It just happened. Hotel rooms were booked in Dharamsala but in the wee hours of a cold January our cars raced from Delhi towards the Jhunjhunu district of Sekhawati! Was it providence or wanderlust has its own meandering ways? Whatever, which truly boggled our minds were the treasure troves that unfolded thereafter in three unforgettable days. The recent history of Sekhawati was traced back to Rao Sekha, a chieftain from Kachhwaha clan of Rajputs in 15th century A.D. and the land subsequently held by his numerous descendants was known as “Shekhawati”. Mythology seemed more interesting. It indicates that this place was the kingdom of King Virata where Pandavas spent one year in anonymity, after the expiry of their twelve-year long forest life. As cars raced through the landscape of Sekhawati, each moment seemed to be pregnant with possibilities.
The Aravallis cut across Jaipur and Sekhawati regions in North Rajasthan. The climatic conditions in the region are very harsh and extreme, ranging from sub-zero Celsius in winter to more than 50°C in summer. People of this region are known for their bravery and hard work and it is a fertile breeding ground for Jawans in Indian Army! Two districts of modern day Rajasthan, i.e. Jhunjhunu and Sikar can administratively be considered as the constituents of “Sekhawati” region. However the Churu district is equally important as the Sekhawati dialect is also spoken here and famous painted Havelis and Forts are omnipresent in all these three districts. The Haveli was to Banias, what the Fort was to Rajputs, an abode. The status, defense all were reflected in headquarters of these barons and banias of yesteryears. Massive, iron reinforced gates guard street entrances of both Havelis and Forts. Gates of Forts being particularly stronger having protection against forced entry even by use of elephants. While Forts were more functional and defense oriented, some fine carved woodworks, with figurative panel of Lord Ganesha above the door, were evident in Havelis. However Rajput barons introduced Mughal influenced figurative mural art in Forts of Sekhawati followed by “Jaipur Fresco”. The wealthy merchants were to follow suit and soon interiors of many Havelis and ‘Baithak’s were richly painted with incredible murals and frescos as ultimate symbol of their opulence.This has made the whole painted region famously known among connoisseurs and lovers of art across the world as the “open air art gallery” of Rajasthan.
Our first port of destination was Piramal Haveli. The Piramal family, who are well known for their stranglehold in luggage industry in India deals also in healthcare and pharmaceuticals and has been a pioneer in bringing mall culture in Indian metros with the opening of Crossroads in Mumbai in the last decade. The half of the huge Haveli has been handed over to the Neemrana Group for conversion into a heritage hotel. After the initial entry through the massive “Piramal Gate” on the street, the Haveli surprises with a small entry point in its traditional courtyards enclosed by colonial pillared corridors. The walls of the Haveli are adorned with frescos of flying Gods and Angels in motor cars! The place is exactly 260 KM away from Indirapuram, in east of Delhi. Both the “brand Neemrana” and the personal touch of the manager Mr. Dheeraj contributed in equal measure to put the whole group back on travel gear immediately after a brief but nice Rajasthani culinary experience. My only regret was that my own secret desire to have a short postprandial nap was mercilessly thwarted by my ever vigilant better half!
It was a pleasant 14 Km drive to Jhunjhunu town from the Piramal Haveli. On way to Jhunjhunu there were a number of high school buildings, colleges for undergraduate studies, even a college of pharmacy. There were also many gardens, parks, a huge playground and even a model village. Truly remarkable for villages in such deep hinterland and all bear the unmistakable stamp of philanthropy of the merchants hailing from the region. Jhunjhunu, except for its painted marvels, appeared like any other district town of north India. Dusty, rugged and turbid. Oh, there was another notable exception. The Rani Sati Mandir. One of its kind in India and logically may be in the world too. It looked a massive, ever expanding temple dominating the north-east fringe of the town. The highly debatable and now banned custom of “Sati” was prevalent among Rajputs, but in 1595, a young Marwari widow ‘committed sati’, i.e. immolated herself on her husband’s pyre. The bania community has since chosen to sanctify her. There was another highly visible incident in modern India when in 1987 Roop Kanwar from Sikar district immolated herself which raised a Pan India furore. Government of India thereafter tried to curb all activities glorifying this custom and was to close Sati temple and its famous fair in the month of August every year. However this has slowly re-emerged bearing a sad testimony to the hapless political ground reality in India. Keeping political correctness aside, the chance of visiting this unique temple was not wasted, though any ‘Puja’ or such similar glorification was not even remotely thought of! The noted Havelis with Sekhawati paintings in the town were Khetri Mahal, Bissau Mahal, Khaitan Haveli, Tulsian Haveli, Iswardas Modi Haveli and Narsingdas Tibrewala Haveli. There were other temples in the town with painted walls; notable among them were Gopinath Temple, Sri Bihariji Temple and Lakshminath Temple.
