Tag Archives: Silk Route

Desert Rain: Trails across the Thar

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY piece together Thar’s glorious past from fragments of ruins, cenotaphs, folklore, forgotten forts and caravanserais along the Silk Route

IMG_8922_Anurag Priya

The road shot across the Thar, a monochrome landscape resembling a gargantuan oatmeal cookie, toasted by sun and time to an uneven brown. All of a sudden, the endless parched expanse was broken by a vast carpet of green, speckled with vegetation. Stray horses lapped at water puddles on the fringes. We rubbed our eyes. It was no mirage. We were staring at the result of an indigenous rainwater harvesting practice that has provided sustenance in these barren tracts for centuries!

At an unmarked location near Jaisalmer beyond the reach of Google Maps, we were on the bespoke Desert Remembers trail, beautifully curated to present Thar’s lesser known history and folklore. The ancient Paliwal Brahmins, who prospered from trade on the Silk Route, were geniuses in agriculture and practised an innovative farming technique. Studying local topography and geology, they identified flatlands and built embankments above an impervious gypsum layer to trap rainwater. These precious aagor (catchment areas) caught the first rains and a network of dhoras (drains) channelled water throughout the khadin (community farmland), ensuring it remained a shallow oasis.

IMG_8974-Horses slake their thirst near a khadin

Low ridges to our right formed the mineral rich gravely uplands that gently sloped towards the fertile silty basin on our left. The harnessed rainwater was flooded into the low lying fields and held for two months. The impervious gypsum layer enabled the soil to resuscitate, assuring a round of crops annually and sometimes, even a post-rain crop. No one owned the land and the entire community collectively shared the harvest! Their water management was so legendary, the Paliwals were believed to possess powers to summon rains at will.

As we drove past a sandstone pillar, we noticed deities and inscriptions carved on it. Our host Manvendra Singh Shekhawat explained that it was a govardhan, ancient water markers venerated as shila-ji (holy stone) by locals. Sometimes precious metals would be buried under the posts, with etchings of the ruling planetary deity, aligned to constellations in the sky. It doubled up as a navigational aid and served as life-saving signposts for travellers in the past. After a full day, we finally retired to the comfort of our base Suryagarh.

IMG_8992-Govardhan or water markers

Many of the hotel’s design elements were inspired by its surroundings – the jharokas overlooking the central courtyard from Jaisalmer’s havelis, windows and friezes from Khaba Fort and stone walls and ceiling design from Kuldhara. Champagne and snacks heralded the launch of the Residences at Suryagarh, an exclusive section of private suites set away from the main hotel.

Each handcrafted sandstone haveli offered a sense of private luxury while a large open courtyard, reminiscent of Paliwal villages, was based on the community living concept. Wide windows and pillared corridors framed the vastness of the desert while the warm décor, sunken rooms and furnishings exuded sophisticated charm. In a rare tribute, each room was named after the chief karigar (mason) who built it!

IMG_8910-Suryagarh's elaborate halwai breakfast

The next day, the prospect of waking up for before dawn for ‘Breakfast with Peacocks’ seemed too much effort, so we settled for a leisurely Halwayi Breakfast in the courtyard. It was an asssault course of farsan (snacks), which were consumed in no particular order – kachori, aloo bonda, mirchi pakoda, fafda, samosa, laddus, gulabjamun, fruits, fresh juices, followed by assorted parathas, curd and a variety of pickles and chutneys. It was carnage.

Going by our diet, it would seem we were setting out to conquer Khaba Fort, not visit it. As we disembarked, a turbaned manganiyar clicked his castanets to a soulful rendition of the folk classic “Padharo mhare des.” We could have sworn he was perched in the central jharoka of the Suryagarh courtyard moments ago but had magically transported himelf here. Once a flourishing caravanserai, Khaba Fort housed a small museum with fossil rocks and info boards that traced Thar’s geological history. It was hard to believe that 60 million years ago, the desert was a watery world hemmed by the Arabian Sea but over time the seabed had become an unending sea of dunes.

