To the initiated, Shekhawati is Rajasthan’s open art gallery. For those who have not heard about it, Shekhawati is a term used to denote a region in northern Rajasthan comprising of the districts of Jhunjhunu, Sikar, Churu and Nagaur. Apart from a long and eventful history, this region has also produced some of India’s best known business families – the Dalmias, thye Murarkas, the Goenkas to name a few.
Oh histories and havelis
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Marwari merchants moved to and prospered in India’s new commercial centres – Bombay and Calcutta. They sent the bulk of their vast fortunes back to their families in Shekhawati to construct grand havelis – to show their neighbours how well they were doing and to compensate their families for their long absences. As more and more merchants prospered, it soon became a competition to build ever more grand edifices – homes, temples, step-wells – which were richly decorated, both inside and out, with painted murals.
Haveli walls, particularly at the entrance, in the courtyards and sometimes within some of the rooms, were frequently painted by the from the ground to the eaves. Often the paintings mix depictions of the gods and their lives with everyday scenes featuring modern inventions, such as trains and aeroplanes, even though these artists themselves had never seen them. Hence, Krishna and Radha are seen in flying motorcars and Europeans can be observed inflating hot air balloons by blowing into them, or travelling in trains, the compartments of which look like English cottages. On these walls, fact meets fiction, the popular meets the chaste and in some unfortunate cases money meets bad taste.
These days most of the havelis are still owned by descendants of the original families, but not inhabited by their owners, for whom small-town Rajasthan has lost its charm. Many are occupied just by a single chowkidar (caretaker), while others may be home to a local family. Many of the better known ones have printed brochures and booklets which give an insight into the history of the family and the architecture of the haveli in question. Though they are pale reflections of the time when they accommodated the large households of the Marwari merchant families, they remain a fascinating testament to the changing times in which they were created. Only a few havelis have been restored; many more lie derelict, crumbling slowly away.
In February, i followed my friends Rohit and Sriparna to Rohit’s parents place in a tiny village, around 10 kms outside Jhunjhunu. The idea was to relax for a few days in the village, take long walks, and if possible visit one of the towns and check out the Havelis. After much deliberation, we decided to head to Nawalgarh.
Nawalgarh, founded in 1737 by Nawal Singh is almost at the centre of Shekhawati. Nawalgarh is quite compact, and most of its havelis are centrally located and easy to reach on foot. We started our tour from Morarka Haveli which is a good point to start your tour as most guides (you will need one) congregate here. Please remember that most havelis have individual tickets .
Understanding the Haveli
Haveli is a Persian word that means ‘an enclosed space’. But contrary to its literal meaning, the architecture of the haveli did much more than simply enclose space; it in fact provided a comprehensive system that governed the everyday lives of its inhabitants.
Most havelis are entered through a massive arched gateway, protected by a solid wooden door. While most of the times the larger door is locked, a smaller portal carved within the larger door allows people into the first of the many courtyards. This outer courtyard is known as the mardana (men’s courtyard). More often than not, on one side of the mardana is a baithak (salon) in which the merchant of the household could receive his guests. In order to impress visitors, this room was generally the most elaborately crafted and often featured marble or mock-marble walls. Here, you’ll frequently see images of Ganesh, god of wealth and good fortune. The baithak usually came equipped with a manually operated punkah (cloth fan). Opposite the baithak is often a stable and coach house, called nora for accommodating camels, horses or elephants. A turn of the century garage, if you will.
A wall separates the outer mardana from the inner zenana (women’s courtyard). Between the two courtyards there was often a small latticed window, through which they could peep out at male guests. Sometimes, there was also a screened-off balcony, known as the duchatta, above the mardana for them to spy on proceedings. Entry into the inner courtyard was restricted to women, family members and, occasionally, privileged male guests.
The zenana was the main domestic arena. Rooms off this courtyard served as bedrooms or storerooms, and staircases led to galleries on upper levels, which mostly comprised bedrooms – some of which were roofless, for hot nights. The courtyard arrangement, together with thick walls, provided plenty of shade to cool the inner rooms, a vital necessity in this sun-scorched land. The haveli thus provided everything for the women and there was no need for them to venture into the outside world – and in Shekhawati these were spectacularly gilded cages.
In the wealthiest of families, there were far more than two simple courtyards, some havelis enclosing as many as eight, with galleries up to six storeys high. This meant plenty of wall space to house the elaborate murals that wealthy Shekhawati merchants were so fond of commissioning.
Half a kilometre and a walk through an amazing Nawalgarh bazaar are the Ath Havelis. Although ath in Hindi means eight, there are in reality, six havelis. The havelis were finished around 1900 and are painted both on the inside and on the outside. Most of the havelis are rented out for marriages and parties. As a result these century-old paintings are facing not only neglect but also, what can be best described as senseless vandalism. As is widely known, most of the havelis belong to some of India’s richest industrial families. While the Morarkas clearly spend some time and money looking after their havelis, it is not the case with Ath Havelis. Case in point, the following photograph:
Our next stop was Bhagton ki Chhoti Haveli. Located at the end of a narrow lane, off the main bazaar, this haveli has one of the most striking doorways. The frieze on top is a gallery of portraits depicting both locals and Britons. This haveli felt more compact and personal than the others we had seen so far.
For our last haveli, we came back to Morarka where we had started the walk from, and walked past it to Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum. As the name suggests, not only is this a haveli but it is also a museum on Shekhawati and Shekhawati’s culture. This is one of the best preserved havelis around. In fact at times, one tends to feel that maybe it is a little too looked after. Various rooms of the haveli have been converted into individual galleries displaying musical instruments, models of forts of Rajasthan, headgear, etc.
For each haveli we managed to visit, we skipped two. It is amazing how this corner of the country produced so many families with so much wealth. In the post, we will look at some photographs from the rural (not that Nawalgarh can be called ‘urban’) part of Shekhawati. Expect colours!