The Dr. Ramnath A. Podar Haveli Museum at Nawalgarh in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan was built in 1902. Originally a residence and known as Podar Haveli, it was converted into a museum after major renovation and restoration works were undertaken of the frescoes and murals that cover every inch of its exterior and interior walls.
The Haveli Museum, which is over 100 feet long, is supposed to have 750 frescoes on its outer walls, passages, two courtyards and all the rooms in the lower level. Every fresco/mural is detailed and covers themes from mythology to local folk tales to whimsical depictions of everyday life.
Though there were many stunning works of art at the Haveli Museum, there was one that caught my eye — more for the unusual subject than for the quality of art. It was like an Ardhanareeshwara, but instead of the composite image of Shiva and Parvati, it was one of Vishnu and Lakshmi.
Around this time last year, I visited Lohargal in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan in search of a stepwell. I found the stepwell or Chetan Das ki Baoli, And along the way also stumbled upon a temple dedicated to the Pandavas, with a very interesting story attached to it.
The Pandava temple (shrine would actually be a more appropriate word) is on one side of the narrow pathway that leads to the main and ancient temple, dedicated to the sun. I would not have given this shrine, whose walls are covered with subway tiles, a second look if the priest hadn’t called out to me and told me to stop. I did out of politeness and was glad that I did for I had never seen or heard of a Pandava temple in worship till then.
“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.
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.