IMG_8995-Khaba Fort

The next stop was Nav Dungar temple, one in a series of nine hill deities, atop Jaisalmer’s second highest point. Members of a desert cycling expedition from Barmer to Jaisalmer halted here for a breather as raucous ravens and vultures lazily circled overhead. The black desert road swooped down the rugged hills and snaked across the arid lands. En route camels and goats flocked to the khejri trees for nourishment and shade. A group of Muslim women waited by the roadside, their vibrant odhnis (veils) billowing in the wind as chunky traditional silver jewellery glinted around their necks, arms and feet. They smiled, noticing how captivated we were by the raw ethnic beauty of their kohl rimmed eyes and gold disc nose studs.

Even before our calorie loss from the day’s exertions could reach double figures, we had reached Joshida Talao, a royal pleasure haunt by the lake. A stone pavilion stood forlorn, once a resting spot for weary travellers. Khejri trees drooped into the small lake as if quenching their thirst. Every now and then, a tractor with blaring music would roll by to replenish water tankers that supplied nearby villages. Reclining on bolsters, we were plied with refreshments and succulent char-grilled meats as we listened to the strains of the algoza (double flute). Perched on a lakeside platform, our troubadour seemed more magician than musician with his acts of teleportation.

IMG_9154_Anurag Priya

We raced in a trail of dust, feeling lost in the overwhelming emptiness until we saw a lone sign of habitation – a dhani (settlement) of Bhils. This nomadic tribe was apparently cursed by goddess Parvati for not appreciating a gift from Lord Shiva. Tracing their lineage to Parvati’s brothers, the Bhils are doomed to wander till perpetuity. Even to this day, Bhils don’t farm. In a land that believes in community living, the Bhils live as nuclear families, moving every few months to another place.

Their hut had no electricity but a cellphone was left to charge on the roof, plugged into a solar panel! Goats bleated in a pen while a lady rolled chapatis on a clay stove inside. She barely had enough for her family; yet she invited us with a broad smile – “Come, have dinner with us!” Their indomitable spirit of survival in these harsh climes with the barest minimum and innate goodness to open their hearts and homes, moved us deeply.

IMG_9611_Anurag Priya

Despite the apparent nothingness all around, there was much to cover – cenotaphs of merchants and travellers, retracing old trade routes on camel safaris, ancient stepwells and tanks, hillocks with fossil remains, the sweet water wells of Mundari and the midnight Chudail (Witches) Trail at Kuldhara; the Thar indeed held many secrets. The size and scale of the ruins hinted at untold prosperity. But what looked innoccuous in the day seemed shadowy and ominous by moonlight. It was in the course of one night that the Paliwals abandoned their 84 settlements en masse. Some ascribe their migration to high taxation, a lascivious ruler or locals poisoning their wells out of jealousy. Whatever the cause, they left no trace of where they went.

Since we had explored Jaisalmer’s yellow sandstone mansions and jharokas earlier, we opted out of the city tour. The famous hill fort had inspired Satyajit Ray to pen the mystery novel Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress), which he directed into a Bangla movie in 1974. Based on a reincarnation theme, the adventure revolved around detective Feluda and a kid who had a recurring dream of deserts and peacocks. We could identify with that kid.

IMG_8997-Ruins of Khaba

We drove to Lodhruva, an old trading town and capital of the Bhati rulers before Rawal Jaisal shifted it to Jaisalmer. The 12th century Jain temple of Parswanath, the 23rd tirthankara, was bedecked with garlands. Local kids eagerly guided us around the complex to the sacred Tree of Life, a fabulous wooden structure carved with flora and fauna besides the snake-hole where people offered milk (the lucky ones got to see the serpent)! We were fine with unlucky.

Unfortunately, Lodhruva was raided by Mahmud of Ghazni and Mohammed Ghori several times. After years of neglect, the temple was renovated in the 70s. The sacred sandal paste on our forehead felt cool in the dry desert wind. We sighed and carried on. Like the Bhils, we too had long resigned ourselves to a nomadic life of travel…

Rajasthan_Lodhruva Jain temple IMG_9364_Anurag & Priya

Fact File

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Jodhpur Airport, from where Jaisalmer is 300 km/6 hrs by road and Suryagarh is a 20 min drive from town on Sam Road.

Where to Stay: Stay in palace rooms, suites or the new Residences, with signature Rajasthani cuisine in various fine dine settings. http://www.suryagarh.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unedited version of the article that appeared in the September 2015 issue of JetWings magazine.

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

Standard

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