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Garli: Chateau Charisma

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover old world romance and architectural gems in a heritage village in Himachal Pradesh

DSC05957_Priya Ganapathy

If it wasn’t for the summer heat and pahadi drumbeats heralding our arrival, we could have been in a faraway village in Germany or Switzerland. We stood under the painted oriel window of Chateau Garli with blues skies broken by white clouds and gyrating weathervanes, utterly besotted and bewildered by its beauty. The arterial road running through the pahadi town was lined by heritage buildings on either side though the summer haze obscured the snow-capped Dhauladhar range.

Garli in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra Valley wears its European influences with an air of nostalgic élan. In the 16th century, the area came under the rule of the Jaswan kingdom. The brave princess Prag Dei put up a stiff resistance against a band of marauders terrorising the valley and Pragpur was established in her honour. Its sister town Garli is peopled by the 52 hill clans of the Sood community, who originally lived in Rajasthan but were driven out by the Mughals.

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Around 19th century they settled around the hamlets of Garli and its more famous architectural twin town Pragpur four kilometres away. The site was chosen carefully at the tri-junction of three Shakti temples – Chintpurni, Jwalamukhi and Brajeshwari in Kangra to receive auspicious astral influences. They came here with cobblers, carpenters, craftsmen and other professionals to set up a trading township.

As treasurers of the Kangra royals and contractors who helped the British establish Shimla, the Soods amassed great fortunes and love for European style is so evident in Garli. The town is a haven of sprawling ancestral homes showcasing jaw-dropping architectural styles. Today, most are however in need of care and renovation. Some of the houses seem to be in a state of decay and the sleepy town does wear a tattered cloak of neglect and abandonment.

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Giving credence to this is a legend of a young bride who was wrongly accused of adultery by the villagers years ago. Angry at the slur to her reputation, the helpless girl cursed the entire village to eternal ruin. Surprisingly enough, over the years people started moving out and by the 1950s, apparently most of the houses in the once thriving village were abandoned. Thankfully, a few, like Chateau Garli, which lay unoccupied for 20 years, have now been protected.

Our host Yatish Sud and his son Amish have painstakingly restored their mansion, constructed in 1921 by his grandfather Lala Mela Ram Sud, into a boutique heritage stay. Each of its 19 rooms holds memories of another time – colonial furniture, mellow lights and crystal chandeliers contrasting sunlit coloured panes spilling rainbow reflections onto the floor.

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Our room in the old main building had a lovely balcony overlooking the large swimming pool. The ceiling artwork and gilded motifs framing the doorways, walls and windows were hand-painted by Amish’s sister Tarini, adding a classy, personal touch to the interiors. The acute gabled roofs, long windows and pillared verandahs of the main building flowed seamlessly to the annexe, which used to be a cattle shed.

Overlooking the pool and rustic kitchen counter, the annexe with its colourful windows transforms into fairytale castle at dusk. Each of the rooms are dressed with antique furniture like four poster beds and baby cribs, which accentuate its old world charm. Beside the pool, a mud-plastered counter was lined with brass pots and a traditional chulha (earthen oven) where food was prepared by local staff.

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Lunch was a lovely Kangra dhaam (meal) featuring a fixed menu of traditional Himachali delicacies like mhani, a preparation of black chana with jaggery and amchoor, siddu, the local steamed bread, mah ki dal, khatta (tangy curry) and meetha (sweet). After washing it down with some Kangra tea, we went on a guided walk around Garli.

Meandering cobbled alleys were lined by copper-toned mud-plastered homes, brick houses with slate roofs and lovely balconies, wooden balustrades, carved doors, wall murals and Rajasthani arches. Rayeeson wali kothi, the first mansion built in Garli, had murals and Rajasthani motifs on the walls, Santri wali kothi was dominated by two turbaned plaster sentries on the parapet wall while Nalke wali kothi had a public tap in front.

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We stopped by at one of the earliest bakeries in town where home-style cookies were being fired in a coal oven. On the town’s eastern end on the road to the Beas stood Naurang Yatri Nivas, a charming rustic style country lodge renovated by Yatish’s friend Atul Lal. In market lanes we discovered the progressive town planning, water and drainage system incorporated nearly a century ago.

