Ilay Cooper’s book on Shekhawati set me off on an extraordinary trip to an extraordinary place in January this year. I had to wait for nearly 6 months, though, before I felt ready to write about it — so overwhelming were my thoughts and emotions. This post on Laxmangarh is the fifth of 8 posts in the series on “The Painted Towns of Shekhawati”. If you haven’t read the introduction to Shekhawati’s history (and the series), I recommend that you do so now, before proceeding further. If you have already done so, then dive straight into the post. 🙂
When I arrived at Laxmangarh on that bitterly cold January morning, it had just stopped raining and the sun was playing hide-and-seek with the clouds. Thankful that the rains would not play spoilsport, I headed straight for the Fort, which is built on a hillock overlooking the town.
Laxmangarh Fort dates back to the early 1800s when the town was founded by Laxman Singh, the Raja of Sikar, to take advantage of the rise in caravan trade at that time. He built the Fort and a walled fortification with nine gates to protect the town. Today, only the Fort remains.
To my surprise, I found that the Fort was now private property having been bought by a trader in Delhi, who had, in turn, leased it to a telecommunications company to construct cell towers. There is a temple inside the Fort and visitors are allowed only till that point in the Fort. I tried to look inside the door leading up to the top of the Fort and almost got told off by the priest of the temple for daring to do so !
Disappointed with not being able to see a Fort the second time around in Shekhawati, I set off to explore the town instead.
Laxmangarh is a planned town and is laid out in a grid with its roads and streets either parallel or perpendicular to each other. It was quite a contrast to the meandering layouts I had navigated in the various towns in Shekhawati. The grid system took a little while to get used to and I went around in circles, or I should say squares and rectangles, before I figured this out. 😛
Laxmangarh never fully took off the way Laxman Singh envisaged it to be as it came under attack quite often. But the real threat to the prosperity of the town came, not from these attacks, but from the town’s rulers who levied harsh taxes on trade. By the middle of the 19th century, trade had practically come to a standstill in Laxmangarh. The traders, including the town’s leading family, the Ganeriwalas, had migrated to places like Calcutta and Hyderabad. The Laxmangarh traders did return, but not to do business — they returned only to build havelis and have them painted all over with frescoes.
With a couple of exceptions, the havelis in Laxmangarh are not very large and are dominated with ochre-coloured facades. How I wished the sun would come out in full force, for I was pretty sure that the ochre would have a taken on golden hue then.
Though I saw quite a few painted havelis in Laxmangarh, I was able to see the interiors of only one — the Ganeriwala Char Chowk Haveli, one of the largest havelis I came across in Shekhawati.
This haveli is actually two havelis with a common facade. One half of the haveli is inhabited and the other is empty and in a derelict state. There are few frescoes remaining on the external walls of this haveli and these appear to have survived only because they are too high up for any kind of repair or whitewash.
I took permission to enter the outer courtyard of the inhabited section and was surprised to find a complete absence of frescoes on the walls. Instead, all the pillars and archways were painted with delicate floral designs and in muted shades. Though most of the colours are faded now, the designs are still visible and breathtakingly beautiful.
I spent a lovely morning walking the streets of Laxmangarh seeking out the painted havelis (and in the process came across some art deco structures as well). Most of the havelis still stand, but have been abandoned and have a forlorn look about them. As for the frescoes, they are there too, but just. The themes of the frescoes were varied — mythological, portraits, and transport. There were some cityscapes too, but with a distinctly European character making me wonder if the traders had travelled there and came back with pictures to show the artists to replicate on the walls.
Presenting a set of 40 captioned photographs from the painted havelis of Lakshmangarh. Though clicking on any of the photographs will start a slide show, I recommend that you begin with the first photograph. Once you have finished seeing the photos, don’t forget to come back to read the rest of the post.
Laxmangarh was the 4th town in Shekhawati I was visiting and by now I had started recognising and differentiating between the various styles and themes of the paintings. I had also started realising how different each town was, and for that matter how different each haveli was.
While Laxmangarh was different from the other Shekhawati towns in terms of the frescoes and the comparatively smaller size of the havelis, it was also different from the others in two very significant ways: (i) there were no women out in the streets, and in the 2 hours I was there I saw just one woman; and (ii) instead of peeing in the open on a wall, men were peeing into open urinals fitted on to walls. Go figure !
- Laxmangarh is just 30 km from Nawalgarh, my base in Shekhawati, and about an hour’s drive from there.
- Many 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.