Back in the Piramal Haveli we were greeted with crispy snacks accompanied by warm tea. The azure blue in the sky was slowly turning grayish and chill in the air was more discernible. The evening was quietly setting in. We decided to move on to the terrace of the Haveli to experience the sun set amidst the vast expanse behind the Haveli. But we were never really ready for a charmed encounter with such a great number of national birds freely moving on railings, alleys and trees around the huge terrace! My clapping out of a pure puerile joy had a catalytic effect on the birds and almost a dozen of them jumped on the ground behind the Haveli and a race among peacocks and peahens ensued for a safe haven! Sensing our mood to continue on the terrace the ‘Neemrana’ boys immediately went on action. Tables and chairs were put, dimmed lanterns were placed providing sufficient but diffused light and one more round of warm tea was served. The setting was perfect for an ‘adda’ and a sporadic chit chat also started on few tables but the ambience contrarily made me a little reflective. How could such a semi-arid rural area in the backyard of Rajasthan be the home of perhaps eighty percent of the captains of industry and commerce in modern India? Family names roll out just as in a ‘who is who’ listing. Birla, Goenka,Poddar,Dalmia,Bajaj, Khaitan, Ruia,Singhania,Kedia,Piramal,Jhunjhunwala,Modi,Khatau,Harlalka and lots more! During the Mughal rule they controlled the trade sitting from remote Sekhawati and even conducted international trade through the port of Surat by reaching there through Caravan route. They even used to receive their foreign trade partners in impressive ‘Baithaks’, i.e. offices in Sekhawati itself. Once British assumed power and opened new ports in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras the rules of the game changed dramatically. But this band of Sekhawati traders adopted the change with remarkable alacrity. They started migrating to these new towns, particularly to Calcutta, en masse. In no time they, known as ‘Marwaris’ in eastern India, completely dislodged Bengali merchants and became the main brokers for British traders. Further new arrivals started to move beyond Calcutta with one group moving up the Brahmaputra to colonize Assam and the other moving down the Ganges to completely dominate the trade and commerce in the hinterland of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In Bombay they had to fend strong resistance from Gujratis and Parsis but ultimately could consolidate their position as a major contender for their share of the apple pie. Even in Madras, overcoming the huge barriers of language and protectionism by Chettiars, they could carve a niche for themselves. After almost two centuries the wealth accumulation scenario and the ownership pattern in India largely remained the same. What could be the precise reason for such a phenomenon? A serious empirical study seems to be overdue.
The stay in the Piramal Haveli was rounded off first by the campfire and accompanying Rajasthani folk dance and music and finally with a sumptuous vegetarian dinner. The music and dance was entertaining, particularly for the target western audience present there, but it lost many of its ”Folk” element and turned into “Folkwood” after heavily borrowing glamour quotients(GQ) from the Bollywood!The dinner provided us with a fabulous opportunity for pleasing our test buds with the best of Rajasthani cuisines. I lost the count of all items on the table but at the end it did not matter as quality always prevail upon quantity. There was no cake, no ice, but the icing on the cake was definitely the dinner itself!
The next destination just evolved. Uday, however, willingly fathered the evolution. On the open air breakfast table, Mahansar Fort clinched the issue. It was a 55 Km drive from the Piramal Haveli and located at the trifurcation of Jhujhunu, Churu and Sikar districts. Except negotiating with nippy morning air and vehicles from the opposite direction on narrow desert roads, nothing noteworthy did happen. The desert began where the Fort ended or was it the other way round? The imposing Fort gate stood majestically at the beginning of a circuitous and walled road inside the fort. A good part of the wall and ramparts were on the ruins. Liberal sprinkling of sands covered the small courtyard where our cars eventually stopped. Though a tentative discussion took place on phone on the last evening but we were not really ready for a folded hand welcome by a portly and middle aged person standing on the courtyard among his cohorts. The overall gait with a slight bend and a streak of white on the forehead hairs and sideburns somehow underlined the blue blood inside. Yes we were right. He was Thakur Maheswar Singh Sekhawat, a seventh generation direct descendant of Thakur Nahar Singh who built the Mahansar fort in 1768 A.D. and the current ‘Killadar’. Thakur Nahar Singh was the descendant of Thakur Nawal Singh who was one of the famous five sons of Thakur Sardul Singh who acquired Jhunjhunu.Thakur Sardul Singh descended from Bhojraj , the son of Shekhawat Raisalji who was conferred the title of ‘Raja’ by the Mughal Emperor Akbar the great.
