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

Marwar - - Contents - Text Sneha Ma­hale

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.

The de­cline

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.

Out­side sup­port

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

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