The havelis of Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region have a charm and
distinction that the discerning traveller spots immediately. The region
comprises the districts of Jhunjhunu, Sikar, Churu and Nagaur in the north of
the state and is an abiding reminder of the migrations that led to the trade
and business networks that this small community formed across the subcontinent.
In the years between 1830 and 1870, Marwari merchants constructed these grand havelis in their home towns and villages. Their hallmark was an opulence that came from their extraordinary commercial success. These merchants traded in silk, opium, cotton and other commodities besides setting up banks and clearing houses in the subcontinent and beyond. These grand edifices were richly decorated inside and outside with painted murals and served as a mark of their achievements, like the mansions of Chettiar traders in Tamil Nadu or the palaces of Venice, also built on commerce. The striking architecture, vibrant and colourful interiors and massive parapets of the havelis reflect the wealth and prosperity of those Marwari merchants.
As a visual artist the singular feature of these havelis that attracts me is the frescoes and murals that speak eloquently of the skill and aesthetic sense of the artisans who had crafted them with meticulous precision and intensity.
Structurally, the Shekhawati havelis share 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 higher floor juts out of the base, creating a ‘chajja’ or balcony. The terrace could be adjoining rooms on the first floor or could be above these as a separate floor.
The architectural styles are a mix of Mughal and Rajasthani with their ornate doors, paintings and other elements like motifs and arches. The British presence can be felt in the paintings of soldiers carrying muskets and women walking with umbrellas or enjoying a drink.
With the architecture, themes and motifs reflecting the cultural sensibilities as well as aspirations of their owners, Shekhawati havelis were designed to impress. In the words of Ilay Cooper, author of The Painted Towns of Shekhawati, ‘the haveli was to the merchant what the fort was to the Rajput—his home, his status, his headquarters and his defence.’
Some of these architectural marvels are being chipped away by the ravages of time as families abandon them or cannot afford the upkeep. The sense of desolation that permeates an abandoned haveli is all-pervading and overwhelming. Increasingly, it seems as if time is catching up with these dwellings, some of which are over 200 years old. They are threatened with obsolescence and the time might not be not far off when they vanish, leaving only memories handed down by the families whose forefathers inhabited them.