Shades of history at Vivaana, the culture hotel

In the arid land of Rajasthan lies Shekhawati, a region synonymous to beautiful palaces and havelis rich in fresco work of art, explores Nitika Bajpayee…

Magnificent forts and palaces, men clad in colourful turbans, women wearing chunky jewellery and bandhini odhnis, camels lazing in the desert— all these visuals conjure up in front of the eyes the moment one talks about Rajasthan. The state has always been a top preference among foreign travellers and wayfarers who choose Rajasthan for its exotic setting.

The façade at Vivaana

Rugged landscape

Rajasthan is my maternal home and over all these years, I have extensively travelled across the state, mostly to be a part of the family functions. Though I have been to most parts of the state, some places always skipped from my itinerary and Shekhawati is among them. Recently, this very friendly couple – Atul and Devna Khanna, invited me to come and visit their 120-year-old havelis, which are now converted into a culture hotel called Vivaana. On a rainy morning, along with my hosts, I started off my journey to Churi Ajitgarh, where Vivaana is situated. The weekend trip to Shekhawati was perfect to refresh my senses from the regular city grind.

The journey to Churi Ajitgarh, which lies at the confluence of Bikaner, Jaipur and Delhi, took not more than five hours by the road. Poised quietly inside the triangle that is made at the mini desert region of north Rajasthan, Churi Ajitgarh shares its boundaries with Mandawa and Jhunjhunu and is by far, one of Rajasthan’s best-kept secret. While on our way to Vivaana, Atul shared some history about the village and the two havelis, which he acquired about five years ago. Churi Ajitgarh, the village was originally named Churi Jodha after the Jat Jodha who along with his family came her and settled down. According to local folklores, the ladies of Jodha’s family used to fetch water from the nearby village Ghodiwara. One day, the women of both the villages had a fight and the women of Ghodiwara taunted Jodha Jat’s family asking them, “Why don’t you ask your husband to dig a well of your own.” Jodha Jat’s ladies asked him to dig the well to avenge their insult. When he failed to dig the well, the ladies made him wear bangles (churies) around his wrist and hence the village came to be known as Churi Jodha. The village is now known as Churi Ajitgarh after the then ruler, Maharaja Ajit Singh, who also got the Ajitgarh fort constructed in the village. After this dollop on the history, I sat back and eagerly waited for the distance to Vivaana to grow shorter. Enroute to Churi Ajitgarh, we crossed Mandawa and Jhunjhunu. Maddening pace of city life, endless traffic jams, and stifling work cubicle were all conveniently forgotten at Shekhawati, where leisure of a different kind provided a refreshing escape from the metropolis.

Experience the way royals thrive

Experience the way royals thrive

Frescos coming alive

The region is nothing less than a semiarid dreamscape, where I was greeted by dazzling fields, fluttering fabrics, dry desert air and numerous fresco painted havelis and palaces. I noticed Shekhawati was not more than a sleepy little region except during the winter months, when it bustles with wayfarers who stop by to appreciate its laidback charm.

After crossing through Sikar and Jhunjhunu, two prime Shekhawati quarters, we reached Vivaana. Upon my arrival, I stood in front of the massive iron gate of the 120-year-old haveli. The unparallel fresco paintings and typical Rajasthani architecture truely makes Vivaana a compelling place to visit and gives an unforgettable magical experience to those who visit these havelis with two courtyards.



Vivaana is secluded in the heart of nowhere, but this is what makes it different, truely! Amused and thrilled to trace a mix of local people clad in saffron attire, foreign junkies, Israeli backpackers and international tourists in this palatial haveli, I advanced towards my room. Lavishly decorated with mural paintings and colourful frescos, my room was a perfect blend of the classic and the contemporary. After relaxing a bit, I set out to explore the property. Atul and Devna accompanied me and showed me the 23 beautiful suites and rooms, the state-of-the-art restaurants and the bar along with the swimming pool.

The world at Vivaana is a seamless transition from the old-world charm to modernity. Inquisitively, I asked Atul to give me a brief backgrounder about this haveli and what made him buy this humungous structure. “After hunting around the region, we finally came across the Ram Pratap Nemani Haveli which was everything we were looking for and well worth the pain endured,” Atul said, explaining that the two havelis that make Vivaana belonged to the Nemani Family, who were the descendants of Bakshi Ram Nemani and Ram Dayal Ji Nemani, the two Seth brothers who were brought to the village by the then ruler-Fateh Singhji in the early 19th Century.

“The Ram Pratap Nemani haveli shone in the light of the solo lamp post nearby and at the first sight, we were confident that we had reached our destination. No stone was left unturned to procure the Haveli and today, it stands tall and proud as Vivaana,” added Devna, Atul’s lovely wife.

