Imagine Seth Kishan Chand Tibrewala, patriarch of a prosperous Marwari family, in his mansion on the edge of the desert. Dressed in dhoti-kameez made of fine Egyptian cotton and bleached to luminous whiteness by his senior wife, the sethaniji; diamonds gleaming in his buttonholes; a paag coiled to perfection around his head. It is morning as he steps out onto the Italianate verandah of the haveli.
Peacocks shriek out from the sangar trees, and the 15 cows penned in the family nora low tunefully as Sethji makes his way to the baithak (drawing room) to meet with munimji. Outside the haveli's high walls, the land is arid, with scrub forest furring the dunes or tibbas, from which the Tibrewalas derive their name.
Seth Kishan Lal's father, who built the haveli, made his fortune on the Southern Silk Route. The towns of Shekhavati were important trading posts on the route between China and West Asia. Kafilas or camel-caravans loaded with silks, brocades, pashmina, saffron, opium, tobacco and bricks of tea, would travel down from the high passes to the dusty plains of Rajasthan; while goods from Europe, Africa and Arabia would arrive by ship at ports on the east and west coast. The trade route had made him rich beyond his dreams, and he built for his family the finest mansion in all Shekhavati.
In the inner-courtyard, the four daughters-in-law are busy churning butter and pickling amlas under the stern eye of Hukmi Devi, the matriarch who rules the domestic empire with an iron hand. The haveli is a self-contained community, and for the women of the house, virtually the only world they know. To them, outdoors is the terrace where they spread the chillis to dry under the desert sun, or where they lie with their husbands under a silver moon in their breezy, roofless, rooftop bedrooms called chandni.
Of late though, they have a new and altogether unexpected peephole onto the outside world. Sethji has commissioned an artist to repaint the fading frescoes in the three courtyards. Not for him the tame themes of Radha-Krishna and Ramayana. His is a revolutionary, visionary world of steam engines as tall as buildings, each carriage bearing an incarnation of Vishnu, motor-cars with wings and a positively sacrilegious one of Ramji smoking a pipe while Sitaji beside him sports a bowler hat! Hukmi is scandalised but Sethji is adamant. He's never seen a motorcar himself but his eldest son in Calcutta has. And, as if all this were not exciting enough, in the upper bedchambers the irrepressible artist has painted tableaux of explicit and illicit love, much to the delight of the husbands.
Staying at the restored Piramal Haveli run by Neemrana Hotels at Bagar in Shekhavati district, it is easy to conjure up this vision of an imaginary 19th century household. The 275km drive out from Delhi takes you down NH 8 where the shining malls of Gurgaon fall away quickly, giving way to lush mustard fields. Turning right off the highway and into the desert, the landscape changes.
This is the dust-drenched, fresco-filled region of Shekhavati in the north-west corner of Rajasthan. Villages and townships here have hundreds upon hundreds of ornate mansions covered inside and outside with exotic wall-paintings; their bright cobalt blues, ochres and greens, an affirmation of life in a dry, desiccated landscape. When the princely states were dissolved after Independence, the intricate trade network that made Shekhavati prosperous, unravelled.
Within a few decades the merchant families left their painted palaces and moved to port cities on the east and west coast ' their legacies abandoned, crumbling and mostly forgotten, until historians Aman Nath and Francis Wacziarg first documented them some 15 years ago. Today, the frescoes of Shekhavati attract tourists from all over the world but the havelis are still crumbling ' some buckling at the plinth because of bad drainage, some cannibalised for their woodwork and others whose murals have been whitewashed over. Many of the mansions belong to the country's best known business families ' the Dalmias, Birlas, Poddars, Goenkas, Singhanias, Khaitans, Kedias and Jhunjhunwalas among many others.
The fresco trail runs through Chomu, Sikar, Danta, Ramgarh, Nawalgarh, Parasrampara, Dundlod, Mukundgarh, Lachmangarh, Fatehpur, Mandawa and Churu. From Churu, due east is Bissau, Mahansar, Jhunjhunu, Bagar, Chirawa and Khetri. The themes of the murals range from the devotional, to the royal, to erotic, to 'Company School' ' the term given to quirky 18th century works of British idiom. Shekhavati traders would return from the port cities of Bombay and Calcutta to regale their slack-jawed country-cousins with tales of wondrous inventions and sophisticated society. Their stories found innocent and clumsy representation in the frescoes ' Ram and Sita in a Rolls Royce chauffeured by Hanuman or Jesus smoking a cigar.
Even apart from the murals, the alleyways of Shekhavati are fascinating and disorienting. The wonderfully wound turbans are starting to disappear and synthetics are fast replacing cotton cloth, but veiled women still swirl past in bright ghaghras trimmed with gold. Bold-faced Lohar women with their disconcertingly deep d'colletage, heavy silver anklets and saucy swagger, are an inexplicable contradiction in an overwhelmingly male-dominated society.
On the flat roofs of the neelgaron-ka-khurra (the dyers Quarter), Muslim families work together tie-dyeing, hanging up the fabric to dry in a hundred colourful flags, even as a youth wearing a Mets T-shirt and baseball cap darts out with a mobile-phone camera to steal a snapshot of a female foreign tourist. If the frescoes on its walls are a quirky social documentary of their time, then life in present day Shekhavati is a mirror of that artless contrariness.
