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Shekhawati Havelis – An architectural perspective and brief travel guide


Elephants worshipping Goddess Lakshmi - Singhania Haveli in Fatehpur

A fresco shows elephants worshipping Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth) at Singhania Haveli in Fatehpur

‘Fresco’ – I was introduced to this word when I came across Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ in some magazine. It means a painting done on wet or fresh plaster. If you haven’t seen a fresco yet, head over to the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan and discover the Indian version in havelis (mansions) of Fatehpur, Nawalgarh, Jhunjhunu and Mandawa towns.

With architecture, themes and motifs reflecting cultural sensibilities as well as aspirations of their Bania (trader) owners, Shekhawati havelis were designed to impress. The traders might have been as wealthy as Rajput kings of their time on account of a flourishing trade in opium, cotton and spices, but they didn’t dare build palaces and forts as enormous as those of royalty.

Ganesh Pol or gate in Amber Fort of Jaipur. Shekhavati havelis draw inspiration from such forts and palaces

Ganesh Pol or gate in Amber Fort of Jaipur. Shekhavati havelis draw inspiration from such forts and palaces

So, they built havelis or mansions drawing inspiration from them, which were smaller, but grand nevertheless. In the words of Ilay Cooper, author of ‘The Painted Towns of Shekhawati’, “the haveli was to the bania what the fort was to the Rajput – his home, his status, his headquarters and his defence.”

If you were a common villager at the time (1830-1930) these were built, you might have looked in wonder at things you had never seen before – an aeroplane painted on the outer walls or the Belgian glasswork on the doors of a haveli. If you were a guest not so easily impressed, paintings of Lord Krishna and his gopikas in shiny gold and lapis lazuli blue on the parlour ceiling might have done the trick.

Jhunjhunuwala Haveli in Mandawa features a ceiling fresco, parts of which are said to be painted in real gold

Jhunjhunuwala Haveli in Mandawa features a ceiling fresco, parts of which are said to be painted in real gold

So much more interesting than the bland uniformity of modern flats, these havelis sport a mix of Mughal and Rajasthani styles of architecture in their ornate doors, paintings and other elements like motifs and arches. The British presence can be felt in paintings of soldiers carrying muskets and ladies walking with umbrellas or enjoying a drink

.

A Shekhawati haveli in Fatehpur features typical windows and a balcony

The facade of a Shekhawati Haveli in Fatehpur is covered with paintings. Note the Britisher in a hat to the right.

Structurally, Shekhawati havelis share almost a common layout. Usually built above road level, they might feature a basement. They have at least two floors – a ground and first floor. The first floor or a higher floor juts out of the base, creating a ‘chajja’ or a balcony. The terrace could be adjoining rooms on the first floor or could be above these as a separate floor.

A profile of the same haveli gives an idea of the Shekhawati architectural style

A profile of the same haveli gives an idea of the Shekhawati architectural style

If the haveli is elevated, steps or a ramp lead up to the main doorway. The elaborately painted, vaulted stone/wooden doorway houses huge doors made of metal and carved wood. In the lintel or in a niche above the doors, is a painting or carving of Lord Ganesh, the God Hindus pray to first on any auspicious occasion.

Read about the Ranakpur Jain Temple, with exquisitely carved marble ceilings, by clicking here

The double doors at Nadine Haveli in Fatehpur show smaller doors set in the panels

You can see smaller doors set in the bigger double doors at Nadine Haveli in Fatehpur

 

Shekhawati haveli doorways are often the most elaborate part of the exterior

Shekhawati haveli doorways are often the most elaborate part of the exterior

Smaller doors are set in the bigger door panels for daily comings and goings of residents. They open into a passage that houses elevated, arched seating spaces on either side where guards or musicians welcoming guests would be seated. At the far end of the passage, a wall blocking a view of the interior has a small open/perforated window where visitors would present themselves for identification.

If it was a male guest, he would be ushered through the courtyard on the ground floor into a ‘baithak’ or public reception room.