Slice of the bygone era

Continuing our tour of the property, I realised the best part of the havelis are the picturesque frescoes which bring the place alive. The frescoes all around the havelis depict mythological and historical themes. They include images of Gods, Goddesses, animals, the life of Lord Krishna and also some erotic frescoes. The techniques employed for these frescoes were elaborate, and comparable to the Italian frescoes of the 14th century. The colours were mixed in lime water or lime plaster and were then made to sink into the plaster physically through processes of beating, burnishing, and polishing. All the pigments used were prepared with natural and primarily household ingredients such as kohl, lime, indigo, red stone powder and saffron. The frescoes at Vivaana are complemented with mirror work and intricately carved wood work. Once the hurricane tour of the property was over, I set out for a camel safari on the nearby sand dunes. Catching a glimpse of characteristic desert birds such as larks and beetles and numerous peacocks, was a glorious sight. The following morning, we went around the Shekhawati region, which got acquired its name from the erstwhile ruler Rao Shekha. While ruling the region, the Shekhawats built many magnificent forts in their thikanas, main region of their rule. Every thikana in the region has a fort and there are as many as 50 forts and palaces that were built by Shekhawat kings. And today, many of these forts and palaces run as heritage properties. The hotel manager told me that the entire Shekhavati region has time and again mesmerised millions of tourists who come here to see these beautiful painted havelis. Also, the region has aptly been dubbed as the ‘Open Art Gallery’ of Rajasthan.

Slice of royalty

As I ventured out to see some of these painted havelis, the driver told me that not only havelis, Shekhavati is also home to various small fortresses, minor castles, mosques and step wells. He told me it is best to avoid the car and take a camel safari to enjoy the beauty of this land of well-preserved havelis. Now, it is your turn to venture into the land of havelis and be a part of the bygone royal era.


  • How to reach – Jhunjhunu is the nearest railway station for Churi Ajitgarh. This railhead is connected to all the cities in India by trains.
  • Sanganer Airport located in Jaipur is nearly 150km away from Shekhawati.
  • The Organic Kitchen at Vivaana serves a variety of world cuisines and local flavours
  • Vivaana derives its name from Lord Krishna and means the ‘first rays of the Sun
  • For Reservations at Vivaana email at or call +919811276231

Storytelling, conversation and more with author Kunal Basu

In conversation with author Kunal Basu, Nitika Bajpayee finds out what it takes to be a multi-faceted writer…

Author Kunal Basu

Author Kunal Basu

Stories are often born unexpectedly in unlikely places, believes Kunal Basu, the author of much-acclaimed books The Japanese Wife, Racists, The Miniaturist and The Opium Clerk. Basu looks back at the time when being an author was his cherished dream. Believing that he is a commoner, he set out to pen down extraordinary lives of ordinary people. Not many would know that Basu started writing and publishing in Bangla first during his college years, and later switched to English. Poetry is something that came to him in the beginning and stories and novels followed. We poked him to divulge details about the journey of being a writer, to which he said, “I had always known that writing was the only thing that mattered to me. In fact, I can’t remember a time when writing was far from my mind. Life’s challenges though, had held me back for some years before I could begin full-fledged work on my books. I never wanted to be a Sunday writer, someone for whom writing is just a hobby. I wanted it to be my lifeblood. There is no sensation comparable to holding the first copy of my new book in my hand – which inspires me to keep writing.”

Love for the written word

Raised by a publisher father and an author mother in a bookish household in Kolkata, Basu was a precocious child, who eavesdropped regularly into their conversations on art, poetry, politics and literature. Sharing the anecdotes on his family, Basu quips, “Writing, art and drama were my early passions, but like many middle- -class Indians of my vintage, I was waylaid into studying science in school and engineering at university, neither of which held any excitement for me.” Despite being raised in a family of literature lovers, Basu flew to the US to do masters in engineering. Talking about his education, Basu says, “Simply because I was a good student and had won a scholarship, I saw it as a free trip to see the world. More serious considerations finally took me to doctoral studies in management. Being a professor would be the least disruptive of my passion for writing, I reckoned, and it has been the working model for my life thus far.” Authors take stories from life and Basu is no different. His book The Japanese Wife is inspired from a story of an elderly Bengali man whom Basu met more than two decades ago, while he was traveling through a village. Sharing the tale, Basu said, “I knew nothing about the circumstances of their marriage, but this single unusual incident had stayed in my mind and came out as The Japanese Wife.” Many don’t know that Basu had actually started to research and write ‘The Yellow Emperor’s Cure’ much before ‘The Japanese Wife’ was actually published and the film was released. Explaining how he managed to switch from one book to the other, Basu says, “I had completed my passage from one book to the other, and hence wasn’t particularly distracted.”

