Experiences of Rajasthan - Focus on Archaeology
Focus on Archaeology
Originally ruled by military tyrants and later by Rajput warriors, Shekhawati prospered because of its location on the caravan routes linking Gujarat on the Arabian. Sea to the interior of the country. Merchants established trading posts along these caravan routes which quickly grew into towns. As they grew rich, the merchants funneled their wealth into the building of havelis, as well as into the temples, wells 'and family memorials called chhatris that pepper the region.
With the establishment of the British Raj in the early to mid-19th century, trade shifted to the coastal, ports of Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta and Madras (now. Chennai). Astute Shekhawati merchants, called Marwaris, left their Shekhawati hometowns for the big port cities. But, at least for the next few generations, their families remained behind while the wealthy. merchants poured money into decorating their, ancestral homes with paintings. These painted havelis are the glory of Shekhawati.
The havelis, most built in the period between 1800 and' 1930, proliferated throughout Shekhawati as merchants vied to build the grandest, most richly decorated mansions. A large main gateway, with a smaller doorway cut into it,. led into an interior courtyard called the mardana, where visitors were received in the baithak, or salon. The mardana was where the men of the household spent much of their day.
Beyond the mardana, separated from it by a wall and short vestibule, was the zenana, or inner courtyard, where the women of the household lived. Depending on the merchant's wealth, there might be additional courtyards. Rooms surrounded the courtyards rising usually two to three stories high.
Shekhawati havelis were extravagantly painted-- exterior building facades, interior courtyard walls, rooms, ceilings, even archways. The surface was covered with plaster, and while the top layer was still damp, paint was applied creating a fresco. The colors used were bright and vibrant, with synthetic dyes gradually replacing natural vegetable dyes toward the end of the 19th century.
What was painted on these surfaces? Just about everything: floral and arabesque designs influenced by the Muslim Mughals who ruled much of northern India for. almost 200 years (1527-1707), scenes from folktales and Hindu mythology, portraits...
But truly unique are the representations of inventions, that were introduced by the British, inventions that often the native artists had never actually seen. Steamships, trains, cars, bicycles, gramophones and early airplanes are abundantly represented, all increasingly part of the Marwari merchants' life in
the large cities they now called home but rare in the small towns they came from.
At the heart of the Shekhawati region--roughly a triangular area whose points are Jaipur, Delhi and Bikaner--lies Mandawa, a busy, dusty town about 150 miles west of Delhi. In the heart of Mandawa is Mandawa Castle, built around 1755, a sturdy fortress now housing a palace hotel run by .descendants of Nawal Singh, founder of the town. Some of the oldest frescoes in Shekhawati, well over 200 years old, decorate the walls of rooms. within the castle.
There are dozens of painted havelis in Mandawa. A visitor with even limited time can easily stroll the unpaved streets sampling a few of the best. There's Goenka Double Haveli (built 1890), with monumental frescoes of elephants and horses decorating its facade, and Gulab Rai Ladia (1870) with elephants and camels on its facade.
Nandlal Murmuria (1935) has a seemingly incongruous assortment of frescoes: Nehru riding a horse; King George V of England, and Venice complete with gondolas.
Bansi Dhar Newatia (1921) combines traditional frescoes of horses and elephants with those depicting a young boy using a phone plus opulent touring cars and the. Wright Brothers? plane.
There are many more havelis to see, all within easy, walking distance of Mandawa Castle. It is nice to visit the best-known havelis, but it is also one of the joys of this small town to simply stroll at random making serendipitous discoveries; You can. do both if you spend a few nights here.
Fifteen miles south is Nawalgarh, another of Shekhawati's most important painted towns. It is estimated that this small town boasts more than 100 painted havelis. If you see no other, see Anandilal Poddar Haveli (1920), an extremely well-preserved mansion with vibrant frescoes decorating its exterior and interior walls. The Poddar family are wealthy Bombay-based industrialists who have been active in building schools both in Shekhawati and throughout India. This was once their home.
In between Mandawa and Nawalgath are Muhundgarh, with several large painted havelis, and Dundlod, also with painted havelis as well as a 250-year-old fort that blends Mughal and Hindu architectural styles (it is now a hotel).
Almost any Shekhawati town will have at least one painted haveli, but the towns offering the best selection include 'Fatehpur, Jhunjhunu and Ramgarh -- all close to Mandawa in addition to Nawalgarh and Mandawa.
Here are a few hints for visiting havelis. To maximize use of time and see as many havelis as possible, it is wise to have a guide with you to locate them. Wear sturdy walking shoes; streets can be rutty and dusty or muddy. Remember that many havelis are either unoccupied and a caretaker will need to be found or are occupied by numerous families apartment-house style (in both cases, a guide will be helpful in requesting entrance).
More in Rajasthan
Shekhawati was the icing on my India cake, but our 2-week Rajasthan trip included so much more: Ranakpur, one of India's foremost Jam temples (Jams believe in successive rebirths and are strict vegetarians); the resplendent City Palace in Udaipur; Jantar Mantar, the 300-year-old astronomical observatory in Jaipur; the Bishnoi villages we visited in the company of Prince Siddhartha Singh of Rohet, and the streets and markets of Jaisalmer and Jodhpur where craftsmen and tradesmen carry out their business in much the same way they've done for hundreds of years.
And there was the string of magnificent fortresses we visited: Junagarh in Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Mehrangarh in Jodhpur, Amber just outside Jaipur and, my favorite, Kumbhalgarh, a deserted medieval citadel magnificently situated in the mountains north of Udaipur.
Leaving Rajasthan on our way back to Delhi, we revisited two favorite's from previous trips: Fatehpur Sikri, the short-lived 16th century Mughal capital, and the always-magnificent Taj Mahal.
To make a perfect trip even better, five of the nine hotels we stayed in on this trip were palace hotels, each one unique: Castle Mandawa in Mandawa, Gajner Palace near Bikaner, Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, Shiv Niwas Palace in Udaipur and Rajvilas in Jaipur. These superb places greatly added to the pleasure of our trip. We could pretend to be maharajas--at least for a few nights.
If you go...
We traveled with A Touch of Class, a company with experience and expertise in planning trips to India. Their brochure lists a great variety of India itineraries with many departure dates for each. For example, there are 10 tour departure dates scheduled each year for the "Royal Rajputana" trip similar to the one we took. If a departure date doesn't match your schedule, you can do as we did, and create an individual trip with a private guide and driver. A unique feature of many A Touch of Class tours is that an Indian fair or festival is incorporated into the trip.
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