Shekhawati is a region of north-eastern Rajasthan famous for its small towns whose walls are painted with colourful paintings. It is away from the well-trodden tourist trails but more people are becoming aware of its unique offering. The first time I came across this region was while browsing at a Crossword bookshop in Bangalore. By chance I picked up a book by the same title as this post, written by Ilay Cooper. Looking at its exotic cover and a reproduction of the region’s rich store of paintings, I knew that this is a place I cannot afford to miss.
The region has so many painted towns that to see them all would take a week. I don’t have the luxury of time. Worse still, I only have a map of Rajasthan which does not detail the Shekhawati Region. From Narnaul, I take a bus to Jhunjhunu. It is late evening. I take a room for only Rs. 120. Things come cheap in these remote places. There isn’t a single decent restaurant and I settle for some bread. Real exploration of these painted towns will happen tomorrow.
I am staying at a place by the main road. I don’t see anything in sight to suggest that this is the wonder of the region. I see no painted walls or grand havelis I had expected. What I do see are advertisement billboards, shop names or shops listing the stuff they sell. Jhunjhunu is a disappointment. It looks like any normal town.
I ask someone about the havelis of yesteryears. I am directed to Gandhi Chowk. I find here some old havelis with faded paintings on their facades. I study them for a while but the surrounding markets spoil the mood. The havelis have been sidelined into oblivion. I walk past Gandhi Chowk and find myself at the entrance of Moti Haveli. A couple of guys are washing the inner quadrangle. They grant me permission to come inside and take a look.
It is common in havelis as this to have a quadrangle surrounded on all sides by many doors and windows. These are framed by blind cusped arches or simply a rectangular frame with rounded corners. Such framing gives the doors and windows the appearance of being larger than they really are. In addition, paintings fill the spaces within these frames. Where recessed niches are used instead of windows, more paintings appear. A low parapet lines the terraces above. The brackets supporting the projected terrace are plain but the underside of these projections are also painted. Clearly the designer intended to impress visitors by filling every possible space with colour and design.
Paintings are portraits of people where today we would have family photographs instead. Paintings depict riders on camels or horses. Floral decorations are plenty. Little birds chirp above doorway lintels next to semi-circular jali screens. Krishna Leelas are depicted often. Europeans, where they appear, generally smoke pipes, carry their parasols daintily or wear a hunting hat. Everything is bordered neatly in their own frames. Strict order is visible in the scheme. Though the paintings are faded I can imagine their glitter and glory in the early years. Yet I can’t help thinking that they are inferior in style and definitely not a match for those of Bundi. The paintings are amateurish and cannot be considered as real art.
I pass another haveli nearby but because it is locked I admire it from the outside. I walk to the vegetable market setup in a small lane at the back wall of a haveli. Here I find camels and riders beautifully depicted with great energy. Lots of portraits in neat panels appear. I end up chatting with a couple of guys at the market, who are getting curious at my interest in these paintings.
‘It is hot isn’t it?’ I ask them. The heat of Rajasthan is becoming unbearable by the day.
‘This is nothing,’ comments one of them. ‘You should visit Churu in summer. I dare not go out. Most people stay indoors.’
‘How high does it get in Churu?’ I ask.
‘Easily fifty-five degrees.’
They tell me that Churu is one place I shouldn’t miss. It has lots of painted havelis.
‘Churu is okay but the real stuff are in Fatehpur and Mandwa,’ tells me another guy on the bus. I have already bought a ticket for Churu. I am thinking if I should get off and board another bus to another destination as the guy suggests. The driver comes in and starts the engine. It doesn’t matter if I am indecisive. The driver has conveniently made the decision for me and we are on our way to Churu.
There is nothing near where I get off at Churu. I take an auto-rickshaw to the bazaar. Immediately I am faced with an unending variety of havelis. The first one staring at me is a grand four-storeyed building with an impressive facade of arcaded corridors, chhatris and chhaparkhats as in Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal. The paintings however are very much faded and little of their old colours remain. Only in the undersides of projected balconies are the colours better preserved. Many of these havelis have shops on the ground floor. I learn that in the olden days these used to be warehouses of the seths who built these havelis.
I walk into one haveli but the caretaker refuses entry. Apparently the owner has gone to Jaipur and he will not allow anyone without prior permission. Perhaps I can come tomorrow morning, he suggests. The visit is not a waste because in this haveli there stands an old horse-cart looking almost like a chariot. I take some time to admire its construction. It is made of wood, some metal and bound together with leather straps or coir ropes. The four-wheeled cart has bigger wheels at the back. A conical canopy gives it grace. A flap projects in the front to give shade to the driver. I see one man busy repairing this cart. A new copy of this old cart is being made. They say it will take them a few months to finish it.
‘Sorry, I couldn’t show you around but you must visit Malji-ka-kamra,’ suggests the caretaker as I leave.
I ask a wood carver for directions. He tells me the way to Malji-ka-kamra. He adds, ‘Enjoy your stay here. Churu is a historic town. When Bikaner attacked, cannon balls made of silver were shot at them.’
