Shekhawati — a plein-air museum

Ajay Goel
9 min readMay 27, 2023

Three hours by road from Jaipur or Bikaner, in north-east Rajasthan lies the triangle of Churu, Jhunjhunu, and Sikar, called Shekhawati. The climate is inhospitable-summer temperatures rise to 50 C and water freezes in winter. Tourists restrict their visits to a few favorable months.

Water was scarce and deep, hauled up by farm beasts. These wells, now relics of old times, along with a Hanuman temple, provided a social ‘me-time’ to the women who came from a distance to get water.

You won’t find the imposing forts and palaces of Rajasthan here, but rather quiet deserted palatial havelis with painted walls. There are hundreds, if not thousands of them, splattered across small towns like Nawalgarh, Mandawa, Ramgarh, Alsisar, Bagad, Bissau, and Dundlod, most falling in disrepair. The government or ASI takes no responsibility since these are private properties.

These deserted havelis became part of the tourist map in the 1970s due to a French traveler’s writings, and to this day French and Germans tourists outnumber Indians.

The ghosts of these havelis whisper tales of fortune, enterprise, and acumen of Marwaris if only an accidental tourist steps in.

This blog is about a few such tales…

A few centuries back…

Shekhawati was founded in 1471 by Rao Shekha from the Kachhwaha Rajput clan of Amer. He set up a confederation of 33 thikanas [feudal lands] and called his independent kingdom Shekhawati (the Garden of Shekha or Land of Shekhawat Rulers). Before him, the Kayamkhani Nawabs ruled the smaller pockets of the area, and a few other Rajput clans, Chauhan, Sankhala, and Gaur. Shekhawats mostly allied with the Mughals and fought their campaigns with distinction. In the 1730s, following the Mughal empire’s collapse, Shardul Singh Shekhawat seized control of Jhunjhunu and Fatehpur from Kayamkhani* nawabs and increased the Shekhawat domain.

*Side note — Kayamkhanis are Muslims who trace their descent from Chauhan Rajput. The Bardic history tells us that a valiant Chauhan prince was converted to Islam by a Tuglaq monarch at the end of the 14th century, and gifted extensive estates around Delhi (Hissar). The prince was renamed Kayam Khan (one who honors a promise) and his descendants were called Kayamkhanis. They ruled over Fatehpur and Jhunjhunu for almost 300 years, until 1730, when Shardul Singh took over their estates. Kayamkhanis and Rajputs married during that period and some of their customs and ceremonies still mimic those of Rajputs.

Upon Shardul Singh’s death, they divided his estate among his five sons [Panchpana], against the principle of primogeniture (where the largest inheritance devolved on the eldest son). To prevent fights among brothers in later years, they divided the estate to provide for equal revenue among the five brothers, i.e. those five estates were not contiguous.

Panchpana, though innovative, showed limitations in later generations. Shekhawati could never stand up to powerful neighbors — Jaipur and Bikaner. Despite some failed attempts to become independent, Churu was under Bikaner’s control, and Jhunjhunu-Sikar remained under Jaipur.

By the early 19th century, the region grew into small city-states with minor fortifications. It became a lawless Wild West as many disenfranchised royals became freebooters. The East India Company formed the Shekhawati Brigade in the 1830s to control these elements and bring peace to the region.

Mandawa Fortress is now a boutique hotel. In the 1830s, Lt. Col Lockett and his Shekhawati Brigade destroyed most of the Shekhawati fortifications when the region had descended into lawlessness.

But now, we need to shift the frame to Marwadis because the Haveli boom is about to take off.

A word about Marwadis…

In popular culture, the Marwaris don’t get the respect they deserve. Yet theirs is a fascinating story of how a tiny community from the desert sands of Shekhawati spread out to every corner of India, settling in thousands of villages and towns in the 19th century. With their astute business sense and risk appetite, they managed a large part of British-India’s inland trade and earned wealth & envy in equal measure.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the road from Delhi to the port of Surat was the Mughal Empire’s most important trade highway, and caravans loaded with sugar, salt, groceries, grain, silk, pickles, and opium passed through these routes. Shekhawati was a preferred conduit through which most caravans passed, since smaller fiefs of this region offered cheaper toll and octroi rates, compared to Bikaner or Jaipur.

