“Where is the bawri?” I ask a group of men playing cards on the road. I am at Fatehpur, a large town in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan and searching for a nearly 400-year-old stepwell, locally known as bawri.
“You’re standing at the entrance to the bawri,” drawls one of the men.
I look at where I am standing and then behind me. All I can see is an arched entrance and garbage beyond that. Heaps and heaps of garbage.
“This is the bawri?” I ask in disbelief.
Loud, raucous laughter erupts from the group. “This used to be a bawri. It used to contain water, now it only has garbage. Therefore, it is kachre ka bawri (or a well of garbage). Why have you come to see this kachre ka bawri?” says another man in the group.
More laughter, this time mocking and derisive, as I look on in horror and recall all that I had read about the bawri or stepwell in Ilay Cooper’s book.
One place that everyone I spoke to in Shekhawati said I must visit was Lohargal. And all gave different reasons for visiting it.
It is our hill station, said one. You get the best pickles in the world there, said another. It is a holy place and a dip in the tank will remove your sins, said the third person. There is an ancient sun temple there, said the fourth. The mention of the sun temple got me intrigued. Then another person said, “There’s a stepwell at Lohargal. If you’re interested in history, you must go there.” The stepwell was the clincher to visit Lohargal.
That’s how on my return journey to Jaipur from Nawalgarh, at the end of my Shekhawati trip, I took a detour to visit the stepwell at Lohargal. It was an hour’s drive from Nawalgarh through steady rain, narrow roads skirting the Aravali ranges, and some beautiful scenery.
When we arrived at the stepwell, which is on the road, the rain had lessened to a light drizzle.
When I arrived in Nawalgarh, the first work of ‘art’ I noticed was not its famed frescoes or even its grand havelis — it was a piece of graffiti.
I was looking out of the window of the car I was travelling in, hoping to catch a glimpse of a fresco, when the car suddenly braked to let a cow pass. That’s when I saw the graffiti — a yellow rectangular patch with blue lettering on a cracked and patched surface. It was the contrast of the freshness of the graffiti against a dull and old surface that attracted me and I took a picture of it for that reason. The words (for those who can’t read the Devanagari script or understand Hindi) can be roughly translated to:
Even if it means losing your life, don’t give in to anything improper or immoral.
As the car moved ahead, I dismissed the graffiti as a one-off and resumed my search for the frescoes. Little did I know at that time that along with the frescoes and the havelis, I would be seeing other graffiti all over Nawalgarh.
Every traveller has a story or two or maybe more about chance happenings that led to something more, something interesting. This is one such story. 🙂
I had just finished my tour of the Dr. Ramnath A. Podar Haveli Museum at Nawalgarh and had walked out of the main door. Unlike other havelis, the entrance to the Podar Haveli Museum is not level with the road and is situated about 15-20 feet above ground. From where I stood, I had the advantage of height and could look around and into the compounds of neighbouring havelis.
One such pastel-coloured haveli caught my attention. Located opposite the Podar Haveli Museum, its architecture exhibited colonial influences. It also had a large painting on one of its walls which, from where I stood, looked pretty interesting. But the high walls, closed gate and the freshly painted look of the haveli indicated that it was perhaps inhabited. I decided to check with the Museum staff if they knew anything about that haveli and if it would be possible for me to visit it.
Turned out that the Museum staff knew quite a bit. The haveli was the private residence of the Podars, the very family that owned the Museum. This was where the family members and their friends stayed whenever they visited Nawalgarh. Currently, the haveli was undergoing repairs and renovation and was, therefore, unoccupied. And yes, I could go and see the haveli if I wished to.
Of course I wished to ! I didn’t need any further encouragement and off I went. 🙂
In case it wasn’t apparent in the last few posts, I had a blast conceptualising and writing the series on “The Painted Towns of Shekhawati“. The series is done for now (at least till I visit Shekhawati again in the future). I do have a couple of more posts on Shekhawati to be written, but those can wait. For now, at least. 🙂
The response to the series has been surprisingly good. I expected interest, yes, considering that this series is quite detailed, but not so much as generally people are not that interested in art. In fact, one of my friends had asked on seeing my initial photos, “Didn’t you get tired of seeing the painted havelis all the time?” No, I didn’t get tired of them; if anything, I wanted to see more of them.
And that’s what the response on the blog and shares across social media also seemed to indicate. In fact, for the first time since I started blogging, I have received so many emails and messages asking for details with regard to my trip plan, where I stayed, the itinerary, how I travelled, was it safe, etc., that it has been gratifying.
Slowly, very slowly, the idea of writing a trip planner as a blog post grew. But it was easier thought than actually written ! I struggled to put a draft together under the conventional heads of where I stayed, how I travelled, what I did, etc. One read later, the draft was trashed. It was that bad. That’s when I considered writing the Shekhawati trip planner in a Q&A format — a trip planner based on the questions I got asked in the mails and messages and my answers to them. The more I thought about the Q&A format, the more I liked it. It took a while to get written though, and after some tweaking and editing, presenting and sharing my very first trip planner.
Ilay Cooper’s book on Shekhawati set me off on an extraordinary trip to that 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 Mahensar is the last 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.
Mahensar is well-known for two things — the paintings inside a place called Sone Chandi ki Dukaan (or the Gold and Silver Shop) and a liquour made from saunf or aniseed. I knew about the first, having read about it in Ilay Cooper’s book, but was completely ignorant about the second, till the manager of the hotel I was staying in told me about it.
According to him, no Rajput wedding in the Shekhawati region was complete without this particular liquor being served to the wedding guests. Why, it was popular across Haryana, Punjab and Delhi and was also more famous than the frescoes of the region and with heritage value as well !
So when I arrived in Mahensar from Bissau at around 2 on that January afternoon, I was expecting to see more of the famous liquor around instead of the frescoes. And I probably would have, if had not been a local election day at Mahensar and, therefore, a dry day. There weren’t too many people around and the few frescoes visible were faded and located high up on the haveli walls.
I thought of heading towards the Mahensar Fort, but my bad luck with Forts in Shekhawati continued — the Fort was now a hotel and out of bounds for the casual visitor. As I was looking around for a possible direction to head towards, a man came up to me with a large bunch of keys and said, “You must have come to see the Sone Chandi ki Dukaan. I’m the caretaker of that place. Come, I will open it up for you.” Continue reading “The painted towns of Shekhawati-7: Mahensar”→