Preserving and Celebrating the Havelis of Shekhawati

The scale and ornamentation of the entrance doorway was often a measure of the family’s social and economic status as also the number of courtyards in the haveli

SEMI-ARID, INDIA’s Shekhawati region may only be a relatively short distance from touristy Jaipur, but it could be a million miles away given the differences. Bustling crowds and busy streets are replaced by traditional bucolic Rajasthani scenes and roads that head off to villages so small few maps mark them. Today, these villages are home to many hidden, and decrepit, havelis.

Shekhawati, located in the northeast part of Rajasthan, literally means Land of Shekha, and is named after the legendary 15th-century chieftain Rao Shekha (1433-88). Over hundreds of years, the region was known for its location on the crucial trade route that connected Delhi and Sind (now in Pakistan) with the docks and harbours of the Arabian Sea and the Ganges Valley. Later, of course, the cities of Bombay and Calcutta diverted the trans-Thar trade south and eastwards, but for many years feudal Shekhawati found itself at a crucial juncture.

In the 19th century, the Shekhawati thakurs (noblemen) flourished, earning great wealth from their trading with the British East India Company. Around this time the foreign merchants forced some measures of order into Shekhawati and feudalism turned to capitalism. The British utilised the abilities of the local merchants, or Marwaris, fully in order to improve trade. The Marwaris (originally from the Jodhpur region), mainly settled in coastal areas and grew rich on trade and taxes. With this newly found wealth, Shekhawati’s Marwari merchants and landowning Thakurs competed with one another to build grand, flamboyantly decorated havelis, which still line the streets of the region’s dusty towns today.

The towns of Shekhawati seamlessly blend the architectural styles of Rajput and Islamic forms and the main characteristic of the region is still its abundance of lavishly painted havelis. They are typically formed of rooms around a central courtyard, a bit like a Moroccan riad, which works well to counteract the harsh heat and provides separation for male and female dwellers. The elaborate decoration of arches and frescoes, as well as the number of rooms and courtyards, increased over time in tandem with the wealth of the merchant. In fact, large havelis like the grand Char Chowk ki Haveli directly reflect the merchant’s command on the business dynamics of the town.

The doorway, specifically the design and the adornment of it, was also often an indicator of a family’s economic standing. Height, embellishment, arches and carved timber all hinted to the social position of the family inside. Those with particularly remarkable gateways – not to mention painted frescoes include Seth Ramgopalji Poddar ki Haveli, Jankiprasad Poddar ki Haveli, Jugalkishore Ruia ki Haveli and Gopichand Ruia ki Haveli.

Until the late 1940s, these highly decorated, private mansions stood as symbols of the traders’ successes and today they are visited by a few curious travellers. They are also celebrated in a newly published, and suitably lavish book, Shekhawati: The Havelis of the Merchant Princes (Marg, 2013). The book is edited by Abha Narain Lambah, who once prepared a Regional Conservation Plan for Sikar district in the Shekhawati region.

This highly illustrated book includes full explanations of the murals that are unique to these mansions, palaces and cenotaphs, many of which are in the unique position of being open-air museums as well as serving as abodes for many residents. The painted murals which make the havelis so special, depict countless different scenes but primarily they explore the epic tales from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, religious iconography, the lives of Indian royalty, floral and animal images typical of the region and, as the book says ‘within the privacy of the inner rooms, even erotic imagery’.The Chetram Sanganeeria Haveli in Laxmangarh, in the Sikar district of Rajasthan, is a classic example of a highly decorated haveli. While the paintings on the west wall are flawed due to peeling plaster, visitors can make out the vibrant local scenes of a woman on a swing that is hanging from a tree, a man precariously dancing on a pole whilst balancing knives and a farmer ploughing fields with oxen. All scenes from rural Rajasthan that many would instantly recognise. Later, as the Marwaris travelled ever further and learnt of other cultures and ideas, the themes depicted shifted to include imagery from the industrial world of automobiles and trains. Sometimes even Europeans were depicted, or British monarchs, creating an eccentric coupling representative of the time. Other influences also came into play and some havelis were styled with elements of Art Deco, Baroque and Gothic elements. This, tied-in with Rajasthani arches and cast-iron railings created an entirely original architectural style.