On this trade route, Bhiwani (Haryana) and Pali (Marwad) were the most important trading depots. Not surprisingly, Shekhawati Marwaris comprise Agarwals and Saraogis from Haryana and Oswals and Maheshwaris from Marwad/Jodhpur. They were all baniya by caste and either Jains or Vaishnav Hindus by religion.

Much later, in the 19th century, when they started migrating out in sizeable numbers, these communities got generalized as ‘Marwaris’, and the moniker stuck.

As the British created a national market during the 19th century, the Shekhawati caravan trade started drying up. The enterprising Marwari again dispersed in search of fresh opportunities, this time to faraway Calcutta, Rangoon, Bombay, and Madras. Traveling back to the home village was once a couple of years and took a few weeks, if not months. Introducing the Railways in the 1860s accelerated the process.

These migrants typically began as petty shopkeepers, often with capital advanced from a wholesaler in their community. They slowly graduated to money lending and then moved to finance farmers for their commercial crops, such as opium and cotton.

Some of these families (e.g. Tarachand Ghanshyam Das of the Podar family) became so successful that at different points in time, they were bankers to the Royal families of Jaipur, Bikaner, and Hyderabad. In Calcutta, Marwaris ended up controlling all aspects of finance and logistics for the Jute, Opium, and Cotton trade. These firms took deposits, gave loans, engaged in the wholesale trade of commodities, transferred funds for clients to distant cities, cashed bills of trade, insured shipments, and speculated on commodity futures when the opportunity arose. There are stories of Marwari firms destroying British competitors during WWI, in Jute and Silver, through speculation in futures markets!

From around 1830, the wealth generated in the ports of Calcutta-Bombay started flowing back to their hometowns and thus started the Haveli boom in this region, lasting 100 years.

It’s interesting to place this construction boom on the timeline of history. The earliest Marwadi havelis date from the 1830s. Before that, Shekhawati had devolved into a Wild West lawlessness, and if you had money, you better hide it well. It was only in the 1830s that EIC, through Shekhawati Brigade and Lt. Col Lockett, brought peace to the region, with some strong-arm tactics…and Marwaris felt safe to show off!

The Baithak of a typical Haveli where menfolk entertained and engaged in business. Self-portraits were a craze, and photography had not arrived. A typical marwadi of that time was an orthodox Hindu/Jain, vegetarian, simply dressed, and with an austere lifestyle. Smoking or drinking was taboo. But, he would spend vast sums of money on family rituals like marriage or death in the desert homeland. Now, with peace and protection guaranteed by EIC, his vanity found a new outlet — the Haveli!

Havelis soon became the vanity project to flaunt wealth. And flaunt what they did. One-upmanship amongst Shekhawati’s merchant community took the form of whose Haveli was bigger and more embellished. They spared no expense. The finest artists [chiteras] were called in to paint topics ranging from the erotic to the religious to the secular to copies of European prints. Whatever it took to impress.

Supposedly a Rhino, painted in 1880. Merchants had fanned out as far as Assam & Rangoon where Rhinos exist. This is a painter's attempt at it, based on the description. Poddar Haveli, Ramgadh.

Shekhawati’s havelis have a standard floor plan with at least two interconnected open-roof courtyards. The first courtyard is where the men of the house carried out their business. The second or zenana courtyard was for private domestic use. Some of the bigger havelis may have a third courtyard where the servants, storehouses, and stables would be located.

Entry courtyard of a Haveli in Mandawa
Entrances to the two courtyards form a focal point of the Haveli and include a Hollow arch, pillared seats on the sides, and a heavily carved door. Much of the Haveli decor is centered on the entrance.

Early 19th-century havelis sport natural dyes and common motifs like Teej/Gangaur processions, marriage parties, Toran, or local folktales like Dhola Maru. Popular religious themes include Shiv and Ganesh, Ramayan, Mahabharat, and the ever-present Krishna.

From the 20th century onwards, the chemical dies and European influence is visible on the wall art. One finds references to trains, airplanes, bicycles, hats, spectacles, and so on.

The prince eyeing the princess and her entourage, an early 19th-century fresco (Left). Come the 20th century, the motifs of Bower’s hats, aircraft, and bicycles find a place on the walls (Right)
One decorative element, however, remained consistent — the community’s favorite gods, Radha and Krishna. Painted in gold — Jhunjhunwala Haveli, Mandawa.
A touch of whimsy — Krishna being driven around in a Cadillac! Khemka Haveli, Fatehpur.

