odd inhabitants up and awake – till a few city dwellers (having finally heard and reheard their quota of Bollywood beats) decided to call it a night!
Since I didn’t quite hit the dance floor or even the bottle (relatively speaking) that night, I was up early the next morning – a lot earlier than the rest of the pack – to do something that I would never dream of doing in Delhi – go for a morning walk!
But judging from my past experience in Kesroli, an early morning walk in Rajasthan, does, in fact, have its dividends. Admittedly, the station (that I trekked 2 kms each way to see) was a bit of a let down but the town more than made up for it with its splendid architecture, notably its Havelis (mansions) which almost always sported the most gorgeous doorways.
Four kms of brisk walking and many photo stops later, I returned to the hotel to find that no one, save for my sister, was awake! Not only was she awake but all ready to go for a walk! I obliged – not entirely out of brotherly love but also to cater to my love of trains!
The earlier walk to the station, had, if nothing else, provided me access to train timings in these parts. I knew there would be a train passing our local ‘phatak’ (level crossing) in a matter of minutes and so I hastened her to rush towards the spot. After sprinting the last hundred metres or so, I made it there in the nick of time and was immensely pleased with myself! My sister, and the rest of the onlookers, however, weren’t in the least bit impressed.
It was about 8:30 by then and the sun had still to make its presence felt. That meant that the morning air was still chilly – always the perfect setting for some Chai, which we found in no time at the local ‘dhaba’ (kiosk).
By the time we got back to our hotel, the sun was shining brilliantly. People had emerged from their houses to the warmth of sunshine and the town of Surajgarh was slowly coming to life.
Communication has, unfortunately, never been a strong point amongst the Derawals – however well intentioned they might be. That morning it was no different. After a lot of endless debating about how and why we had not been included in the plan, we departed Surajgarh a good half hour after the other 20 had done so. Our destination – Pilani.
Situated about 20 kms from Surajgarh, the town of Pilani is best known for its premier engineering institute, BITS (Birla Institute of Technology and Science). Dating back to 1929, the campus itself is fairly impressive but the attraction for most visitors is the Birla Science Museum, located within.
The museum was quite a revelation – well designed, spaciously laid out and boasting some of the highest quality of exhibits I have come across in any Indian museum in recent times. Standing proud amongst its outdoor exhibits was an old Dakota passenger aircraft, which served an era when ‘low cost air travel’ was an unheard of commodity.
While Shekhawati was founded by the Rajputs, it is the Marwaris that have brought this region fame – the Birlas, Bajajs, Singhanias and Ruias to name but a few. Lesser known amongst these storied families are the Kajarias, known best for their tiles. About half way between Pilani and Surajgarh lies the village of Kajara, named after the Kajaria clan. Its claim to fame are the three Kajaria Havelis – each, nothing shy of a masterpiece, and one of which, we had the privilege of visiting.
Winter in north India almost always connotes foggy mornings and chilly evenings. But truth be told, it’s not quite that drab and certainly not when the sun is shining bright over verdant mustard fields – endless vistas of them no less!
In Rajasthan, each turn presents a new view that is almost always worthy of a composition. And so it was on the streets of Surajgarh, where the riot of colour continued..
Back at the fort and it was time for lunch. As we walked up the stairs leading to the ‘angan’ (courtyard), the chefs were hard at work preparing our meal.
Breakfast that morning had been good but our best meal was yet to come. My uncle, who, like Jhalawar Singh, wears many hats – organiser of Derawal reunions being one such – had taken on the mantle of supervising the chef after the disappointment of the first night. The results, exemplary, to say the very least. So much so that he is now in the running for the title of ‘King of Derawals’.
In true Derawal tradition, good food is always done justice – no matter what the caloric count may be. So with more than the rightful share of food in our respective bellies, we set forth on our next sightseeing adventure. Only this time, we left our cars behind and hitched a ride on camel drawn carts instead!
Our first stop was a temple, which surprisingly didn’t look like one or at least didn’t have the tell tale signs associated with a Hindu house of worship. For one, there were no touts hanging around outside and the staff remained just that – lean! One non greedy Pujari ran the show and not once did he hustle us to do anything remotely monetary. God bless him!
Not only was the temple peaceful but it was also very aesthetic, sporting a beautiful painted ceiling and traditional Rajasthani architecture. It was spacious to and its corridors led to a balcony overlooking an orchard of some sort and, lo and behold, a tree full of peacocks! Rajasthan at its magical best..
Shekhawati is known for its forts, palaces and Havelis. The Shekhawat Rajas built over 50 forts in the region whereas the Thakurs, later traders, built innumerable Havelis. The Shekhawati region is believed to have the largest concentration of frescoes anywhere in the world and its no small wonder that the area is often referred to as ‘the open art gallery of Rajasthan’.
Almost all of these fine structures have survived the test of time – the luckier among them having been re purposed as heritage hotels today, and the not so lucky ones, left to whither away. Our next stop on the camel tour was one such abandoned Haveli – a stunningly beautiful one at that – begging for upkeep.
On its terrace, four flights up, it quickly dawned on us that the Haveli was also one of the tallest buildings in the town – no mean feat that! It also gave us our first glimpse of soon-to-be ‘magic hour’ and reminded us that we were running short on time!
The plan was to make our third and final stop at a ‘bavdi’ (step well), in the middle of the desert, by sundown. Our caravan of six camel carts arrived at the site with a few minutes to spare. The chill was beginning to set in, the sweaters and shawls came right out and Jhalawar Singh swung into action again, this time producing a hamper full of tea and biscuits!
For me, as am sure for a lot of other Derawals on the trip, the camel cart ride was easily the highlight. Moments later, as we sipped on our tea, and while Jhalawar Singh shared his ‘beedis’ (local cigarette) with some of the more willing camels, the sun set on the desert state for the fourth last time in ’08.
Rajasthan had, once again, done itself proud and provided us the perfect family getaway. Given the average Derawal’s penchant for remaining ensconced in the north, it would be a tough act to follow in any other state!
Derawals, like it or not, are great procrastinators to. The good thing though, is that we have a year to think about our next reunion! Personally, I’d be more than happy to return to Rajasthan in December, even repeat a location if we have to 😉
A full set of pics can be seen here.