ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore a region north of Jaipur often described as the ‘largest open air gallery of Rajasthan’
Origin of Shekhawati and its havelis
The haveli was to the baniya (merchant) what the gadh (fort) was to the Rajput. In 15th century, Rao Shekhaji (1433-88), baron of the Shekhawat sub-clan of the Kachhwaha dynasty conquered a vast region north of Amber, which was called Shekhawati. Over time, his descendants set up smaller thikanas (fiefdoms). However, the birth of the haveli (palatial home) can be traced to the rise of the Marwaris. After the decline of the Silk Route, this merchant community migrated from the desert region of Marwar around 1820 to the ports of Calcutta and Bombay, amassing huge fortunes. Though Marwaris ventured far for business, they always returned for three things – weddings, religious ceremonies and buildings. Strewn across 13,784 sq km, hundreds of painted havelis vied to outdo the other, making Shekhawati the largest open-air gallery in Rajasthan.
The land of millionaires
As per oral folklore, Shekhawati once had 22 crorepatis. Some of India’s biggest business houses have their roots here – Oswal, Mittal, Ruia, Lohia, Birla, Dalmia, Goenka, Singhania, Agarwal, Khetan, Modi, Kothari, Jalan, Poddar, Morarka, Jhunjhunuwala, Piramal… Built in 1928, The Piramal Haveli in Bagar was the home of Seth Piramal Chaturbhuj Makhania who made a fortune in Bombay, trading in cotton, silver and opium. Renovated by Neemrana and the closest Shekhawati hotel from Delhi, the haveli has a large garden and two pillared courtyards with colourful wall tiles and kitsch frescoes of flying angels and gods in motorcars. Presence of the British in Jaipur since 1803 finds ample reflection in the murals. Ph 01592 221220-21, 9310630386 http://www.neemranahotels.com
Mural painting was an elaborate process that involved application of different materials and techniques in multiple layers. The laborious task of grinding sandela or kara, a smooth paste was left for women or boys. Scenes depicted cover ten broad themes – decorative designs, daily life, religion, raga mala, folk mythology, historical events or personalities, flora and fauna, erotica, maps or places and the British and their contraptions. Most chhatris or domes include a rasamandala in the ceiling – a dancing circle in which Krishna miraculously replicates himself so each Gopi finds him dancing next to her.
Tales of romance
Besides popular love stories like Laila-Majnu and Heer-Ranjha, Shekhawati’s murals have a recurrent theme of a couple astride a camel portraying Rajasthan’s most popular romantic tale – Dhola-Maru. Married off as kids, Dhola returns as an adolescent to fetch his wife. En route they encounter bandits Umra-Sumra and like a true Rajput wife, Maru repels the attackers while Dhola urges his camel onward. Paintings also represent lesser-known folk tales of Binjo-Sorath; Binjo mesmerizes his young aunt Sorath with his veena as she dances to his tunes. Sassi-Punu recounts the legend of Punu, a prince who weds Sassi, an abandoned princess raised among washermen. Tragically, Punu is kidnapped and Sassi dies in search of him in the desert…
United Colours of Shekhawati
Long before 19th century natural colours like lampblack and red, green and yellow ochres were in use. Lime was a substitute for white and to lighten other hues, while indigo, ultramarine, vermilion, verdigris, gold and silver were reserved for puja rooms and bedrooms. Indian Yellow, made from gomutra or urine collected from cows fed on mango leaves, was rarely used. In 1860, German chemical pigments like artificial ultramarine, chrome red and emerald green reached India and remained popular till World War I, until supplies were hit. Inspired by ‘Made in Germany’ paint tins, many painters randomly emblazoned the word “Germany” to depict anything English! Maroon was popular between 1820-65, red and blue held sway between 1860-1910 while multi-coloured paintings using cheap European paints dominated 1900-50.
