Haveli Hopping in Shekhawati
Sentinels to land of forgotten havelis
stretch their hands up to invite the the reluctant rains.
Restless, sleepless, eager to get into my new car, eager to get away from the city, I started in the middle of the night. By dawn, I was crossing villages I’ve never seen before. The landscape was changing.
Soon it felt like a dream as dark clouds loomed swift and low. On either side of the road there were trees with no leaves, dry and dark, with their hands reaching up as if they were dancing. Lithium sunlight was shining through patches in the clouds.
I stopped the car and got out. There was no one around, just these trees and dark clouds. Am I dreaming? hallucinating? I wondered, or is it the sudden change in the weather?
It could be the place at this time, in this weather, or the state of my mind and body, or all of them, I can't tell. But I can tell you this, it was ethereal!
The Sentinels of Shekhawati
I never saw these trees before, not in this dancing pose at least. A shepherd later told me it is called 'jhand' in Marwari and that the sheep love its leaves. Much later I learnt from Wikipedia that this is the Khejri tree, naïve me! But wait, that naivety is the reason I was in a dream like state, in awe. Knowing everything takes away all the fun, that's a buzz kill, don't you think?
The Havelis of Shekhawati
Havelis are private mansions and the word came from Arabic hawali meaning private space. Havelis of other places in Rajasthan (like the fantastic 'Patwaon ki Haveli' for instance) are more opulent and understandably more famous. Here in Shekhawati, they are locked and forgotten by their owners, most of them.
People of Baniya caste (who own these havelis - there are dozens of them) are too upwardly mobile, too practical and too smart to cling on to their roots in Shekhawati and ignore their future prosperity. The younger generations of people who lived here moved to greener fields for business...Mumbai, Kolkata wherever they saw their future and their destiny while the earlier generations faded.
It is easy to understand why people leave this place, as you drive around, agriculture is sparse, other than the Baniyas themselves people are poor, economy is weak, there's nothing much to do around here. But if are wondering why these people settled in here in the first place, you can read the history here: https://www.shekhawati.in/history-of-shekhawati/
A few havelis are used as they are meant to be as residences - they are not open to visitors, a couple of them were turned into museums (Poddar is well known, Nadine Le Prince, Morarka haveli) - you can pay and visit these, some have a caretaker, - opened on request, some were simply locked with no one around and as for the rest, the cows and buffaloes living there can tell you more.
Nadine Le Prince in Fatehpur was bought by a French national, restored and turned into a hotel - it has a museum too.
Each haveli will have a large, strong, imposing, main door with place for people to sit outside and wait or just rest. These havelis belong to rich merchants so they will let in only those they trust - those were the days of cash and gold, the wealth the merchant owns may be found somewhere in the haveli itself.
When you are in, you enter a court yard with open sky that provides ventilation and is the central hangout area for the family consisting of several families of each generation descending from a patriarch. They work as a team to sustain their business and recruit people from outside the family only if necessary. They don't trust outsiders with important parts of the business.
Around the courtyard there will be serval private rooms for each family within the family, a kitchen, a staircase leading to the floors above which have a similar pattern.
Frescos of mythological stories, gods, lazy kings, pretty queens, self conscious gents, pretentious ladies, pompous fiefs, just about anyone (English, Indian, doesn't matter) or anything that caught the imagination of the artist and the of course the sponsor.
No place in the building is off limits, there are frescos on the walls, floors, ceilings, wherever there's plaster, there are frescoes. These people were allergic to emptiness it appears - they made sure there were havelis full of people (their own family members), coffers full of cash and walls, ceilings and floors full of frescoes. This is the contrast they craved to compensate for the emptiness outside, empty barren fields and desert.
Doors are the face of any place, I would like to think, they may let you through (or not) but can be works of art and have a story to tell always - even the simplest most boring doors.
In Shekhawati (as in other places) the doors are the single most expensive architectural element - it is the pride of the family. Intricately carved wood or metal but always beautiful and inviting or flaunting (depending on who you are), they are the things to watch and appreciate.
In places where restoration work happened, you can see that they are mounted incorrectly, slanting to a side, by some chimp. That's why I hate restoration of anything ancient, it never seems to work.