There was a faint whisper of a song coming from afar. Draped within the folds of a warm blanket, I strain my ears to try and catch the tune. I was ensconced n the warmth of an artistically decorated room adorned with frescoes within a refurbished century-old haveli (mansion). The chorus of voices that seemed to cascade towards me made me leave the comfort of my seat and I threw open the intricately carved jharokha (window). A chilly mid-December breeze touched the warmth of my cheeks. In the fresh dewy dawn, a group of women walked past the building singing spiritedly as they made their way to see the village deity.Outside of a haveli, Mandawa

Shekhaji of the Kachhwaha dynasty set out to establish his principality in the 15th century. Later his descendants set up small fiefdoms, which now comprise the Shekhawati region.

This serene start to the day in a room amidst artistic decor perked me up. I was staying at Vivaana, a haveli now transformed into a heritage hotel situated at Churi Ajitgarh in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan. This and other surrounding villages in the region are known for their havelis with fresco-filled interiors built by Marwari traders during the late 19th century.

In this semi-arid land with sparse vegetation, people have compensated for the drab landscapes around them by filling their homes and lives with colorful attire and art. Rich merchants had the entire interiors of havelis resplendently arrayed with vibrant paintings featuring subjects ranging from mythology to modes of modern transportation.

Wall and ceiling frescoes in Vivanna, Churi Ajitgarh        We set out to explore the region. As we visit Nawalgarh and Mandawa, nondescript dusty towns hiding ancient history in their midst, I felt a little sad when I observed the nonchalance in the attitudes of the locals towards their inherited art.

My chance encounter with a local milk woman on a morning walk led me to her home. The spaciousness of the haveli in which she lived surprised me. I didn’t know whether she was the owner or merely the caretaker but I felt that she would not have been able to maintain such a big house.

The fading frescoes that I witnessed in her haveli revealed a silent story of despair that is writ on almost every haveli in Shekhawati. Most grand havelis are in a state of ruin, locked in inheritance disputes and largely forgotten. The smaller havelis can be adapted for living in a modern-day setting but even here the high cost of trying to match the natural colours in the frescoes serves as a deterrent to owners to keep up their maintenance.

Room in Vivawana, Chari Ajitgarh      In spite of these drawbacks, it is still fascinating to visit Shekhawati in Rajasthan to find some stunning frescoes which have stayed intact through the passage of time. A mere stroll down the street is enough to lead one on a path of joyous discovery.  It is no wonder since this region has earned the moniker of being an “open art gallery.”

Few havelis have been painstakingly restored to their former glory and are thrown open to the public as museums or heritage hotels. The muted brown landscape with peacocks preening around and sporting camels and horses for hire sets the stage for the rustic charm that one finds here

I visited this region over a weekend and the occasion coincided with my sister-in-law’s silver wedding anniversary. It was the perfect excuse for family and friends to get together. They drove down from Delhi while we drove down from Jaipur. As we left the traffic of the Pink City behind and hit the smooth highway I rolled down the car windows and loved the feel of cold wind against my face. The sweeping greenery slowly gave way to sporadic shrubs and trees of Keekar and Babool.

In about three hours we reached Nawalgarh and entered its main bazaar which remains reminiscent of bygone days. Roads narrowed down to single lanes and the cacophony of shouting hawkers, hagglers shopping for vegetables and honking auto rickshaws became louder. Bandhej sarees and lac bangles vied for attention with their deep bright colours while the shimmer and shine of copper utensils could not go unnoticed. Cattle ran astray, and dogs were yelping added to the noisy din. The bubbling oil in large kadhais from which hot jalebis were lifted and dunked in sugar syrup invaded my senses. I could not help wondering about all the Rajasthani delicacies that I would get to taste during my trip. Family bonding over daal baati churma, mangodi ki kadhi, mong daal ka pakoda and kulhad chai was just waiting to happen.

As I was wondering about the tasty meals that lay ahead, I was rudely jolted into the present because our car had gotten stuck in the narrow lanes of the bazaar. After a few minutes of difficult maneuvering, we reached a desolate stretch flanked on either side with grand havelis with frescoes on the outer walls. An auto rickshaw decorated in kitsch decorative frills and posters passed by.
We decided to walk down admiring the frescoes, some which were intact while some fresco images were peeping through peeling plaster. Taking a flight of stairs we were greeted by two paintings of santris (watchmen) at the imposing door of the Dr. Ramnath Anandilal Poddar Haveli Museum, one of the well-maintained havelis in town.

Rahul Singh Parihar, a cheerful guide, welcomed us. He guided us through the haveli built as a residence for the Poddar family. In  1935, they migrated to Bombay and Calcutta. Then, the haveli housed a school for forty years and now it is a museum of frescoes and Rajasthani cultural heritage. Rahul enlightened us about the etymology of the word haveli that means ‘the house of wind’ in Persian. Havelis typically have two to three courtyards opening one after another. The Poddar haveli had 750 frescoes ranging from mythology, royalty, Rajput legends, festivals and fairs (teej, gangaur, holi), floral motifs, pictures of animals, mundane scenes from everyday life to images of British colonizers. What caught my attention was a steam engine train with elegant coaches for British gentry.