Demonstrating this trend, the book refers specifically to Hanuman Prasad Nevatia ki Haveli in Fatehpur, on account of it sporting ‘a cast-iron balcony with the image of Queen Victoria in profile along its façade’ and mentions the façade of the Bhartiya Haveli in Fatehpur which ‘had pointed neo-Gothic arches flanking the central entrance gateway which was ornamented with Corinthian pilasters and capped by a pediment’. The book also makes reference to the Mohanlal Ishwardas Modi Haveli, which dating from 1896, has a train running ‘merrily across the front façade. Above the entrance to the outer courtyard are scenes from the life of Krishna – in the centre Krishna has stolen the clothes of the gopis, who stand waist-deep in water as he hides up a tree. On a smaller, adjacent arch are British imperial figures, including monarchs and robed judges. Facing them are Indian rulers, including maharajas and nawabs’. Quite an eccentric mix, even for India.

Among the most vivacious collection of architectural neighbourhoods in India, the Shekhawati towns like Ramgarh, Lachhmangarh, Fatehpur, Mandawa, Dhundlod and Churu all boast Shekhawati collages throughout the havelis, joharas (wells), mandirs (Hindu place of worship), chhatris (dome-shaped pavilions) and forts. A number of Shekhawati’s havelis, particularly in Nawalgarh – the hometown of some highly successful business families of India like the Birlas, the Mittals and the Goenkas – have now been restored and have opened to the public as museums. In Nawalgarh, Murarka Haveli, Bansidhar Bhagat Haveli, Chokhani Haveli, Seksaria Haveli, Bhagat Haveli and Poddar Haveli are also important sites to visit.

Throughout the region though, the majority remain in a state of tumbledown decrepitude and are still home to local families. Many others have been abandoned entirely and lay empty. It remains a challenge for people like the editor of the book, to try and preserve these magnificent buildings. Many of the owners now live in the cities of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata and often just a lone watchman, or chowkidar, keeps an eye on these heritage buildings.

The next natural – not to mention essential – step for the havelis, must be preservation. As Thakur Ranvir Singh, INTACH’s Rajasthan state co-convenor, said: ‘This place is a treasure trove of heritage. But the tragedy today is that most of the havelis stand neglected’. If the authorities fail to work with the owners to preserve the hand-painted frescoes which depict rich local folklore, it will be impossible to gain them back. As the havelis themselves are the art, this is a costly and time-consuming effort on a grand scale and not enough is currently being done. Ranvir Singh believes there to be approximately 2,000 listed sites in the Shekhawati region that are under real threat.

Several dilapidated havelis have already been earmarked for reconstruction of questionable standards, while many have already been demolished to make way for complexes. Some have had walls torn down to set up shops and stalls. Some of the abandoned havelis are covered with graffiti and posters while others have had their colourful frescoes whitewashed or painted over. The lack of proper drainage, combined with standing stagnated water, has affected the foundations of the havelis over the years and many are at risk of complete collapse. The finely carved wood is often auctioned off or sold to antique dealers and the demand for such items is also putting the havelis at risk.

Just one of the positive steps that INTACH’s Shekhawati chapter is undertaking is capacity building programmes and workshops for the economic improvement of communities living in the vicinity of such heritage sites. The aim of these workshops is to share with local artisans how they can work towards conserving the wall paintings of the Shekhawati region, this is done partly through the revival of lime working and painting traditions. Fortunately, Ranvir Singh has preservation of the havelis high up on his list. He is working towards convincing some owners to turn the havelis into heritage hotels, which would aid their preservation, or asking absent owners to employ custodians who are mindful of the status of the buildings in their care. Singh also believes in starting young and is keen to educate younger local people on their heritage traditions. ‘We at INTACH, have started youth clubs where youngsters are introduced to our rich cultural heritage. There should be a vision and keenness to preserve our heritage’. Certainly a positive step, and not a minute too soon.

BY CAROLINE EDEN