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. This post on Nawalgarh is the second of eight posts in the series on “The Painted Towns of Shekhawati”. If you haven’t read this introduction to Shekhawati’s history (and the series), I recommend that you do so now, before proceeding further.
Nawalgarh was my base for exploring the Shekhawati region and also the first of the towns I visited. Named after Nawal Singh, its founder, Nawalgarh was built in 1737 on the site of an earlier settlement.
Nawal Singh followed an active policy of encouraging traders and merchants from Jaipur to settle down in Nawalgarh. The Patodia and Murarka families were the first to arrive on his invitation and seeing them grow and prosper, other merchants soon followed. By the mid-1800s, Nawalgarh had become a large and prosperous town with three forts, city walls, bastions and four gates to protect it.
I arrived in Nawalgarh on a cold and rainy winter’s day in January, in time for a late lunch at my hotel before heading off to explore the town. It was a leisurely stroll through the town’s markets, lanes and bylanes with the purpose to get a feel of what had brought me to Nawalgarh (and for that matter the Shekhawati region) in the first place — the painted havelis or mansions.
Even though I was aware that there would be a fair number of painted havelis with frescoes, their profusion was staggering. Everywhere I looked there were frescoes — faded or obscured under layers of grime and dust, hidden behind rubble and rubbish piles, barely visible under a layer of whitewash, partly obliterated by repair work, or gleaming after a restoration process. It was a sensory delight in the best possible way.
I walked around Nawalgarh in a kind of daze. Looking back, I’m surprised that I didn’t fall into a ditch or an open sewer or get knocked down by a vehicle, or get chased by dogs or cows, or step into dung piles 😛
Over the next few days, as I explored Nawalgarh and other towns and villages of Shekhawati, the sensory overload lessened and I was able to deconstruct and understand the paintings better — their themes, their styles, their colours — and see the links and patterns and make connections. While some of the themes, especially those from Hindu mythology and mytho history, were instantly recognisable, some others like local folk tales and portraits were not. A visit to the two haveli-turned-museums in Nawalgarh went a long way in helping me build a perspective towards understanding theart of the painted havelis in the region.
The first was Dr. Ramnath A. Podar Haveli Museum, also known as the Podar Haveli. Built in 1902, the Podar Haveli is over 100 feet long and is supposed to have 750 frescoes on its outer walls, passages, two courtyards and all the rooms in the lower level. The Podar Haveli is considered to have some of the finest collection of frescoes in the region.
The Podar Haveli is built over two levels, with the upper level being a later addition. Both the levels are quite distinct from one another — while the lower level is traditional Indian architecture with Mughal influences and is covered with colourful frescoes, the upper level has a colonial influence with very few frescoes and that too in pastel shades.
In 1992, work on restoration and conservation work was undertaken on the damaged frescoes under the supervision of experts in the field. This included retouching or repainting the most damaged frescoes.
The second museum I visited was the Kamal Morarka Haveli Museum, which was built in 1900 by Jairamdasji Morarka. Though smaller than the Podar Haveli, the frescoes at the Morarka Haveli are no less detailed and coluorful.
The Morarka Haveli frescoes, too, have undergone carefully planned restoration but very different from the Podar Haveli. Regardless of the extent of damage to a fresco, no attempt was done to retouch or repaint the frescoes and were were only cleaned. Depending on the extent of damage, the cleaning was either done with plain water and sponge or with a mild chemical solution. The result is original work on display and combined with stained glass panels, glass and mirror work in its courtyards, the Morarka Haveli is quite stunning.
I also visited the Bhagaton ki Haveli, which provided a study in contrast to the museums as the frescoes in this haveli have neither been cleaned or restored. Some of the frescoes were suprisingly well preserved and some badly damaged. Like the Podar and Morarka Havelis, this one too had a grand entrance, two courtyards, a public area, a private family area and living quarters for the family on the upper level. Though I would have liked to visit other havelis in Nawalgarh, I could only see them from the outside as they were either locked or simply looked too unsafe to go in. 😦
Presenting a set of 50 photographs from the painted havelis of Nawalgarh. They cover religious themes, portraits, transport, Europeans, architectural styles, etc. Clicking on any of the captioned photographs will start a slide show. Though you can start from any photograph, I recommend that you start with the first photo. And once you have finished seeing the photos, don’t forget to come back to read the rest of the post. 🙂
Nawalgarh gave me the perfect introduction to the painted havelis of Shekhawati. The variety of themes, styles and subjects of the frescoes ensured that there was an element of discovery and delight every time I came across a wall filled with frescoes.
And yet, while Nawalgarh’s past delighted me, its present disturbed me. And I don’t only mean the state of the crumbling havelis here. Let me elaborate.
Nawalgarh is incredibly filthy and negotiating its lanes and bylanes on foot was a challenge, to put it mildly. It didn’t help that it rained for most of the time that I was there and I had to wade literally wade through unrecognisable and unmentionable stuff to reach some of the havelis. There are no civic systems in place; not once during my stay did I see the streets being cleaned. The rubbish and refuse piles though only grew larger. Nawalgarh reminded me of a lotus pond with the havelis as the lotuses in various stages of bloom or decay in a stagnant, stinky pool with things lurking beneath.
For a town that depends on tourists for a large part of its economy, it has a long way to go.
- Nawalgarh is about 145 km from Jaipur and a 3-hour drive. One can also drive down from Delhi.
- With the exception of the two museums mentioned in the post, most of the havelis are locked up and empty. Some have just been abandoned while some have caretakers who will allow you to see them for a small fee. For your own safety, I would advise extreme caution in deciding to enter such havelis.
- While most caretakers/watchmen of the havelis will ask for a token amount upfront before you see the haveli, some may not. In such cases, I would suggest that you pay them something when you leave.