The Soods established a boys’ school in 1918, a special women’s hospital in 1921 and a girl’s school by 1955. All of these, along with Garli Water Works, which used imported copper pipes from London, are still operational! The waterworks was inaugurated by Sir Malcolm Hailey, the Governor of Punjab on 8th February 1928 and a special road was built for the purpose. At a time when the rest of India was largely underdeveloped, the infrastructure of this tiny outpost was leagues ahead.

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Homes had wall niches for lamps to illumine the path for pedestrians in the old days. Pots of water were left thoughtfully for people to help combat heat and thirst. Such generosity of spirit was apparent even at Chateau Garli. When Yatish’s grandfather struck water while building the house, he adjusted his compound walls so that the well came outside his boundary and village folk could fill their pots. The practice continues to this day.

As Yatish drove us around local sights like Pong Dam, Dada Siba temple with Kangra paintings and 8th century Masroor rock-cut temples, we realized hospitality was not new to the Suds, it was an age old tradition.

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VITALS

Accommodation
Chateau Garli has 19 heritage rooms and suites between its main house and the annexe and serves robust, home-style meals including Indian, Chinese and local Kangra fare. Each room comes with AC, coffee maker and wi-fi besides a common swimming pool with underwater speakers!

Chateau Garli
Ph +91-1970-246246, 94180 62003
http://www.chateaugarli.com
Tariff Rs.5000 onwards).

Getting There
Garli is 4km/10 min east of its twin village Pragpur in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra district. It is 45km/1 hr southeast of Dharamsala, 186km/3 hrs from Chandigarh and 425km/7 hrs north of New Delhi. The closest airport is Gaggal in Dharamsala which has flights from Delhi. The nearest railway station is Amb, 16km/20 min away, connected by Himachal Express from Delhi, which reaches at 8am. Regular buses ply to Garli from many cities in Himachal like Pathankot (120km), Kullu (180km) and Simla (180km).

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller magazine: http://www.natgeotraveller.in/mountain-stay-chateau-garli-for-himachal-heritage-and-kangra-khana/

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The Wooden Road: Germany’s Half Timbered House Trail

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While autobahn is great for speed enthusiasts, ANURAG MALLICK enjoys slow travel on a driving holiday across Swabia in Baden-Württemberg, taking the southern Red Route of the German Timber Frame Road through medieval towns with half-timbered houses and vineyards        

Bleubauren-Blautopf IMG_0587_Anurag Mallick

Having caught the last flight to Stuttgart in the group, I had the least amount of time to do justice to the extensive spread at Restaurant Trollinger at the Mövenpick Hotel just outside Stuttgart Airport, let alone shower and change. But it was a taste of what lay ahead. Patience, I said to myself, as we got ready to take on the Deutsche Fachwerke Strasse.

The historic German Timber Frame Road runs 3,000km north to south through medieval towns with cobbled streets and half-timbered houses, heritage walks by guides in period costume and Swabian cuisine dished out at cellars, weinstube (wine restaurants) and biergartens (beer gardens). We were covering the 772km-long southern Red Route, a dramatic landscape where both history and geography had been shaped by the course of rivers and receding ice after the last Ice Age.

Bietigheim-Half-timbered house IMG_9837_Anurag Mallick

It was a short drive from Stuttgart to the charming little town of Bietigheim-Bissingen (actually two, for the price one). In 1975, Bietigheim and Bissingen, 3km apart, became twin towns. Locals fondly call them Bi-Bi! Anette Hochmuth from the German Framework Road greeted us near the town square and led us through the Unteres Tor (Lower Gate), the last surviving original gate.

Quirky art was typical of Bietigheim with sculptures like Kuhriousum (a cow on a milk can), Die Schwätzer (The Gossipers) and the outré Villa Visconti or House of Heads sporting a façade with heads of celebrities. We walked to the Marktplatz, the medieval town centre lined with spectacular buildings like the Rathaus (town hall). It was built in 1507 in the Black Forest region, dismantled and brought on rafts down the Enz River and reassembled here. Near the Old Latin School, Hornmoldhaus was one of the best-preserved Renaissance houses in South Germany with exquisite woodwork and painted interiors. It housed the Stadtmuseum (City Museum) and a miniature model of the town.

Bietigheim-Kuhriosum sculpture IMG_9812_Anurag Mallick

The reason they were called half-timbered houses was because of the wood-saving skeleton with self-supporting timber and curtain walls that had a filling of clay, mud, hay or brick. The method was both ecological and aesthetic. Stone was the privilege of the elite, which gave rise to the German expression steinreich or ‘stone rich’.

