What do surnames like the Ruias, the Poddars, the Goenkas, the Jhunjhunwallas, the Birlas, the Kotharis, the Piramals, the Singhanias, the Khaitans, the Bajajs, Kedias and the Bhartiyas have in common ? One, all of them are highly respected business families belonging to the Marwari business community – but another facet of these families is a mite out of public knowledge – that they all have their origins in Shekhawati region of Rajasthan. While our minds normally tend to evoke images of the Rajput warrior clans, their palaces and forts across Rajasthan and their bloody battles, few of us normally associate these Marwari clans who trace their roots to Shekawati, a cluster of three districts in North Rajasthan – a people who were more than successful in capturing the business landscape across India, armed merely with their business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit. Let us take you down on a pleasant trek across their landscape in this instalment of Travel & Destinations …
These big Marwari business families of Shekawati, in their quest over the past few centuries for cashing in on the trade and commerce opportunities of their time, have left behind an immense heritage of imposing mansions (or Havelis) adorned with the most beautiful frescoes in the arid landscape of Shekawati, which may today be called one of the world’s biggest open air art galleries. But it does look like we are a bit late in rediscovering this enchanting aspect of Shekhawati! When we are in Mandawa, the locals point out to the mansion where Om Puri hides the three fugitives in his Madrasa in Salman Khan’s blockbuster ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’. On a street corner, they reverentially point to the spot where Sanjay Dutt’s truck hits the alien in Aamir Khan starrer ‘PK’.
Mandawa is about 260 kilometres southwest of Delhi, and occupies a central position in the grid like layout of our towns of interest in Shekhawati. The best way to explore Shekhawati towns is on foot. Turn into any lane and you will be greeted with a whole procession of mansions/havelis in all shapes and sizes. And on their walls and façades is an entire cornucopia of brilliant paintings, with all possible pigments used – red, blue, maroon, and even gold and silver. So how on earth did all this wealth and opulence came into being in the middle of nowhere? In the early eighteenth century the Marwari merchants were invited here by the local barons, as caravan trade took off between the areas around the Indus and Central India. A booming economy led to a logical corollary – a construction boom. The second boomtime came when these merchant-princes moved to Calcutta in the 1820s, after the caravan routes began fading out due to internal strife. Money made in trading cotton, wool, rice, wheat, sugar and opium found its way back home as the merchants seemingly competed with each other to erect magnificent havelis across the hinterland in the shadow of the Aravallis. But as their descendants began settling down in far-away cities, the towns and their magnificent havelis were gradually abandoned.
As if the construction was not enough, an army of painters was deployed to paint the walls. A typically haveli has a soaring gate with a richly carved and heavy wooden door. And here on the façades, the painters went crazy as they recreated their patrons’ wishes. Huge elephants and horses flank the gates. The arched undersides and eaves that hold the overhanging upper floors have the most vivid panels with an unending convoy of portraits, mythological depictions and floral patterns. The paintings convey the upward mobility of the owners. Merchants who probably had visited Europe asked artists to paint automobiles, trains and even hot-air balloons. So while the Nandlal Murmuria Haveli for instance has an eclectic mix of Venice landscape, trains, cars and even a Nehru riding horseback, the Newatia Haveli has a totally outrageous image of a man taking flight wearing wings!
Thirty or so kilometres south of Mandawa we arrive in Nawalgarh, which is home to many well preserved havelis that have been turned into ticketed museums with guides to explain the profuse paintings on the wall. The biggest surprise in Nawalgarh, however, is in a modern building complex – as the guide leads us up the stairs and finally into a dark room. After paying for tickets we are led into the Sheesh Mahal. The circular room lies in one of the bastions of a largely ruined Bala Qila. As the lights are turned on, the ceiling and roof glint as paintings in rich gold come into view. On these ceilings is probably the prettiest looking map-picture depicting Jaipur city. In Shekhawati, the sheer diversity and the scale of its paintings will leave you simply mesmerised.
Fatehpur lies some 20 kilometres to the west of Mandawa and offers a complete array of architectural ensembles for your viewing pleasure. It is in Fatehpur that you will find the unusual tomb of Nawab Alef Khan, the one which looks so much like a shrine. The star attraction however is the profusely painted and conserved Nand Lal Devra Haveli, which in recent times has been bought by a French artist. But the new paintings that have appeared over the older originals though might scandalise the art and heritage lovers. At the very edge of the town is a wonderfully maintained building erected in 1925 and a hospital just beyond, both built by the Bhartiyas. Apart from these sumptuous mansions of theirs, the Marwari merchants also built many family cenotaphs, locally called ‘chhatris’. Just across the road is the serene looking and nicely maintained Jagannath Singhania Chhatri, enclosed by fortress-like walls. Climbing into the complex from the rear, on all sides of the terrace you are treated to a procession of domes of all sizes. Below the walls are covered with paintings.
It is almost days-end as we near Churu. And it is time to see something different. Just outside the city is the most impressive water tank called Sethani ka Johara. This evidences that the Marwaris, while they built opulent mansions for themselves, were not inactive with regards to philanthropy or building social structures. This tank for example was commissioned as a relief project during the terrible famine of 1899. Over the quiet waters ringed by graceful pavilions, we watch the sun go down. The sun might well have gone down over the glorious past of this colourful region, but there is indeed no gainsaying a new day may soon dawn on a resurrected Shekhawati.