Dundlod: The Far Pavilions
In 1750, Thakur Kesri Singhji chose the site for Shivgarh Fort at the behest of local saint Dundlu Maharaj and named the village Dundlod. The beautiful diwankhana (assembly hall) has paintings of maharajas astride famous horses. Current owner Kanwar Raghavendra Singh (Bonnie Bana), who sourced 25 Marwari horses for the 1978 TV series The Far Pavilions, ended up buying them after the shoot! With partner Francesca Kelly, he runs Royal Equestrian & Polo Centre, organizing riding holidays across Rajasthan. The old well Sethon ka Kua and town square doubled up as a Partition era market in Pinjar. JP Dutta’s film Ghulami too was shot here and in Fatehpur, where most recently Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan was filmed. Ph 9829212176, 9414208518 http://www.dundlod.com
Mansions with museums
Seth Arjundas Goenka Haveli Museum in Dundlod is a beautifully restored 1875 haveli showcasing merchant life in 19th century displaying old artefacts in 20 rooms. The richly carved fortified gate leads to the mardana (men’s quarter), an outer courtyard for visitors. Life-size clay figures depict the merchant, customers and punkha-walla, who manually swung the cloth ceiling fans. He was usually deaf and mute to ensure that business dealings remained secret. The inner courtyard or zenana recreates household scenes with large vessels, ladies at the chakki (stone wheel), cooks rolling out chapatis in the rasoi (kitchen) and earthen pitchers in a paniyada (narrow water storage room). Ph 9884053841 Mohan Goenka (Caretaker)
Far from the madding crowd
Founded by Thakur Nawal Singhji in 1737, Nawalgarh stands on an erstwhile grazing ground for horses, but is among the most modern towns in Shekhawati. Wrapped by a parkota (high wall), the town is marked by four pols (gates) – Bawadi, Mandi, Agoona and Nansa Darwajas. When the town outgrew these confines, Roop Niwas Kothi or ‘Rawal sab ki Kothi’ an old country house on a 100-acre patch became the family’s favoured retreat. The heritage resort has an impressive stable of Marwari horses and is owned by Bhanwar Devendra Singh who runs Royal Riding Holidays. Ph 01594-222008 http://www.roopniwaskothi.com
The art of haveli restoration
Nawalgarh’s Morarka Haveli was built by Jairam Dasji Morarka in the latter half of 18th century. After years of disuse, its renovation began in 2004 under conservation expert Dr Hotchand. Instead of cement, limestone, lal mitti (red mud) and river sand were used to strengthen surfaces. Marble dust and slaked lime replaced synthetic resins to reinforce plaster. Over 700 frescoes and 160 sculpted doors and windows, charred by smoke, dust and dirt were restored using traditional methods. Another renovated mansion nearby, Uttara Haveli was built in 1890 by Kesardev Morarka. Since the family did not dwell here long, it was opened for transiting relatives during functions. It was dubbed Uttaron ki Haveli (house of those who come and go), which morphed into Uttara Haveli. Ph 9649578317 http://www.morarkahavelimuseum.com
Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum, a window to Rajasthan
Philanthropist Anandilal Podar built the haveli in 1902, which was converted into a museum and a centre for art, culture and heritage by his grandson Kantikumar R Podar. Restoring 750 frescoes spread over 11,200 sq m, he named the museum in memory of his father Ramnath A Podar. It has several interesting galleries on Rajasthani lifestyle, musical instruments, festivals, jewellery, miniature paintings, handicrafts, forts, palaces, bridal costumes, artworks in stone, wood and marble, besides turbans! Ph 01594-225446, 223138 http://www.podarhavelimuseum.org
There are Ramgarhs, and there’s Ramgarh Sethan
Excessive taxation by Bikaner state led to the decline of Churu and the formation of Ramgarh. To protest the harsh taxes imposed by Thakur Sheo Singh of Churu, the Agrawal community of Podars left his territory in 1791 and founded a new town 16km south, with help from the Rao Raja of Sikar. In order to differentiate it from other Ramgarhs, they called it Ramgarh Sethan or Sethon ka Ramgarh (Ramgarh of wealthy merchants), vowing to outshine their former home. True to their word, Ramgarh reflects the wealth they amassed and spent to beautify their havelis. Today, Ramgarh holds the largest number of frescoes in Shekhawati. The Khandelwal family renovated the century old Khemka Haveli into the Ramgarh Fresco Hotel and organizes walking tours around the painted town. Ph 9971133230 http://www.ramgarhfresco.com
Mirror mirror on the wall
Ironically, Ramgarh’s biggest mansion Sawalka Haveli was built in defiance of the Podars. Being old settlers, the Podars didn’t allow the Sawalkas into their territory, so Motilal Sawalika built a magnificent abode just outside the city gates! A short walk away is the Shani temple built by Gurudayal Khemka in 1840. The porch ceiling depicts mythological themes while mirror work on the interior walls is done using glass brought from Belgium and Persia around 1850.
