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 Dundlod is the third 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.
The gates to the Dundlod Fort are locked when I arrive at 2.30 in the afternoon from Nawalgarh.
“How can a Fort be locked at this time of the day?” I grumble, looking around for some information on the Fort timings. I don’t find any and instead start looking around for someone who can help me, but there is no one around and all the shops are shut — Dundlod appears to be practically deserted.
I see a tea stall that is open and walk towards it. The tea stall owner guesses what I’m going to ask him and says: “The Fort is shut. They have gone horse riding.”
“Who are ‘they’?” I ask.
“The owners of the Fort and their foreign guests. You come after some time,” is the reply.
I decide to explore the town instead and as I’m wondering which direction to head towards, the tea stall owner points me towards a haveli (mansion) and says that the caretaker-cum-watchman will open it for me to see.
That’s how I end up at the Shubhnarayan Anandram Goenka Haveli.
The Goenkas were among the first of the merchant families to settle in Dundlod. They were a branch of the Goenkas from Nawalgarh and had moved to Dundlod after a tiff with one of the rulers there. The Dundlod Goenkas made their fortune in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and built quite a few havelis in Dundlod.
The Shubhnarayan Anandram Goenka Haveli was the first to be constructed in 1870 by Arjun Dassji Goenka. This haveli is similar to the basic structure of the havelis elsewhere in Shekhawati — a public area, a courtyard, a family area, bedrooms on the upper level and a separate area for the cattle and the servants. The Goenka Haveli had an additional feature, which I did not see in any other haveli in Shekhawati — a forecourt.
The Goenka Haveli is showcased like a museum. In addition to some fine frescoes, there are traditional vessels and implements on display. The rooms are furnished the way it would have been a few decades ago complete with creepy, life-sized figures of ‘people’ at work — grinding flour or churning butter or doing accounts — scattered about the haveli.
As I am leaving the haveli, the caretaker asks me if I am interested in seeing another Goenka property — the chhatri or cenotaph of Ram Dutt Goenka — which is a 10-minute walk from the haveli. Of course, I say and off we go.
We also visit another haveli built by the Goenkas on the way — the Bhagirathlal Goenka Haveli. Since it is inhabited, we only see the frescoes in the courtyard. Apart from frescoes on religious themes on its walls, this haveli has portraits painted under the eaves. Bearded men, women in veils, profiles, European men and women — they’re all there. We don’t stay long there and leave for the chhatri.
As we are walking towards the chhatri, caretaker tells me that it was built in 1888 and the inside of its dome was repainted in 2003 or thereabouts as the details had almost vanished. The chhatri is now secured by a walled and gated enclosure to protect the paintings from any further damage or vandalism.
“You have problems of vandalism here?” I ask astonished. Almost on cue and as we pass a large, derelict and empty haveli, a group of 6-8 young men suddenly appear on its roof and start hooting and whistling at us.
“See what I meant? says the caretaker. “Just ignore these troublemakers.” I do or at least try to for the men are really loud.
The chhatri’s painted dome is mind-blowing in detail and the stories they depict. The Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagawat Purana, Dashavatar… are all depicted in the dome. It is only the dome of the chhatri that has been repainted; everything else has been left as it is. The base of the chhatri still has remnants of original frescoes, but barely.
Presenting a set of 32 photographs from the painted havelis and a chhatri of Dundlod. They cover religious themes, portraits, and daily life. 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, and once you have finished seeing the photos, don’t forget to come back to read the rest of the post.
As we leave the chhatri, the men on the roof top resume their shouting and hooting, this time accompanied by lewd gestures. As we walk past them, I can hear the “Come to me, baby” and “Kiss me, baby” calls.
The caretaker suddenly stops and shouts at the men, “Oye chup karo. Yeh koi firangi nahi hai, hamari hai.” [Literal Translation: Keep quiet. She is not a foreigner, she’s ours (or she’s an Indian)].
The men groan in protest and I even hear an “Oh shit”, but they become quiet and move away.
“These men ! They are from the another caste/community and they are all like this and you can’t expect anything better from them. They have nothing better to do than tease the few tourists who come here. Don’t worry, they won’t bother you now. You are after all Indian,” says the caretaker.
I feel sick. I don’t know what is worse — that it is okay to tease foreign tourists, or the fact that just because you belong to another caste/community, you are labelled as a troublemaker. I don’t stay to see if the Fort is open and leave Dundlod after paying the caretaker.
Even after so many months and as I write this post, I feel sick thinking about the incident.
- Dundlod is just 10 km from Nawalgarh, my base in Shekhawati, and a short drive away.
- 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.