We continued to the wine village of Besigheim, surrounded by the Neckar and Enz rivers. Dominating the market square was the Town Hall built in 1359 and the charming Dreigabelhaus or Three-gabled house. The traditional Restaurant Ratsstüble is a great place to try Swabian delicacies. Swabia, a historic region in present day Baden-Württemberg, boasts its own distinct culture and cuisine. Our visit co-incided with Spargelzeit or Asparagus Season and the local favourite white asparagus was on the menu. Also on offer was Maultaschen, pasta stuffed with minced meat, spinach, onions and breadcrumbs. And thereby hangs a tale.

Schwabian cuisine-Maultaschen at Restaurant Ente Blaubeuren IMG_0712_Anurag Mallick

During Lent, ‘good’ Christians usually refrained from meat, but the cheeky Cistercian monks of Maulbronn Abbey were unwilling to do so. They hid the meat inside the pasta so God would not be able to see it! Since it looked like a tasche (bag) and came from Maulbronn, it was called Maultaschen. Nicknamed ‘Swindlers of the Almighty’, the coarser Swabian dialect was less charitable – the tongue twister Herrgottsbescheißerle means ‘God’s little bullshitters’!

Next up was Schorndorf, a 12th-century medieval town famous as the birthplace of Gottlieb Daimler, born here in 1834. His house and birthplace display his drawings, memorabilia and photos, tracing his transformation from a baker’s son to the inventor of the first small, high-speed petrol engine. The Galleries for Art & Technology had several of his inventions, automobiles and the first motorised bike. Daimler was working on an electric engine long before there was running water and electricity.

Schorndorf-Gottlieb Daimler birthplace IMG_0157_Anurag Mallick

In 1350, when Schorndorf’s fortifications were expanded to encircle the burgeoning town with new walls, people appropriated the old city walls to save money. One such specimen was a crooked house on Rommelgasse simply known as The House on the Wall. The houses were so close together one wonders if they could have built a common wall and reduced costs. But a small alleyway separated the houses, to prevent fires from spreading rapidly.

Rather more poignant were the cobblestone-sized memorials we literally stumbled upon. Started in 1996 by Gunter Demnig, these Stolpersteine or stumbling stones were created to commemorate victims of the Holocaust, put outside the house where they were last seen before being deported to concentration camps. Like Schorndorf, nearly 50,000 Stolpersteine can be seen across 18 countries in Europe, making it the world’s largest memorial.

Schorndorf-Stolperstein or stumbling stones IMG_0076_Anurag Mallick

In under an hour, we reached Esslingen, an old town with 1,200 years of architecture, criss-crossed by cobbled alleys, and the Burg (castle), with vineyards draping its slopes like a royal cloak, lording over town. One had to climb 300 steps for a view of Esslingen from the summit. For now the only fortification we were interested in was of the liquid kind as we ambled into Sektkellerei Kessler—Germany’s oldest producer of sparkling wine. After learning the secret of champagne in France, Georg Christian Kessler returned to set up his own company in 1826. Within the 1,000-year-old walls of the keller (cellar) they produced 1.5 million bottles annually.

Our eloquent guide Mr Roe took us on a tour of the inner city. “German history is too complicated with kings and kaisers fighting for power. After a glass of sekt you forget everything in any case,” he announced. And, thus, we set off to see the most important of the 800 monuments in the Altstadt (Old Town). Schelztor, the square gate tower, had a quirky installation of a man balancing on a pole. The Skywalker, designed by artist Van der Goetze in 1994, symbolised the medieval maxim that if you could support yourself for one year and one day, you became a free citizen.

Esslingen am Neckar-Town square IMG_0189_Anurag Mallick

Esslingen was the most important European town in the 13th century, superseding even Rome. It lay on the Route 66 of the Middle Ages, connecting Antwerp in the north to Venice in the south, crossing the Neckar River. Esslingen am Neckar prospered due to the two bridges that levied a high toll tax offering safe passage to merchants, thus developing as a trading location. It was the oldest, longest and widest stone bridge in Germany. Esslingen also had the oldest continuous timber-frame front with nearly 200 half-timbered houses.

The Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall), with large doors for easy passage of wine barrels, was the best example of Swabian Allemanic architecture. The Rathaus served as a covered market where the baker, candlestick maker and other craftsmen exhibited their goods. Occasionally a death sentence would be carried out in the top window. The new Town Hall built in 1422 was an architectural marvel with nine bells that played over 200 melodies. Each day was represented by a different statue of the ruling planet, which changed daily thanks to a rotary device.

Bleubauren-Blautopf statue of Schönen Lau IMG_0599_Anurag Mallick

After an early dinner at the cosy Weinkeller Einhorn with its recurrent unicorn motif, we continued to scenic Blaubeuren, tucked amidst wooded slopes and rocky outcrops in the valley of the Danube. Being springtime, there was enough daylight to squeeze in a Segway tour to Blautopf (Blue Pool), source of the Blau, Germany’s most beautiful karst spring. Coursing through a 12km-long network of limestone caves and caverns, it emerges from the base of the Swabian Jura (Alps) ending in a 22m deep funnel-shaped pool. The spire of the Benedictine monastery and the water mill mirrored in its blue waters is heart-achingly beautiful.

Blaubeuren’s historic town centre was one of the best-preserved in Germany with lovely lanes to stroll around dotted with shops, cafés and inns. We stopped by at Urgeschichtliches or Prehistoric Museum to see its most prized object. It looked like a dressed chicken, but the 6cm sculpture was a remnant of the last Ice Age—a 40,000-year-old figurine of Venus carved from mammoth ivory. Excavated from the Hohle Fels cavern, 4km southwest, it is counted among the world’s oldest sculptures and is the oldest representation of a female figure.

Biberach-Medieval walk with wife of a master weaver IMG_0813_Anurag Mallick

At Biberach, another interesting female figure waiting for us. Dressed in a medieval style gown and her hair covered in a scarf (back then if you let your hair loose, you were a loose woman), the ‘wife of the master weaver’ welcomed us to the year 1533. “Watch out for the horseman,” she cautioned, as a motorcar passed close by. It was an entertaining city walk to Weberberg, the medieval craftsmen’s settlement.

In 16th century, around 400 looms were located along the lane and a quarter of the population lived off the weaving trade. Fustian, a cloth made of flax and cotton, was a big hit in the Middle Ages and the source of Biberach’s wealth. Since the flax had to be kept damp, weavers worked in the dank environment of the cellar, often developing chronic coughs. We continued our walk to the stunning Marktplatz (market square) dominated by the Stadtpfarrkirche or St Martin’s Church.

Biberach-Marktplatz or town square IMG_0781_Anurag Mallick

Dinner was at Weinstube Goldener Rebstock where we had been granted the community table. Usually anyone walking into the restaurant could occupy a free seat there and successive people bought the next round. For this, the table came with a bell with the word ‘stammtisch’, which we were told not to ring, unless we wanted to buy the whole restaurant a round of beer. We were happy with our steamed potatoes with cheese platter and *seele (literally, ‘soul’) German footlong with ham.

The next day we came to Pfullendorf, between the river Danube and Lake Constance, where a ‘robber from the 1820s’ took us on a tour. Starting from the northernmost and highest point, Obertor (Upper Gate), the robber decoded secret signs marked on wealthy houses and how money was hidden on wooden beams. The Altes Haus (Old House), built in 1317, was one of the oldest townhouses in Southern Germany with a museum tracing the town’s history. We ended the tour at the subterranean restaurant Felsenkeller with a meal of mashed potatoes and ham baked inside a whole loaf of bread.

Pfullendorf-Heritage walk with medieval era robber IMG_1025_Anurag Mallick

Any more food and we would have rolled down the steep vineyard slopes all the way to Meersburg. It was located on the northern shore of Bodensee or Lake Constance, the largest lake in Germany. Our guide Jutta said the lake freezes once every century (the last time was 1963), an event celebrated with a procession of St John’s statue. Literally, the Castle on the Lake, Meersburg’s baroque skyline was shaped by wealthy prince bishops who employed the famous baroque architect Balthasar Neumann. The Alte Burg (Old Castle) is said to be the oldest in Germany that’s still inhabited.

We explored the chapel in the baroque palace Neues Schloss (New Castle), the Rathaus (Town Hall) and the oldest medieval inn Zum Baren (The Bear) dating back to 1250. Staatsweingut Meersburg is the best place to learn about the region’s wine. Descending sharply to the lakeshore, the vineyards have southern exposure and limestone rich soil originating in the Ice Age, unique to German viticulture. With lovely views of boats and yachts on the lake, lined by pretty hotels and restaurants, Meersburg was the prettiest wine village in Germany. Ironically, the best view of the vineyards does not belong to Meersburg, but to Constance.

