Ilay Cooper’s book on Shekhawati set me off on an extraordinary trip to an extraordinary place, and I had to wait for nearly six months before I felt ready to write about it — so overwhelming were my thoughts and emotions.
Presenting the first of eight posts on the painted towns of Shekhawati. It is a brief account of the region’s history (an introduction to the series really), in order to understand the region’s past and present, in the context of the Shekhawati Series.
Shekhawati is one of the four regions of Rajasthan, the others being Mewar, Marwar and Hadoti). Spread over Sikar, Jhunjhunu and Churu districts of Rajasthan, it is best known for its grand and palatial havelis (mansions). It is also known for being home to many of India’s well-known business families — Birla, Poddar, Bajaj, Jhunjhunwala, Khaitan, Oswal, Piramal, Ruia, Singhania, and Goenka, among others are from this region.
One would think that this would automatically mean a lot of visibility and tourist footfall in the region, but this is not the case — compared to the other regions of Rajasthan, Shekhawati is less visible. Which, in my opinion, is really surprising as the history of the region is quite unique and distinct from the rest of the State (at least in the context of the series that I’m writing).
Take the famous painted havelis of Shekhawati, for example, and how they came to be built. Before we discuss the havelis, let us first have a quick look at the region’s history , beginning with what “Shekhawati” means.
The literal translation of “Shekhawati” is “garden of the Shekhas”. It comes from Rao Shekha (c.1433–1488 CE), the chieftain of a minor principality called Barwada that owed allegiance to Kingdom of Amer (or Jaipur). Rao Shekha is a legend, for unlike other rulers in the region, he was not content with his ‘kingdom’ and maintain a status quo. He not only expanded his territory considerably, he also signed a treaty with Amer that gave him independent rule.
Shekha’s descendents continued with the policy of expansion and consolidation that he had initiated. Over the decades and centuries that followed, the fate of Shekhawati region got linked to first that of the Mughals, then the British East India Company, and finally British rule.
Like other parts of Rajasthan (and the sub-continent for that matter), society was stratified and social (and economic) order was based on a rigid caste system. Though political power lay with the Kshatriyas or the Rajputs, economic power was with the mercantile or trading community — the banias.
The banias and the Rajputs had a symbiotic relationship. The former acted as money lenders and financiers for the latter and in return, the Rajputs offered them protection from potential dacoits and raiders of their trade caravans carrying wool, silk, tobacco, indigo and opium. However, this symbiotic relationship was not always harmonious due to taxes imposed on trade by the ruling Rajputs or the steep rates of interests offered by the bania money lenders to the Rajputs.
The coming of the British and consolidation of their rule in the region and beyond, by the end of the 19th century, led to the creation of new business opportunities outside Shekhawati, which traders and merchants were quick to recognise. They used the opportunity to move out of Shekhawati and expand their business.
The first traders to move out became money lenders, brokers, commission agents and speculators in the cotton markets of Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Bombay (now Mumbai). However, by the end of the 19th century, the Shekhawati traders had turned into entrepreneurs — from setting up jute factories and cotton mills, to tea and textiles industries, motor cars and cement and steel manufacturing units… One can say that the Shekhawati traders were among the first to usher in industrial revolution in the country.
In a short span of time, the Shekhawati traders-turned-entrepreneurs became very wealthy. And they announced this change in their financial status by building grand mansions or havelis in their native villages / towns in Shekhawati changing the landscape of the region in an unprecedented manner. Havelis were not the only things that the then nouveau riche traders built. They also constructed temples, dharamshalas, wells, stepwells, joharas or reservoirs, and kunds or underground rainwater storage.
Now. Imagine. This.
In a landscape dominated by huts, large and small, stone and mortar constructions started coming up — the havelis. The first havelis not very big and had a basic layout in place — a separate public area, a family area, a central courtyard, and an area for keeping cattle. As money poured in, the basic layout remained the same, but the havelis got bigger and embellishments and decorative elements increased. This was dependent on how much the owner was willing to show off / state his wealth, but it was usually a no holds barred display. Minton tiles, stained glass, mosaic work, cast iron railings, imported Burma teak for the woodwork… no expense was spared in the design or decoration of the havelis. Architectural styles too changed over the years — from Rajput- and Mughal-styled havelis, to those with European influence to Art Deco houses.
What makes these havelis unique is not their size or architecture or their “grandness”, but the fact that they have been covered with frescoes on both their exterior and interior walls. Once again, try imagining the very first haveli painted with colourful frescoes and how quickly the idea must have caught on. As the number of fresco-painted havelis grew, it created painted enclaves, clusters, localities and finally entire painted towns, earning Shekhawati the honour of being called “the painted region”.
The frescoes are dominated by religious themes; but folk tales, the English people, modes of transport like trains, cars, and bicycles; European landscapes; and some bit of erotica and fantasy are also there.
While the havelis themselves are a symbol of the aspirations and status of their owners, the frescoes are like an open air art gallery (or a picture exhibition, if you please) bringing the outside world to a place far removed from it. One could even say that it is a fascinating visual history of what people thought at that time and wanted recorded — something like photographs?
It has been more than 60-70 years since the last haveli was built and frescoes painted on its walls. Much has happened between then and now. The havelis that the merchants built in Shekhawati are still there, but in such an advanced state of decay that it shocked me. Some of them have been converted into hotels, a couple into museums, some have residents living in them, but most havelis have been abandoned or locked away and are crumbling and in ruins. The once bright frescoes have faded or are covered under layers of dust and dirt and in some cases whitewashed over.
It was ironical to realise that the prosperity that led to the construction of these painted havelis is the very reason that they wear a haunted look today. The prosperity that once saw these havelis full of life and business is the reason that they are empty today. It was prosperity that ultimately made the descendants of the haveli builders move away from Shekhawati to where their business were located, setting off the gradual decline and decay.
My travels though the painted towns of Shekhawati was exhilarating and exhausting, overwhelming and saddening at the same time. My next few posts will be about these explorations and my observations of the painted region, one town at a time. Do come back to read the rest of the series.
- The Painted Towns of Shekhawati, by Ilay Cooper
- Shekhawati: Havelis of Merchant Palaces, edited by Abha Narain Lambah