Shekhavati's greatest gift is that it reminds us of a time, not long ago, when the domestic spaces of even ordinary, everyday people, were a place of artistic expression and beauty. Womenfolk regularly turned their homes into a giant canvas alive with folk art, or painted their prayers into colourful rangolis.
Here was a generation that surrounded itself with painted visions of foreign lands, erotic fantasies, gods and fairy-folk at work and play, the miracles of technology, and a hundred dreams and aspirations. Na've and childish perhaps, but immeasurably preferable to the death of imagination.
Photographs by Amit Pasricha
Best time to go is roughly between October and March. Equip yourself with a good guidebook and with schematic maps or you will not be able to locate the havelis. A jeep or car is the best way to move between towns. Sensible walking shoes are recommended, the alleys can be slushy due to bad drainage. Carry a bottle of water and a hat, and dress modestly. For mural-gazing be prepared for dusty and dank rooms, and bats in dark, narrow stairways. Some havelis have an entrance fee and some may even refuse entry. Don't go without bookings during high season. Hotel options are Piramal Haveli, run by Neemrana Hotels at Bagar (Tel: 01592-221220), Castle Mandawa (Tel: 01592-223124) and Mukundgarh Fort (Tel: 01594-252395).
You go to Ibiza to party. This Mediterranean island's clubs are world-famous (or should that be world-infamous), and the nightlife leaves other European and worldwide party destinations in the slow-track. In fact, it's almost a pilgrimage place for celebrities such as Elle Macpherson, Kylie Minogue and P Diddy who will certainly vouch for the saying that goes: if Ibiza chooses you, you will return again and again.
If you have money, mobility and stamina, the night is yours ' but don't even think about the morning. The town's bars are crowded into the streets of the lower town. It's better to start the night in Pla'a des Parc in Sunset or Madagascar, where prices are more reasonable. You can then head for the stylish bars of Sa Penya ' Bar Zuka, Base Bar and Rock Bar ' which all attract a funky clientele. The gay scene is centred on Carrer de la Verge, perhaps the wildest street in the western Mediterranean.
Clubbing in Ibiza can be pricey, especially in July and August. However, for your euros, you often get one free drink and a slice of some of the best dance music on the planet, spun by the world's top DJs. For swish surroundings, a stylish clientele and the occasional celeb, head for Pacha. But make sure you dress up or you won't get through the door.
True it has an avant-garde nightlife, whose reputation has reached ears far beyond the Spanish borders. But it's beaches are equally well known. It is simply a matter of deciding whether you want a family beach, a nudist beach, a watersports beach, a secluded beach or an all-night-party beach.
The longest beach on Ibiza ' Playa d'en Bossa ' is popular with both families and partygoers heading for Bora Bora bar. New Age hippies tend to frequent Benirras beach in the north, but nowadays Ibiza's grooviest beach is Salines, just beyond the Ses Salines saltpans. This beach is long enough for thousands of deckchairs. The main attraction is the choice of trendy beach bars ' Malibu, Jockey Club and Sa Trinxa ' and the fact that the beach has a very lax clothing policy.
For the best beach sunsets, head for the west coast. The isolated beauty of Cala Salada, Cala Tarida, Cala d'Hort and Cala Conta is simply unbeatable.
• Summer (June, July and August) is the silly season in the Balearics. You’ll be subject to crowded beaches, higher prices and a shortage of accommodation. To avoid the crowds and save money, come in May-June or September-October
• Ibiza has several bus lines serving every corner of Ibiza City and the island. There’s even an all-night ‘disco bus’, which makes a continuous circuit
between the major nightclubs
• The short ferry ride to Formentera is popular. Once you arrive, rent a bike and enjoy the day
My favourite holiday
One of my most memorable holidays was in Australia five years ago. As far as I'm concerned, vacations are always the outcome of impulsive decisions. And this time too, was no different. Making it more special was the fact that we were there as the new millenium broke. It was just my husband and I (we do regret not taking the kids) on a beach on the Gold Coast surrounded by thousands of revellers. In fact, the entire Gold Coast was transformed into one gigantic party in the days leading up to the New Year. Needless to say, the entire experience was unreal.
Our Australian affair lasted for 20 amazing days and besides staying on the Gold Coast, we also stopped by Sydney and Melbourne. The Great Barrier Reef was as expected, absolutely thrilling. While shopping wasn't really on our agenda, we did pick up some nice artefacts there.
What was on our itinerary, however, was plain and simple relaxation. And I stayed true to it. My entire getaway was spent lazing on the beach. My husband did indulge his appetite for adventure sports but I preferred to just sit there and soak in the glorious sun.
What I love most about Down Under is that it has places where you can be completely in sync with nature and then it also has those big, bright, bustling cities that sweep you up into a swirl of activity. Aussies also happen to be the most chilled out people. While there I picked up this line ' 'No worries'. Everybody uses it there and you can't help but get into the spirit of things too. That's the effect Australia has on you!