Meersburg-Vineyards by the lake IMG_1491_Anurag Mallick

Legend has it that on the manor Haltnau Wendelgard, all the vineyards belonged to a not-so-pretty lady, her face disfigured by a harelip. She longed for love and wrote a letter to the Mayor of Meersburg that if he or a member of his town council took her out for dinner every Sunday, and gave her a long kiss, all the vineyards would become part of Meersburg.

She must have been rather unsightly as the proposal was unanimously rejected. She then wrote the same letter to the Mayor of Constance. Our guide, Frau Jutta remarked, “We don’t know whether the men of Constance were blinder, greedier or less sensitive, but ever since, the vineyards have belonged to Constance and not to Meersburg.” It was time to swig one for the road.

Meersburg-Lake Constance IMG_1502_Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE

Good to Know
Deutsche Fachwerke Strasse or The German Timber Frame Road is a 3,000 km tourism trail that starts from the fishing town of Stade at the mouth of the Elbe River in north Germany and ends at Meersburg on Lake Constance in the south. Divided into six colour-coded regional lines, the route connects nearly 100 towns with half-timbered houses, historical sites and diverse geographic zones – Elbe River to Harz Mountains in Lower Saxony (Blue Route), Harz to Thuringian Forest (Orange Route), Weser Hills via North Hesse to Vogelsberg and Spessart Uplands (Brown Route), Lahn Valley and Rheingau (Yellow Route), the confluence of Rhine and Main into Odenwald (Purple Route) and Neckar Valley, Black Forest and Lake Constance region (Red Route).

Getting there
By Air: Fly to Frankfurt Airport and take a connecting flight to Stuttgart, capital of the in Baden-Württemberg region.

Getting Around
From the airport, depart by private coach on the Red Route (772 km), starting with Bietigheim-Bissingen, 25 km north of Stuttgart and Besigheim, 8km north of the twin towns. Ludwigsburg, 15 km south of Besigheim has more hotels and is a good overnight stop. Bypass Stuttgart town and drive 35 km to Schorndorf and another 35 km to Esslingen. Continue 76 km southwest to Blaubeuren for an overnight stop. Cover Biberach, 41 km south, and Pfullendorf (53 km further away) en route to Meersburg, 37 km on the northern bank of Lake Constance. Meersburg to Stuttgart is 186 km.

Pfullendorf-Distance marker IMG_1114_Anurag Mallick

Stay
Romantik Hotel Friedrich von Schiller, Bietigheim
Hotel Blauzeit, Friedrichstrasse, Ludwigsburg www.blauzeit.com
Hotel Ochsen, Marktstrasse, Blaubeuren www.ochsen-blaubeuren.de
Flair Hotel zum Schiff, Bismarckplatz, Meersburg www.hotelzumschiff.de

Eat & Drink
Try Swabian delicacies like pancake soup, spätzle (local noodles), maultaschen (stuffed pasta), seele (long baguette) and white asparagus. Wash it down with Apfelschorle (apple soda) or wine schorle (wine with soda), Kessler sparkling wine cellar at Esslingen, regional wines like Lemberger, Blaufränkisch, Dornfelder, Riesling, Kerner, Müller-Thurgau and Trollinger, besides German beer like Dinkelacker and Holgenbrau.

Pfullendorf-Felsenkeller dining in a cellar IMG_1219_Anurag Mallick

Restaurant Trollinger, Mövenpick Hotel, Stuttgart Airport www.trollingerstubn.de
Must try: German buffet spreads

Restaurant Ratsstüble, Besigheim http://www.ratsstueble-besigheim.de
Must try: Asparagus soup, maultaschen, spätzle

Felsenkeller, Heiligenberger Straße 20, Pfullendorf www.felsenkeller-pfullendorf.de
Must try: German beer, ham baked inside a whole loaf of bread, Swabian mashed potatoes

Weinkeller Einhorn, Esslingen http://www.weinkellereinhorn.de
Must try: Roast beef, German style pork chops, with cellar dating back to 729

Restaurant Golden Ente, Biberach www.zur-ente.de
Must try: Duck liver, leg and breast of duck, rump steak with roasted onions & spätzle