Cenotaphs (Chatri) of Ramgarh

The wealthy merchants sometimes exercised agency in the face of unjust royal demands, even before the arrival of EIC. Ramgarh is one such story where excessive taxation led to the decline of Churu. The story dates back to 1791 when wealthy Poddars were the main wool merchants of Churu. When local Thakur raised taxes on wool to solve his financial difficulties, Poddars protested and then shifted across the border to Jaipur. They named their new village ‘Sethon ka Ramgarh’, to differentiate it from many other Ramgarh in India!

Even today, ‘Poddar hai ki’ (are you a Poddar?) remains a popular taunt when somebody tries to be too big for his boots.

Stunning cenotaphs of Poddars — here, the entire Ramayana is painted under its dome.

Reading the tea leaves…

As we drive back to Jaipur, the sun is setting…the road is straight from the sets of Rudali as ‘Dil Hoom hoom kare’ plays on speakers. I rue the absence of a Mehdi Hassan or Reshma on the playlist; both came from this region but settled in Pakistan after the partition.

Khejdi trees are stripped bare; their branches are stacked neatly on the ground, to be used as firewood by the villagers. The thick, dark trunks and stumps silhouette against the sky like an army of contortionists. Rohida blooms flash past occasionally, in bright red and yellow like some village belle sneaking out for a lover’s tryst.

The Haveli boom started in Q2 of the 19th century and lasted for about 100 years. From that time to now, the world has transformed, and Shekhawati finds itself relegated to brittle yellowed pages of history. A few havelis have turned into boutique hotels, museums, or even a row of nondescript shops, but a majority of them just stand there, unrepaired and locked away, maintained by a caretaker family.

The stunning interiors of Podar Museum, Nawalgadh, that has been painstakingly restored. The juxtaposition of a Gangaur procession, with locomotives is cute.
Right next to Podar Museum, Nawalgadh, this beautiful Haveli is locked away, slowly going to seed.
Abid, our knowledgeable guide, insisted that I take a picture of this 18th-century fresco. It is unlikely to last long, as rain and elements eat away the walls.

Stories abound of some caretakers pilfering the family heirlooms, and even swallowing up the properties by inserting their names into utility bills and other government registers; wily local politicians and compliant bureaucrats are always at hand at a certain price.

Four locks on an abandoned cause. Generations have passed, reducing the individual shares in these crumbling ancestral properties, and joint ownership makes it difficult to agree on what should be done with these white elephants.

Prospered families have long shifted out to salubrious urban comforts and may visit their old village for a Jhadula (Kid’s first haircut), or an annual pilgrimage to holy places like Khatu Shyamji or Rani Sati, or Salasar Mahadev. Occasionally, one hears of an opening of a school, hospital, or clinic in the ancestral home. But with each new generation, the estrangement of affluent urban Marwaris, from their homeland is widening.

Recent Amazon Prime offering 'Dahaad' mostly features locations in Mandawa and Nawalgadh, which have attracted filmmakers to the area. Bajrangi Bhaijaan , PK , Jab Bhi Met, Paheli , Love Aaj Kal , Mirzia, Manorama 6 Feet Under, Shuddh Desi Romance, Gulami are few earlier names. Perhaps Bollywood endorsements may lead to greater tourist footfall.

A lane and Haveli like this turns into a haunted house or a busy 18th century bazaar, under a watchful filmmaker’s gaze. Bhagat Haveli, Nawalgarh.

The Bajaj, Birla, Dalmia, Goenka, Jhunjhunuwala, Kothari, Mittal, Modi, Oswal, Piramal, Poddar, and Singhania are but some of Modern India’s leading business families who trace their roots to the dozen little towns in the Shekhawati.

Walking through those village lanes, one wonders why this rich heritage may go to dust. Almost all villages have ancestral claims to a few BIG trading or industrial houses of modern India. They have the money and the influence, should they choose to start a conservation project for the region. But no such concerted effort seems to be on the card, and Shekhwati looks like an abandoned cause.

All the more reason to savor this authentic piece of history, while it lasts.

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Ajay Goel

This is a place where I post essays and random musings.