Tracing ethnicities

The story of Basu’s book The Yellow Emperor’s Cure came up while he was strolling in a museum of traditional Chinese medicine in Beijing. Talking about his tryst in Beijing, Basu Kunal Basu is the author of The Japanese Wife, which is also made into a film by Bengali filmmaker Aparna Sen 5 books of all times: • The Mahabharata • Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky) • Scarlet and Black (Stendhal) • Love in the Times of Cholera (Marquez) • Waiting for the Barbarians (J M Coetzee) says, “As an inveterate traveller, my stories are often born through daydreaming. Penning down this book took me about a year to research the three dominant aspects of the novel – the history of syphilis, Chinese medicine, and the Boxer rebellion. But researching the details of specific scenes happened alongside the writing, and stretched over two years.” Visualising characters is an important part of writing a book. For Basu, it is important to catch a glimpse of prime characters, while the plot is still unfolding. When asked if Basu actually was able to see his characters live, he said, “Fortunately, I was able to ‘see’ a young Portuguese doctor in my mind’s eye as I strolled in the Beijing museum. I saw him inside a pavilion of the Summer Place taking lessons from a Chinese woman, his teacher, who would in time become his lover. Researching the period and the key themes lent substance to these characters later on, but their initial impressions served as significant starting points.” As a literature lover and film buff, Basu has too many favourites to name. He is an ardent fan of Dostoevsky (along with the other great Russian authors), Dickens, Zola and Stendhal, Bankimchandra and Rabindranath Tagore, as well as modern day masters such as Marquez and Coetzee. “I am fond of films by Bergman, Ray, Ritwick Ghatak, Kurosawa, Luis Bunuel, and many more,” he said adding, “Photography, documenting and collecting traditional crafts such as masks, wood carvings, handloom weaving, terracotta and metal sculptures from many parts of the world count as serious pastimes that have survived many decades of my life.”

Spreading wings

When asked who is the real Kunal, a writer, a philosopher, just a common man with common ideas, Basu said, “I am is still searching for the real Kunal, but he’s most likely to be an author given that I spend a great many of my waking hours at my desk, writing.” It is interesting to know that Basu lives in the world of his stories, and immerse himself completely once he starts working on a novel: eat what his characters would’ve eaten, listen to their music, travel to places they’d have lived in – enter their skin and become one of them. “Once a novel is finished, I make my getaway quickly to enter yet another world, for the story that I’d be writing next. While no grand philosophy drives my writing, the common ingredient that’s hard to miss is compassion for the lives of common people,” he says. For Basu, it isn’t important to name or define this quest as ‘spiritualism’, except that it stands outside his known world, and gives him deep joy in its contemplation.

Talking about spirituality, he said, “I have a deep excitement for the unknowable. It informs my sensibilities towards daily events. And I still draw my inspiration from the great ancients – Eastern and Occidental.”Lhasa, Bali and Yogyakarta in Indonesia, Laos and Cambodia, Samarkand, Morocco, Fatehpur Sikri, Cappadocia in Turkey, and South Africa are some of Basu’s favourite destinations. There are many more yet unvisited such as, San Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, Iran, Myanmar, the Hindukush, and Lahore. Now that Basu is out with his latest book, he is not in a mood to pause. He is writing a novel set in contemporary Kolkata. “This will be a departure for me, after four historical novels. It also means turning my pen towards the city I had grown up in and discovering the strange among the familiar,” he concludes with a message for our readers. “Your indulgence alone makes it possible for authors to create their imaginary worlds, having us travel to destinations far and beyond,” Basu signs off.

Rishikesh – A fresh getaway

The waters are blue and clear, the air is crisp and nippy. I am sitting on the promenade facing the clear waters, the sound of the gurgling Ganges is soothing to the ears. Thick jungles dot the other side of Ganges. I ask a local native about the same, and he says it’s the boundary of Rajaji National Park. Oh my Rajaji National Park is just across the shore, I wonder. I am in Rishikesh, the town synonymous with the whole idea of white water rafting in north India.

Soak in some fresh air

This is not my first visit to Rishikesh. But whenever I come here, the spiritual town seems new and unexplored. To me, Rishikesh has always been that magical land where adventure and spiritualism walk hand in hand. Situated in Uttarakhand, Rishikesh can be approached by road and by rail via Haridwar.