Restaurant Goldener Rebstock, Biberach www.goldenerrebstock.de
Must try: Seele, Potato cheese platter, German beer and excellent whiskey collection

Schwabian cuisine-Duck breast at Restaurant Ente Blaubeuren IMG_0709_Anurag Mallick

Sektkellerei Kessler, Esslingen http://www.kessler-sekt.de
Must try: Germany’s oldest sparkling wine maker of Hochgewächs, Jägergrün, Cabinet & Rosé and Kessler Creations like Riesling and Weissburgunder

Brennerei Rossle, Blaubeuren-Seissen http://www.brennereiroessle.de
Must try: Schnapps and liquors in exotic flavours like apple, peach, orange, ginger and vanilla

Staatsweingut Meersburg http://www.staatsweingut-meersburg.de
Must try: Secco white sparkling wine pairs well with cheese, the dry Meersburger Lerchenberg Muller-Thurgau is excellent with asparagus, the slightly almondy and buttery Hohentwieler Olgaberg Weissburgunder goes with everything, the Meersburger Jungfernstieg Spatburgunder Blanc de Noirs is ideal with white meat whereas those who love spicy, hot, Indian food might prefer the special Rosé Gutswein Spatburgunder Weissherbst.

Meersburg-Staatswine IMG_1441_Anurag Mallick

See
Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart documents over 125 years of auto industry history in a single continuous timeline www.mercedes-benz.com
Gottlieb Daimler Gebursthaus (Birthplace) in Schorndorf www.daimler.com

When to go
Christmas markets in winter at Stuttgart (one of the oldest and biggest in Europe, started in 1692) and Baroque style medieval Christmas market in Esslingen are held in Nov-Dec

Bietigheim-Horse sculpture IMG_9949_Anurag Mallick

Guided Tours
A 2 hr guided walking tour from the old own centre of Bietigheim-Bissingen is offered every Sunday at 10:30 am from Easter to October. www.bietigheim-bissingen.de www.3b-tourismus.de

The Tourist Information at Markplatz in Pfullendorf organizes free town tours every Friday 10 am between May to October, covering the old town, the Rathaus, Steinscheuer (a granary converted into a library) and other half-timbered houses. http://www.pfullendorf.de

Meersburg’s Tourist Information on Kirchstraße 4 offers 1½ hr guided walks at 10:30 am on Tues/Thurs of the historic Old town, past the fortress, on the terrace of the New Castle, into the Castle Chapel and the Wine Museum. It is free for Lake Constance Experience Ticket holders or € 5.00 per person. www.meersburg.de

For more info, www.germany.travel

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of Outlook Traveller. Read the story on OT at http://www.outlooktraveller.com/trips/on-a-ride-through-swabia-driving-in-germany-1007936

It’s the time to Fresco: Painted Havelis of Shekhawati

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore a region north of Jaipur often described as the ‘largest open air gallery of Rajasthan’

Mahansar Fort heritage hotel owner IMG_0328Anurag Priya

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.

Bagar Piramal Haveli renovated by Neemrana into a hotel IMG_0125_Anurag Priya

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

Ramgarh frescos - even undersides of domed chhatris serve as a canvas IMG_0630_Anurag Priya

Myriad themes
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.

Mahansar IMG_0214_Anurag Priya

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…

Nawalgarh-Rajasthanis in a steamer IMG_2011_Anurag Priya

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-Fort interiors IMG_1585Anurag Priya

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

Dundlod Seth Arjun Das Goenka Haveli Museum IMG_1457_Anurag Priya

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)

Nawalgarh Roop Niwas Kothi horse safaris IMG_1745_Anurag Priya

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

Nawalgarh-Dr Ramnath A Poddar Haveli Museum IMG_1977Anurag Priya

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

Nawalgarh-Dr Ramnath A Poddar Haveli Museum IMG_1940_Anurag Priya

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

Ramgarh Freco Hotel IMG_0665Anurag Priya

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

Ramgarh Shani Mandir IMG_0496Anurag Priya

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.

Mahansar fresco-train IMG_0274_Anurag Priya

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.

Alsisar-Jhunjhunu wala ki Haveli  IMG_2163Anurag Priya

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

Castle Mandawa hall IMG_7193_Anurag Priya

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-Haveli Nadine le Prince IMG_0798Anurag Priya

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 Mahal IMG_2114Anurag Priya

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