The fort had hordes of rich wall paintings. There were mural panels in the gateway arch and on the walls of inner buildings. It has been converted into a family run fort hotel where Thakur Maheswar Singh also lives along with his family members. The fort hotel remains closed during extremely hot summer months of May and June. We were allotted two suites in two extreme parts of the fort. Uday did chose to stay with his family on the huge room above the gate. The place was full of beautiful murals one of which perhaps depicted Lt. Col. Abraham Locket on an elephant. Col. Locket was the first Britisher who travelled across Sekhawati in the hot summer of 1831 to investigate into the complaints against Rajputs for brigandry and other depredations on the wealthy merchants of the region and caravans passing through it. Col. Locket found some of the Thakurs to be involved in robbery and other degraded activities. Based on his report East India Company in Calcutta ordered raising of ‘Sekhawati Brigade’ which was stationed in Jhunjhunu and was commanded by an Anglo-Indian Major Forster. British intervention largely curbed the disorder but the trade was never the same again. Matun, my better half, finally approved a royal room on the highest tower of the fort with an abnormally high ceiling complete with inner corridors and railings! The imposing murals from the ceiling and inner walls directly look into your eyes once you lie down on the bed. Coloured glasses have been strategically placed on the upper portion of the eastern wall so that morning sun rays could be refracted to create a colourful ambience within the room. The room was complete with an attached tunnel leading to a modern toilet. The morning tea and snacks were served on the small personal terrace just before the entrance of the room.
Mr. Lal Singh, the energetic and suave guide in Mahansar turned out to be a budding lawyer and a descendant of the same family of Thakurs. He first took us to the Raghunath Temple, locally known as the ‘Burrah Mandir’, it was perhaps the largest temple built in the Sekhawati region. There were excellent paintings, both in the courtyards and on the outer walls, the latter paintings being two dimensional. The temple was built by the Poddars who have extensive business interests in Calcutta. Moving on to the terrace of the temple and looking at arches built on ‘Atchala’ style of Bengal and paintings thereon adopting ‘Potua’ style of Kalighat, Uday felt that Poddars must have brought artists from Bengal for ornamentation of the temple. I tended to agree. This, however, was vehemently contested by our guide who informed that everything was made and painted as per ‘Jaipur Gharana’.
We left the temple complex leaving the debate on the experts and connoisseurs of the Art. Next was the ‘Shiva Temple’ which was the oldest temple in Mahansar, built around 1839 A.D. Adjacent to the Shiva Temple was a plain building, except for its delicate white marble balusters on its upper storey. The door of the building was closed and from the obnoxious signboard hanging outside, it seemed to be a nonfunctional ‘Marwari Dharamsala’. By now we were about to leave the place when our guide opened the lock of the door and called us inside. We stepped inside and by some divine reflex action looked at left, right and above and then froze. It was stunning, stupefying! The guide by that time announced that this place was known as ‘Sone ki Dukan’, the Golden shop. He need not have announced that! It could not have been anything else! Or at best it could be rechristened as ‘Sone ki Khazana’. The walls were covered with fine floral designs, bowls of fruits and religious texts in golden leaf. The gold was liberally used in the decoration! But the true surprise lied in the intricate works on its vaulted ceilings. It had three vaulted ceilings; scenes from the Ramayana were painted on the left one, twenty four incarnations of Vishnu on the centre, and episodes from the life of Krishna on the right one. It profusely incorporated gold leaf in its intricate paintings all over. The use of gold, particularly in depicting ‘Swarna Lanka’ on the left side in Ramayana story was simply incredible. It is a national shame that a part of the painting of ‘Swarna Lanka’ got spoiled due to seepage from the roof! We were told by the guide that this place was the ‘Baithak’ or head quarters of Poddars where they brought their clients for business deals. The inside of the building was used as godowns for cotton, opium etc. After the Poddars lost two uninsured ship loads of opium on the high sea, their business plummeted and this place lost its sheen. We checked the visitors book kept in the Golden Shop and found names of tourists from all across the globe but very few from within India! The poor awareness inside India and the pathetic upkeep was truly unfortunate. We left the ‘Dukan’ with an enchanted mind but a heavy heart.