When you visit Shekhawati in Rajasthan, you can find some stunning intact frescoes. A mere stroll down the street is enough to lead one on a path of joyous discovery.  It is no wonder since this region has earned the moniker of being an ‘open art gallery.’

The Poddar haveli had 750 frescoes ranging from images drawn from mythology, Rajput legends, festivals and fairs (teej, gangaur, holi), floral motifs, pictures of animals, mundane everyday scenes to images of British colonizers. What caught my attention was a steam engine train with elegant coaches for British gentry.

Frescoes in Nawalgarh

Could this region have boasted of a steam engine at that time? Explaining this discrepancy of a train being found amidst trradtional patterns and scenes, Rahul said that the artists who were from Nawalgarh were sent to Bombay so they could paint the latest visuals from a big city. The stories captured in frescoes could well be a social commentary of those times.

Rahul then led us to the baithak khana (sitting area) where the Marwari seths (merchants) transacted business. It had been recreated replete with a plush gadda (mattress) to sit and masnad (elongated pillows) to recline on. The intricately designed antique hookah and the cloth fan hanging from the ceiling added to the ambience of that era.

As Rahul tied red bandhani turbans on our heads to make us feel a part of the set up, he shared interesting trivia. In those days, the fan bearer used to always be a deaf man so that he could not hear anything about money or other matters. He showed us the secluded room where the merchants huddled to make secret negotiations. We were charmed by the beauty of the place but also felt sorry for the womenfolk who were confined to four walls in the zenana (women) wing of the haveli. The jharokhas were their mirror to the outside world. The realistically carved veiled bust of a woman in marble could well have been patterned after any of the ladies who lived there. Earthen utensils, woodwork, turbans, different schools of miniature paintings, bridal dolls of various castes and a room full of Gandhji’s memorabilia can be seen here.

Steam engine train fresco at Poddar haveli, Nawalgarh        From Nawalgarh we proceeded onwards towards Churi Ajitgarh where the family reunion was to be held. We looked forward to our stay in a haveli that exuded old world charm. Vivaana (which literally means “the first rays of the rising Sun” didn’t disappoint us. Earlier it was called the Nimani kothi but Atul Khanna, an arts heritage enthusiast and his wife Devna now own the haveli.

They recounted the innumerable trips they undertook scouring the entire Shekhawati region for their dream haveli till they chanced upon Vivaana. Acquiring a haveli was a challenging task as each building in Shekhawati has been passed on from generation to generation. There are multiple owners and disputed titles. One of the reasons that havelis fall apart is that no one has the exclusive responsibility or liability towards their upkeep and maintenance.

Looking back, it was Rao Shekhaji of Shekhawat sub clan belonging to the Kachwaha dynasty who set out to establish his principality in the 15th century. Later his descendants set up small fiefdoms, which now comprise the Shekhawati region.

When the old silk route of trading was in decline, the Marwaris from the desert migrated to Shekhawati in quest of burgeoning trade and soon prospered. In the early days of the 19th century they again migrated to emerging trade ports of Calcutta and Bombay with the encouragement of the British. They poured their wealth to add beauty to the havelis but never came back to enjoy the life there.

The Poddar, Birlas, Singhanias, Ruia, Khemka, Khaitan, Khandelwal, Maheshwari, Goenka and many other business families have roots here. The region is also famous for its chivalry, sacrifice, entrepreneurship, trading, farming, art and  culture and music. Many war veterans and soldiers in the military who belong to Rajput clans hail from here.

Traders had a special place for havelis just as Rajput chieftans felt towards their castles. These castles are also adorned with frescoes and many have been converted into hotels. We visited the Mandawa castle in Mandawa that was built by Thakur Nawal Singh in 1755.  It has antique armour, portraits of family and frescoes to see. The town once stood as a trading post in the Delhi-Bikaner route and prospered greatly. The 175 havelis with frescoes are relics drawn from that era.

It is not easy to restore havelis for it is a tedious and costly process. The point in case is Vivaana where many pillars were missing and wooden structures were broken. Pillars, windows and gates can be purchased from antique dealers. Atul said that there are also many old masons in the region who have inherited the art of making and reconstructing the haveli architecture. Under their guidance, the work force could restore these places retaining their authenticity.

Relaxing on its “Fresco lounge” sipping a refreshing chamomile tea I was told that it was discovered almost intact. There are also two rooms in the haveli having age-old erotic frescoes. However I was more intrigued by the steep narrow staircases that lead me to the  passage between the walls. A secret passage here and a jharokha there as antiques and curios lay scattered around.

Kavita Kanan Chandra is a freelance journalist and travel writer from India. She strives to bring about positive stories from across the country that gets published in leading publications in India. An explorer at heart she has a penchant to take a detour from touristy places or discover something offbeat in a tourist place.  

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