Weird contraptions of the Western world
The earliest depictions of Europeans in the frescoes are as army officers and troops. By mid 19th century their strange machines began to appear – paddle steamers and cargo boats that plied along the Ganga. While the railway was introduced in India in the 1850s, the first mural featuring a locomotive dates to 1872. Being the perfect frieze to divide a wall horizontally, the train fad caught on, sometimes even showing erotica in the carriages! By end 19th century, modern age contraptions shared wall space with camels and elephants – bicycles, cars, manned balloons and aeroplanes, locally called cheel-gadi (eagle craft). Western women were depicted listening to gramophones or playing netball.
The Golden Room of Mahansar
The lofty Narain Niwas Castle in Mahansar was built in 1768 by Nawalgarh’s founder Thakur Nawal Singh for his second son Thakur Nahar Singh. Thakur Maheshwar Singh, the eighth generation scion, runs it as a simple heritage hotel with great sunset views from the terrace. Nearby, is one of the best painted havelis in Shekhawati – Sone Chandi ki Dukan or Golden Room built in 1846 inside a Podar haveli. Named after the gold and silver leaf used to decorate its walls, the vibrant frescoes show intricately rendered scenes from the Ramayana, the life of Krishna and incarnations of Vishnu. Ph 01595-264761, 99282 76998 http://www.mahansarfort.com
Mandawa, the heart of trade
Being an old trading outpost on the Delhi-Bikaner route, Mandawa prospered greatly; its 175 havelis are ample proof. Perhaps the best specimens are Gulab Rai Ladia Haveli and Murmuria Haveli with its bizarre East-meets-West theme. Thakur Nawal Singh built Castle Mandawa in 1755 and rooms in its zenana display antique murals to objects in marble with antique armour and family portraits showcased in the diwankhana (drawing room). Ph 0141-2374112 http://www.mandawahotels.com
Fatehpur’s French connection
Originally built in 1802 by the Devras, the richest family of silk traders at the court of the local ruler, the Nandlal Devra Haveli was purchased in 1998 by artist Nadine le Prince, a descendant of French painter Jean-Baptiste le Prince. Nadine restored its frescoes using local artists and opened a cultural center that exhibits her artwork alongside French and Indian modern artists covering contemporary to tribal art. Next door the 200-year old Saraf Haveli has original paintings with Belgian glass inlay but marred by a provision store run by the caretaker inside! Jwala Prasad Bhartia Haveli built in 1925 displays stunning wall murals and exquisite teak doorways chiseled by jangids or traditional wood carvers. Ph 01571-233024 http://www.cultural-centre.com
Alsisar: Thirst for honour
Alsisar recounts the legend of two sisters Alsi and Malsi. Unable to bear a taunt faced by his sisters who went to draw water from the village well at lunch, Nawal Singh abandoned his field and vowed to consume water and food only after digging his own well. The Bhan siblings dug through the night until they struck water. Alsi settled down at this sar (water source) which was called Alsisar, while Malsi moved to a nearby place, thus named Malsisar. Besides Alsisar Mahal, site of the Magnetic Fields festival, the town has numerous temples, wells, cenotaphs, dharamsalas and mansions like Indra Vilas, a 100-room haveli set in a ten-acre compound built by Indrachand Kejriwal in 1595. Jhunjhunuwala ki haveli, built by Seth Kasturimal 170 years ago has two rooms with inimitable mural paintings. Ph 0141-2364652 http://www.alsisarmahal.com
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 19 May 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at www.cntraveller.in/story/inside-painted-havelis-shekhawati