'Baithak' or the reception room at Ladia Haveli in Mandawa

‘Baithak’ or the reception room at Ladia Haveli in Mandawa

In a few havelis, on either side of the baithak, high above the floor level are rooms for women. With low ceilings and arched openings, these rooms allowed the womenfolk to watch proceedings without being seen.

If the guest was a relative, he might be given entry to other, private rooms that the family lived in. The havelis have one, two or in rare cases, multiple courtyards. There are stairways, on two or three sides of the courtyard, which lead to rooms above on the first floor (second floor in U.S. parlance). A walkway called firnee forms the passage outside these rooms, linking them together.

At Radhika Haveli in Mandawa, you can see the courtyard and steps leading up to upper floors

Radhika Haveli in Mandawa. Note the open courtyard and steps leading up to upper floors

 

The firnee or walkway at Podar Haveli in Nawalgarh features a grille

The firnee or walkway at Podar Haveli in Nawalgarh features a grille

In those with two courtyards, the semi-private forecourt was designated the ‘Mardana’ or men’s courtyard. The second, inner court was the ‘Zenana’ or women’s courtyard. Generally, rooms in the inner courtyard also housed the kitchen and store rooms for grains, water etc.

The first courtyard at Nadine Haveli in Fatehpur is now used as a modern day lounge

The first courtyard at Nadine Haveli in Fatehpur is now used as a modern day lounge

I was told that in havelis with one courtyard, the younger generation stayed on the first floor while the older generation lived on the ground floor. I wonder how the gender segregation would have worked in that case.

In bigger havelis, cattle were housed in a space called ‘Nohra’. Besides, a ‘naal’ or narrow compound along the side of the house leads to the garage for horse or camel drawn carriages used by women.

A nohra in a Shekhawati haveli

A nohra in a Shekhawati haveli

Today most havelis are empty, their owners long having left to pursue commercial interests in cities like Calcutta or Mumbai. Belongings also transported with the owners or taken away by the Indian government, there is nothing left for the haveli’s caretakers to guard.

Locals hold the late Mrs. Indira Gandhi responsible for several truckloads of valuable items being seized from these havelis when she was Prime Minister of India. There is no way to verify such claims, but you can still hear pride, mingled with pain, in their voices when they boast of riches that once were.

Deficient of funds to maintain them, the current generation of owners are either letting the havelis go to waste, patching them up with ugly looking materials like cement or selling them off. Owners with means are now based in bigger cities and seem more interested in building a legacy of their own rather than preserving that of their ancestors.

The Jhunjhunuwala haveli in Mandawa shows signs of negligence

The Jhunjhunuwala haveli in Mandawa shows signs of negligence

 

Sometimes, caretakers of Shekhawati havelis do more harm than good.

Sometimes, caretakers of Shekhawati havelis do more harm than good.

Recent media reports say the Rajasthan government has banned the sale of havelis in certain towns of Shekhawati and is planning to form a Shekhawati Heritage Development Council for the preservation and restoration of ancient havelis.

Having been to the region, I know that just the sheer number of havelis means that all of them cannot be saved. However, I do hope that those that are worth preserving do get a fair shot at standing the test of time for a few centuries more. As a traveller and as an Indian, I would be delighted if that happens.

In the mood for something different? Hop over to the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary by clicking here

HOW TO GET TO SHEKHAWATI

BY AIR – The nearest airport is at Jaipur. It’s best to hire a vehicle from Jaipur and drive down National Highway 11. Takes 3.5-4 hours to reach Mandawa. This way you can also drive down to other towns in Shekhawati in comfort and see things at your own pace.

BY ROAD – It’s best to have a vehicle on hire. If not, State Road Transport and private buses ply from Delhi and Jaipur. Buses in Delhi can be taken from ISBT (Kashmiri Gate), Sarai Kale Khan or Dhaula Kuan. In Jaipur, the bus terminal at Sindhi Camp has buses to the districts of Churu, Jhunjhunu and Sikar.

