TREASURE IN THE RUINS
Looming edifices with intricate paintings stand testament to a glorious era in the history of the Shekhawati region. Sadly, these onceresplendent havelis are increasingly falling prey to urban pressures, negligence and even vandalism today. MARWAR discove
Looming edifices with intricate paintings stand testament to a glorious era in the history of the Shekhawati region. Sadly, these once-resplendent havelis are increasingly falling prey to urban pressures, negligence and even vandalism today. MARWAR discovers the fascinating story behind them and explores what is being done to save them.
MOST DISCERNING TRAVELLERS ARE INTRODUCED TO THE word ‘fresco’ while taking in the magnificence of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam at the Sistine Chapel. Others make their acquaintance with the word at the famed cathedral of Florence, or the ravishing Rila Monastery or the charming Chora Church. Closer home, murals adorning the walls of the Ajanta Caves are known crowd-pullers. But there are others very few know about, even as they scream for the attention they deserve.
For example, in the barren background of Rajasthan’s Thar Desert is an area that best describes the term ‘open-air art gallery’. Resplendent havelis dot its landscape. Each of them is a unique repository of art, and together with the temples and cenotaphs found in the region, they create stunning vistas. Unfortunately, the Shekhawati region is today a victim of urban decay. Many havelis lie abandoned and crumbling, their fading frescoes a poignant reminder of a glorious era gone by. And though local, state and international intervention to preserve the region’s architectural heritage is on the rise, a lot more needs to be done.
From the beginning
The semi-arid expanse that forms the Shekhawati region includes the districts of Jhunjhunu, Sikar and some parts of Churu, Jaipur and Nagaur districts. This area was once home to India’s super-rich. ‘Steel King’ Lakshmi Mittal, the Birlas, Shashi and Ravi Ruia of the Essar Group, the Morarkas, the Piramals, the Goenkas and the Bajajs are among the powerful business families who have their roots here.
Shekhawati’s golden age began in the 18th century. It was located in the middle of an important trade route, earning the local businessmen considerable income. Later, after the decline of the Silk Route, merchants who once inhabited the region made their way to the port towns of Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (now Kolkata) in search of trade. The fortune amassed was sent home, where the money was used to build havelis with opulent courtyards and lavish artwork.
The architectural style of these mansions was similar—a rectangular block of two-storey buildings and two to four open courtyards within. But that was where the similarities ended. No two havelis were designed to look the same, with carved wooden entrances, mirror work and paintings ensuring distinct appearances. “Almost all the havelis in this region were constructed between the 18th century and the 20th century. Today, many are noted for their frescoes. The murals typically depict scenes from Indian epics,
folk mythology, personalities, historical events or decorative designs, among other themes. Western influences are also observed in the form of cars, trains, airplanes, telephones, etc, and foreigners in hats, suits and gowns,” says Anand Pachlangia, who has been running a website for the past four years that creates awareness about heritage architecture in Ramgarh.
The frescoes are influenced by the Persian, Jaipur and Mughal schools of painting. Till the end of the 19th century, only vegetable pigment was used for colour— kajal (lampblack) for black, neel (indigo) for blue, harabhata (terre verte) for green, geru (red stone power) for red, kesar (saffron) for orange and pevri (yellow clay) for yellow ochre. Then chemical pigments came to India and synthetic dyes from Germany and England permitted intricate work.
Ramgarh, Mandawa, Nawalgarh, Dundlod and Laxmangarh hold a good concentration of these havelis, while towns such as Fatehpur, Churu, Bisau, Mahansar, Mukundgarh, Jhunjhunu, Bagar and Alsisar can also be visited to see edifices of this architectural style. The region thrived till the early 20th century, when new business centres emerged in India and overseas. Merchants began to move out, taking their money with them and slowly these thriving settlements fell into despair.
According to experts, one explanation for so many abandoned havelis could be ownership issues. “Most of these mansions were built more than 100 years ago and have been passed down from one generation to another. Today they have multiple owners, so no one person is responsible for the upkeep. Also, public institutions, NGOs or even the government cannot help in their refurbishment without consent from the owners since they are private properties,” says Pachlangia.
That apart, there are limited means to earn an income in these areas, so people move to big cities such as Jaipur, Mumbai and Kolkata. With no one left to look after the properties, they are increasingly falling prey to negligence, vandalism and urban pressures.
Other challenges include the cost of maintaining the frescoes and the buildings themselves. The exterior structure suffers considerable damage from extreme weather and inefficient water and garbage management.
Making a comeback
But all is not lost. The sale of heritage havelis has been banned in parts of the Shekhawati region and any construction or repair that
may harm the look has been prohibited. The area is being made more accessible by building a four-lane highway and constructing a broad-gauge railway track. To further boost tourism, antique street lamps and benches are being made available to give visitors a feel of the golden age. Antique nameplates are being provided to be placed outside the havelis. The government is also promoting local events to attract tourists.
That apart, havelis are being converted into hotels. Mandawa, for example, has witnessed a good tourist footfall in recent years due to the attractiveness of Castle Mandawa. Films such as Jab We Met, PK and Bajrangi Bhaijaan were shot here, adding to its popularity. Nawalgarh, on the other hand, is famous for its Kamal Morarka Haveli Museum, the Koolwal Kothi heritage hotel and organic food. Foreigners are being enticed to visit Dundlod for its golf facilities. The town is also home to the Seth Arjun Das Goenka Haveli museum. On the other hand, Majli Ka Kamra, a heritage haveli-turnedhotel in Churu, is proving to be a tourist
attraction, even as Shruti Poddar is now running a museum within her century-old haveli in Ramgarh.
There is international support too. In 1998, French artist Nadine Le Prince bought the 1802-built Nand Lal Devra Haveli in Fatehpur. Over time, she restored it to its former glory. Three years ago, Nadine informed her son Joel and daughter-in-law Shelley Boyd Cadiou that she could no longer manage the property. The couple accepted the mission of becoming the custodians of this beautiful home. “Shekhawati havelis are cultural treasures. Reconversion of these homes is vital to their survival. Here at Le Prince Haveli, we have a Cultural Centre attached to the home. It serves as an art gallery and a meeting place. We have writing workshops, yoga retreats and are open to students of all ages who want to learn more about havelis and their frescoes,” says Boyd Cadiou.
The couple recently hosted a team of experts from Rome, Paris and Delhi. The experts organised open-air workshops on conservation and restoration techniques, in collaboration with the Mody University in Lakshmangarh. Students and professors are also gathering to make sure the haveli will be preserved by working on its frescos till May 2017.
The Shekhawati region is worth visiting, especially for those looking to get a feel of the era when the local culture flourished. While a couple of initiatives are encouraging a revival of sorts, more needs to be done at the local level to protect this area. As Boyd Cadiou sums it up, “I believe in the young people of the region. This is their heritage, and I believe they will be proud to be the guardians of it. They only need to hurry up.”
Left: Fresco work at the Ram Gopal Poddar Chhatri
From top: The Ganga Mandir in Sikar; The Motilal Sawalika Haveli in Ramgarh
Top: Maintaining the havelis is a task. The exterior structure suffers considerable damage from extreme weather and inefficient water and garbage management
Top and below: In 1998, French artist Nadine Le Prince bought the 1802-built Nand Lal Devra Haveli in Fatehpur. Over time, she restored it to its former glory
The Ram Gopal Poddar Chhatri