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Great Getaways : Times Correspondents' Course in Favorite Weekend Escapes : NEW DELHI

October 19, 1986|Rone Tempest

The Hindu warrior city of Mandawa is in the Rajasthan Desert, about 120 miles southwest of New Delhi as the vulture flies. Getting there is a testing four-hour drive, dodging camel carts and hashish-emboldened truck drivers.

After a long stretch of desert and dune, the narrow blacktop thrusts the traveler into a medieval walled city, with peacocks shrieking from the ramparts, camels plodding the narrow lanes and beautiful Rajasthani women in bright blue skirts and brassieres studded with tiny mirrors.

Two centuries ago, Mandawa was a caravan stop on the trade route between Arabia and China. Today, like the primitive frescoes on its walls, it is a faded, weathered vestige of the time when warrior princes and fabulously wealthy merchant castes ruled the spare land.

The surrounding desert territory is called Shekhavati, after Rao Shekhaji, a 15th-Century prince who seceded from the kingdom of Amber in Jaipur to form his own bloodstained fiefdom. His descendants still live in Mandawa, in a 200-room castle-fort in which 35 rooms have been converted into a hotel managed by three Shekhavati brothers--Kesri, Randhir and Praduman.

The hotel has no air conditioning and no television, although the bathrooms are new and clean. And it does have cold Indian beer and breakfast tea served by turbaned, barefoot men who pad through the labyrinthine castle corridors like cats. The night buffet in the cool, lamp-lit garden is good--spicy curries and homemade mango chutney.

Still, it is no place to go for those seeking major hotel amenities--and no place for anyone between April and October, when temperatures sometimes exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

For amusement, camel rides can be arranged. And several days can be spent in pleasant diversion viewing the frescoes painted on the mansions in Mandawa and nearby towns. Shekhavati is the ancestral home of the Malwaris, the Indian merchant caste that includes many of the richest families in India. The walls of many of the Malwari mansions have murals depicting religious stories and chronicling the region's history, including the arrival of the British and the railroad.

Most fun of all, however, is to sit on one of the dozen porches or rooftops in the Castle Mandawa, sipping hot tea or cold beer and watching peacocks and parrots pose on the parapets.

Hotel Castle Mandawa, Mandawa, Jhunjhunu, Shekhavati, Rajasthan, India 333704. Telephone 24 or reservations at Jaipur 75358 or 65901. Cost: about $35 for a double room (including one in a round watchtower with a roundish bed); $45 for a suite with sculpted pillars and three sitting areas.

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