Here I am, by the banks - five months pregnant

Here I am, by the banks – five months pregnant

Biding goodbye to Delhi on weekends is a good idea, and the roughly five hour drive to Rishikesh is not very tiring. On a Friday morning, I began my sojourn to Rishikesh, this time with an idea to just relax and soak in the freshness the land boasts. Enjoying the breakfast aboard the Dehradun Shatabdi, I charted out my plan to explore Rishikesh. By the time the train reached Haridwar – the nearest railhead for Rishikesh –  my itinerary was set. The half an hour drive from Haridwar was scenic and minus the otherwise traffic struck roads. This time, we had taken the route that connects Rajaji National Park to Rishikesh. Thick blanket of jungle was running on both my sides and a shy animal doing a peek a boo enroute. The route is clear and is not known to many. The best part of approaching Rishikesh via this route is that it connects you with the wildlife and gives you a good chance to spot exotic birds.

The soothing scenery

The soothing scenery

After a while, I reached my place of stay for this trip. On the banks of the awe inspiring, tranquil Ganges lies a delightful retreat named Ganga Kinare. This hotel has majesty in a land where spirituality and nature are perfectly blended. There is hardly any need to freshen up when in Rishikesh, the fresh air breeze coming from the hills is enough to fill your lungs with eternal calm. A quick lunch at the café and I was ready to explore the riverside boutique hotel which boasts of a waterside esplanade. I was taking a quite stroll alongside the sinuous river on the other side of the shore I spotted a baby elephant. The elephant was approaching the river, perhaps to satiate its thirst, but this sight gave my camera a good exercise. I was busy clicking the images when I spotted a bigger elephant at a distance, and this one was indulging in a sand play. After a while the two animals slowly ventured inside the jungle.



Go spiritual

It’s a sin to not indulge in some yoga when you are in Rishikesh, often touted as ‘the world capital of Yoga’. And I was at the hotel that has played host to the coveted ‘International Yoga Week’ nine times in recent years, and continues to be a pivotal space for Yogic gurus to impart their teachings. Dusk was still an hour away when I began my yoga session with the instructors at the resort. The session was conducted on the corridor overlooking the magnificent Ganges and I don’t know why but the same pranayam felt different and did some magic to my senses. The exclusive river ghat owned by the hotel allowed me to take a dip in the holy waters. The rooms at the resort are a sheer bliss for those looking for peace serenity and beauty. Since every room in the hotel offers a panoramic view of the river and mountains, it feels good to sit back and enjoy the scenery from the comforts of your room.



Evenings are incomplete without attending the Ganga Aarti and when in Rishikesh, it becomes mandatory to go to Parmarth Niketan to attend the grand aarti. Here, children from the Parmarth gurukul dress up in yellow and saffron dhoti kurtas and herald the aarti by singing Hanuman Chalisa. People from all walks of life – locals and foreigners – sing along with the kids and light diyas on the ghats. To reach Parmarth, you have to hire a boat that takes you across the Ganges.

The promenade that leads to Parmarth is dotted ???????????????????????????????with curio shops that sell anything and everything you may wish to take home from this holy abode. You can buy some nice junk jewellery or rudrakh beads or simply indulge in some window shopping. After some retail therapy, you must and definitely must try the traditional Indian food, cooked in pure desi ghee at the Chotiwala restaurant. The delicious vegetarian Indian food, cooked with much love by the cooks at the Chotiwala will surely tantalize your palate.

Time for adventure

Early morning is the best time to visit Neelkanth Mahadev, one of the venerated temples in the holy city of Rishikesh. A 45 minute drive on the curvaceous ghat road will take you to Neelkanth Mahadev which stands tall between the valleys of Manikoot, Brahmakoot and Vishnukoot. Surrounded by thick woods and two gurgling rivers – Pankaja and Madhumati – the temple attracts Shiva devotees from far and wide. Apart from devotees, the 12 km long stretch from Swarg Ashram to the temple is also thronged by trekkers and adventure enthusiasts. The picturesque landscape of the area lures one and all and the twitter of birds just adds more life to the serene calmness. If you are lucky, you may even find a shallow waterfall on your walk in the woods.


After your tryst with spiritualism, it’s time to don your adventure cap and enroll for adventure sports of your choice. Many consider Rishikesh as a haven for white water rafting which shuts only during monsoon months. But since summer is harsh in this region, the next two months are perfect to indulge in the sport. Here in Rishikesh, you can of course opt for white water rafting and choose the distance as per your preference and expertise. Apart from white water rafting, you can also go for bungee jumping, surfing, kayaking, cliff jumping, rock climbing, rapelling and mountaineering. There are a lot of adventure sporting companies that organize jungle camping, and beach games by the riverside.

Rishikesh has all the elements to make your weekend getaway a relaxed one. This fall, if you are looking to rejuvenate yourself, we advise hit the accelerator and go for a road trip to Rishikesh.