Our guide tried to cheer us up by informing that the next haveli, known as ‘dancing hall’, are preferred more than the Sone ki dukan by the locals. The patriarch of the Mascara family, now settled in Calcutta, was a great lover of dance and drama. He gifted this entire dance hall to his son on the occasion of his marriage. The hay days of the family being over, the haveli now mostly remain locked. Once inside, we were faced with a number of 20th century paintings from European school and a variety of exquisite and precious chandeliers. The place has seemingly weathered many a winter but still retained some uncanny aristocracy. It was like meeting a mystic woman who has retained her charm despite mothering a number of children. Finally from the dancing hall to the caravan sarai. It was built on the edge of the town. There was a large courtyard with an attached one storied building containing cell like rooms for travelling merchants. The central feature of the courtyard was a huge tree and a well to provide shade and water for the camels and oxen. The whole look of the complex conjures visions of deserts with long caravans of camels, bullock carts laden with merchandise and traders walking along side.
January is the month of mating for camels hence Thakur sahab advised us against taking a direct camel ride. Instead he suggested the use of a camel cart. A cart, dressed with ‘gadda’ and ‘takias’, was attached to a camel and all six of us went to see the sun set amidst the desert after being comfortably seated on the cart. Leaving the small town and keeping the caravan sarai at our back the camel cart slowly gradually entered the desert. We were moving across a sandy terrain covered with dry scorched grass, shrubs and occasional cactus. Earlier no educated Bengali could conjure about desert without thinking of Bedouins, now perhaps it has been substituted by the thought of Satyajit Ray’s’ Sonar Kella’, particularly the inimitable ‘Jatayu’. After covering some distance we were in search of a suitable sand dune, high enough to settle down and experience the sun set without any obstacle. At that very moment our hidden thirst for Sonar Kella was somewhat quenched by the sight of a long passing train across the vast sandy terrain far away. Finally we were on the top of a huge sand dune waiting for the glowing sun to come down to earth. A lonely, undernourished sunflower on the sand dune also joined the event. Rays of molten gold from the sun slowly started getting dispersed among sands spread along the earth. Suddenly the sound of a ring tone brought me back to the mundane world. Rit, my son from Goa. He wanted to share his experience of that moment. The moment of setting sun on the Arabian Sea across Calangute beach. The same sun was in front of me! Few moments of life bring oneness so glaringly in the open. We shared our experiences.
Nightfall in the Fort was sharp and direct. The silence was all around. The place seemed to have been transported to another world. The dinner was short but fulfilling. We dispersed to respective rooms soon to rest our tired limbs. Back on our room at the top of the fort and looking at two hundred fifty years old stone walls and alleys all around, we felt like put on a time machine to live back in the middle Ages. Matun’s only concern was that the distance between our room and the other with Uday was so great that not within the hearing range of each other! We thought that tiredness would certainly be a willing accomplice of sleep. But the reality was different. All of a sudden out of all things, the report of Col.Locket occurred in Matun’s mind and she started to wonder about the consequences of meeting some descendants of brigands and robbers whom the iron hands of Major Forster could not reform! My consolations sounded hollow in my own ears! Time ticked away punctuated only by occasional yowls of a lonely dog far away.
Next morning, perched on the top of the tallest tower with a cup of warm tea I could not help but laugh at last nights’ thoughts. With breathtaking views of deserts in the front and loudspeakers blaring out….’mera desh ka mitti sona ugle, ugle hira moti’ from the back alleys of the town it was very much in the 21st century with another Republic day around!
I owe a postface to my readers. Mandawa being centrally located within Sekhawati, tourists traditionally start their visits from there which we by passed. This was more an accident than an incident . May be our next exploration of scores of other fabulous forts and havelis in Sekhawati would start from the Castle Mandawa!
Photos by : UDAYADITTYA SHOME