An almost impossible claim, I let it be. I find my way to Malji-ka-kamra. I pass many magnificent havelis. In one case, I see a bangla roof inset within the recess of an arched niche. In another case, an old merchant does not allow me entry but allows me to spend some time in the courtyard and take pictures. His is a grand haveli of three storeys. When I reach Malji-ka-kamra, I see workers busy in its repairs. Like many of the havelis in Churu, this one too is a near ruin, stripped of all former glory and left abandoned to the slow assault of time. Malji-ka-kamra has no noteworthy paintings on its facade but some stucco work is admirable.
I have time to squeeze in one more visit for the day. Fatehpur is the place to visit. In fact, together with Jhunjhunu and Churu, Fatehpur forms a neat triangle. People say it is only 20 kms from Churu but going by the milestones, I see that it is actually 33 kms away.
The number of havelis in Fatehpur is simply mind-blowing. At every street, corner and turn I find a grand one. Many of them do not allow visitors and I take to admiring paintings on the outer walls. Some of the buildings here show efforts in restorations. There are many samples of paintings restored to bright colours. As a first time visitor, it is hard to say if these restorations are true to the spirit of the original creations.
There is a general scheme in which these paintings have been done. Ganesha graces the space over the lintel at the entrance. Scenes of Rama and Sita flank the doorway. Ram Darbar or Rama’s wedding in the presence of Brahma and Shiva are commonly scene. Gajalakshmi is a favourite deity and it is largely thanks to her that the wealthy merchants here were able to build such magnificent buildings. Krishna Leelas are common. Raginis are common and they sing to themes of love, anticipation and separation. A bearded man sings with his sarangi. A woman with kartal dances and sings. Most of the faces are drawn in profile and rarely in full face or even three quarters. Even Lord Ganesha is in profile, which makes his appearance unique from South Indian portraits of the god.
Most paintings are framed within painted panels. Such order is important in these paintings. In one case I see three men on horseback with guns firing. They are in pursuit of a couple on camelback. The woman is shooting arrows at the three men. What is interesting in this scene is that it spans multiple panels. So it is for the viewer to look beyond the borders of panels to make the scene complete.
As for the architecture, here too there is a similarity. A central entrance gateway is framed by a deeply recessed cusped arch. The underside of this archway is richly painted. The gateway is flanked by pillared verandahs on either side. This entire articulation is extended from the facade wall. Lots of inset windows on the facade add interest. Lintel over the doorway is beautifully decorated. At times, a small balcony projects above the doorway but within the recessed archway. The fact that doors and windows are framed with wall-painted arches, pilasters and pedestals, creates a multi-storeyed effect.
The moment of the day comes rather unexpectedly. I step into Devda Haveli. I am welcomed by an old woman who wears a beautiful smile. She is dressed in a white sari, an indication that she is a widow. Such practices are rare in the cities but in a place as Fatehpur these traditions continue. She enquires my purpose and allows me to wander at will within the inner quadrangle. I walk up to the balcony on the first floor. I study the old paintings up close. I continue up to the terrace. Here I get a view of Fatehpur, a town packed with havelis in all directions. I can hardly see a high-rise building in town. Most havelis are two or three storeys high.
The woman is joined by her son and I sit with them for a cup of tea. The tea is very sweet. I reckon there are two tablespoons of sugar in it.
‘How old is this place?’ I ask.
‘About 165 years old,’ replies Prashanth Sharma. He works today with Birla Sun Life Insurance, his dad worked in Kuwait and his forefathers built this haveli. ‘The haveli has been in the family for six generations now.’
‘It’s amazing how well you have preserved the old look of this place,’ I comment.
‘Yes. We have had enquiries to sell it but we are not interested. We like to keep it. We like to live here,’ remarks the old woman. Normally paintings are cleaned chemically, missing portions are sketched with HB pencils and colours filled in.
‘You know, the first restoration was done by a foreign woman,’ adds the young man. ‘She loved the havelis here and bought one. She restored it. Today it is called Nadine le Prince. Others have followed her example and started restoring their own havelis.’
They explain a little bit of the history of the place. People here settled from Rangoon. They were in trading, money lending and pawn brokering. They were rich merchants. In the mid-nineteenth century there was a famine here. There was no work for anyone. The rich merchants came to the rescue. They commissioned all these havelis and the people were paid in cloth and other necessities.
‘So you see, these havelis were not built out of money,’ says Prashanth. ‘It would be impossible to build such havelis today.’
‘Rich colours have been used,’ I comment. All of them look natural in their reds, blues, yellows and greens. They might have faded but what’s left hints of the old brilliance.
‘Red was made from a special stone which today would sell at Rs 1 lakh per kilo. Blue was special and imported from Italy. Rich merchants always competed with one another to build a grander haveli. Yellow was from gold.’
I can see the gold in the yellow sun. There are certain highlights in yellow over the inner doorway. I am informed that mortar was used and not cement. Apparently the former holds strong even with cracks.
Across from here is another old haveli which is today used as a temple, the Shri Gahaniya Mandir. It is closed at this time of day. They say the paintings in this haveli are in pure Rajasthani style without corruption from Mughal influences. Some of them are more than 400 years old.
I make my way to the Nadine le Prince, just a few minutes away. There is not much human traffic in this part of town. The afternoon is extremely quiet. I find the caretaker of the place but he demands an outrageous hundred rupees to let me in. I skip visiting the haveli and enjoy the paintings on the outside. It has been a good day overall. Fatehpur probably has been the best. It has lived up to my expectations of a town packed with havelis and decorated with wall paintings.