For the adventurer – Once you get to any of the above three districts, you could hire an auto rickshaw to take you from one place to another. Else, you could clamber on to the top of a tempo/jeep/state transport or private bus as the locals do and feel the wind (and the dust) in your face!

BY TRAIN – There are no trains from Jaipur at this time. You could take a train from Delhi or Bikaner. Churu town in Shekhawati is between Delhi and Bikaner. There is only one train from Delhi to Sikar (Delhi Sikar Express) which runs on Wednesdays and Fridays and that passes Jhunjhunu, Dundlod, Nawalgarh and Sikar.

However, I would advise traveling by road over trains.

WHEN TO GO TO SHEKHAWATI
It’s best to visit from November to February. Rajasthan gets very hot during the summer months of April and May.

WHERE TO STAY IN SHEKHAWATI

NAWALGARH is the ideal town to stay for quick access to most other towns in the Shekhawati region. Roop Niwas Kothi is a good option. At the cheaper end is the Apani Dhani Eco Lodge, but you need to book this one well in advance.

MANDAWA town offers more stay options. Hotel Castle Mandawa, an upmarket choice, is set in the town’s fort and features a swimming pool too. We stayed at Radhika Haveli, which has restored paintings and traditional rooms coupled with modern amenities.

WHAT TO SEE IN SHEKHAWATI
Shekhawati includes the districts of Jhunjunu and Sikar in Rajasthan. However, from a geographical and administrative point of view, it also includes some parts of Churu and Nagaur districts.

Parasrampura has some of the most beautiful and oldest paintings in the region. Fatehpur has restored havelis and Nawalgarh is worth a visit for the Podar Museum. Mandawa has the Mandawa Fort while Churu, Sikar, Bissau, Jhunjhunu and Ramgarh towns have a whole lot to see from step wells (baoris), cenotaphs (chhatris), temples to forts and palaces apart from havelis.

For a brief description, click here

Buying a Rough Guide or Lonely Planet for Rajasthan state would be a good idea so you can mark out places you want to visit and plan accordingly.

Click here for a link to the Lonely Planet page on things to do in Shekhawati.

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24 Comments

  1. Such stunning architecture! We stayed in the Hotel Suraj in Jaisalmer, a crumbling haveli. I think the hotel business was enough to keep it from crumbling into oblivion. I suppose Rajasthan could do the same as Spain and Portugal has done with ‘paradors’ and help the owners convert these beautiful old buildings into hotels.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vibha Ravi

      Yes, those who have the means are converting havelis into hotels on their own. There is a government aided heritage conservation institution INTACH, which is also helps with conservation in these parts, though in a limited manner. I discovered recently that some of the bigger havelis are caught in legal battles.

      Like

  2. Such a lovely and elaborate post. Enjoyed every bit of it and loved the virtual travel to Shekhawati. A few Havelis must be well looked after. They tell us so much about our past.

    Like

  3. Such a lovely and elaborate post. Enjoyed every bit of it and loved the virtual travel to Shekhawati. A few Havelis must be well looked after. They tell us so much about our past.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Manjulika. Yup, these havelis speak of a time when space was not at such a premium and when we had the means to build such elaborate dwellings. 🙂

      I somehow tend to put a lot of writing into my posts, which also means that quality rules over quantity. Not sure if that is so good for rankings though. Sigh!

      Like

    • Absolutely. That is the reason today’s occupants are just patching damaged portions with cement or using modern day, cheap paints to cover the earlier paintings.
      Those who can’t afford to or just don’t care, have abandoned them to their fate.

      Like

  4. Anonymous

    Good to have a quick visit through yr write up n images. Wish to feel the touch of the place also sometime.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great write up! These havelis are spread over much larger area than just shekhawati. but it’s just this belt which has shot to prominence. A lot more needs to be done!

    Liked by 1 person

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