Shekhawati was turning its course very fast. Gradually the old memories were fading. Traditional wisdom was giving way to beliefs followed by the new world. Beautifully painted havelis had fallen vacant and were decaying. One-by-one, they were in the process of being demolished. Their present owners had opted for replacing the heritage mansions with the multi-storied residential buildings or market-complexes. What should we call the kind of tourism when we see a dying city in the state of neglect and destruction? How to react when it is observed that the modern establishments gradually take over the old one and completely get rid of them them with total disrespect to the architectural marvels that had earlier brought the area its fame around the world? That question reflected my sentiment when I saw historical buildings dying slow death in the city of Ramgarh in Shekhawati.
It so happened that from Fatehpur (Shekhawati), we wanted to go to the city of Churu (Shekhawati). It was situated at a distance of approximately 40 kilometers. After crossing the “Shree Do Janti Bala Ji Dham” temple at the outskirts of Fatehpur, we took off on a two-lane tarred-National Highway 65 that was going to Churu. There was no traffic at all. The route traversed through vast open spaces interspersed with human settlements. At some places, there were stretches of sand at both sides of the road. Many people at those sites were involved in mining away dumps of sands. They were working with machines and dumpers. I was sure that with the accelerated rate of sand mining the ecological imbalance in the region would soon be a reality.
Anyway, the moderate drive brought us near the city of Ramgarh. There a small village road branched off to the right of the Fatehpur-Churu highway. I still do not know how I wandered into that city. It was not included in our itinerary. As an afterthought, my presence in that city might only be attributed to the hands of destiny, which would have brought me there to see the damages done to those beautiful mansions and be able to write about the fate of crumbling Shekhawati.
Since I did not have any fixed destination planned for Ramgarh, I parked my car at an open space. Leaving my family inside the car, I ventured into the old city area, where hundreds of small and big fresco painted buildings became visible. Almost all the buildings were decaying including those where people were still residing. Standing there, I felt quite saddened. Why such treasure was allowed to die a slow death? Why people are unable to maintain them?
It is said that absence of skilled laborers or artists, who can repair those walls and its paintings, might be one of the prime reasons for lack of maintenance. It was really very strange. Generally supply sets in, when the demand of certain product or services grow. But, there it was not happening. It seems that local young people were not learning their traditional art-forms and method of constructions. The skill set has been lost. The absence of skill set may be the first true reason for the crumbling Shekhawati.
Some of the buildings were decaying at their bases. Huge cost was required to strengthen such building so that they remained stable for a longer period. Generally, people did not incur heavy expenditure on those buildings. Their actual owners did not live there. They lived in plush bunglows or expensive flats in some metropolitan cities across the globe. Thus, lack of expenditure on maintaining the buildings might be the second true reason for the crumbling Shekhawati.
During my wandering in the alleys of the old city, I came across a new construction site also. There, the old haveli had been demolished and the ground was dug for the new construction. I felt the pain for the dead building and could not resist asking the contractor about the price of the old building. The matter-of-fact gentleman elaborated the prices fetched by the windows, rubbles and other building materials that the old dead building had left behind. He was accurate in his calculations. But, did he calculate the value of a heritage that was lost forever? Imagine a Shekhawati after another 50 years. Will it then be able to be termed as “Open Art gallery”?
I was stunned and did not want to stay there anymore. While returning to my car, however, I came across another old monument. It was Poddar’s cenotaph. It was subject to encroachment. One gentleman was running his cow-stable from its premises. Interestingly, the gentleman introduced himself as a crusader who is fighting for retaining the identity of the region. Soon, the gentleman started showing off. He started telling about his contacts, about the actions initiated by him, about the history of the regions etc. Very soon, I realized that I have stumbled upon a vociferous bugger. At last, I thanked him when he led me to a nearby site where two women had performed sati.
The actual site was marked by two equal-sized chhatris. A temple was also constructed at the site. I wanted to enquire about those women to know more about their history. But, the gate was closed. I kept looking for someone who could open the gates and led me in. No one was seen there. Ironical though it might seem, but at that very time, my wife called me and requested me to join them and proceed to the next city as they were getting bored sitting in the car. Understanding their plight and requests, which matched with my sad state of mind, I swiftly sped away from Ramgarh and came to the Churu Highway.
As luck would have it, at the highway, I stopped in front of a dhoti-clad villager for seeking directions of Churu. Instead, he asked me whether I had seen the city of Mehansar. It was situated nearby and was famous for its haveli painted with gold-plated paints. As it generally happens, the gold goes well with ladies. Moreover, I was already having a day full of diversions. So, instead of going to Churu, we decided to take the route towards the city of Mehansar. The route to Mehansar went through the Ramgarh Brahman Panchayat sabha gate.
Once the congestion at the market was over, the single road opened up to the vast countryside. Mainly, it was filled with dry grass and sturdy shrubs. We continued for about 10 kilometers without confirming the route from anyone. There were no sign-posts till we reached the outskirts of the city. There a temple, adorned with colourful flags, welcomed the visitors. Still, we did not stop there and proceeded towards the Mehansar fort. Due to the rains last night all the streets in the city were water-logged and were full of slush. Amidst fear of an unknown manhole, we crossed those dirty streets. After reaching at the fort, we realized that it was not situated on the high hills as we had initially thought. On the other hands, it was just inside the city within its walled perimeter. After crossing the outer spiked gate, we entered into the open ground.
The fort had been converted into a heritage hotel. The “Narayan Niwas castle” was also there. It was also a heritage hotel. The manager saw us and he requested us to come inside for a cup of tea. As we were exhausted from the journey events of the day, the tea offer seemed quite tempting. It might have also given us the opportunity to see the usual fineries associated with such hotels. But, we were not interested in that. Actually, searching for that place and enjoying the route was the pleasure in itself.
Moreover, the golden chamber was there to be seen. A shopkeeper, at the entrance of the city, had informed us about its location. He had also advised to look for a shop at the Raghunath temple, where the keys of the golden chamber has been kept by the owners. On requests by the tourist, the locks are opened by the caretaker. Following his advice, we went to that shop and requested for the key of the golden chamber so that we could go inside. The key-in-charge handed over the key to a priest, who was sitting in his shop and requested him to accompany us to the golden chamber.
It was situated in the ground floor of the mansion, recently named as “Poddar’s Guest House”. Though the building was quite old, the guest house was established in the year 1994. It might be possible that the owner-family had tried to establish some residential facility at their original hereditary place. Anyway, as per the arrangements, we entered into the chamber.
There were floral motifs and scenes from the stories from Hindu mythology. The fresco with gold plated colour was mainly done on the outlines of the sketches. On the few plates, shlokas from Hindu scriptures were written with the gold plated ink/colour. The priest started explaining the themes on the pictures painted on the walls. Lord Krishna appeared to be the most favourite deity there.
There were two most remarkable plates in the Shekhwati styles. In one of the plates, ten women were shown to form a palki on which Lord Krishna was travelling. In the second plate, five women had formed a horse on which Lord Krishna was riding.
The ceiling of the chamber was, however, the most exquisite, elaborately colourful and grand. It was really a treat to watch. The craftsmanship was worth appreciating in all senses. It was the most beautiful thing of the day that we saw. It helped us in uplifting our otherwise gloomy mood that had engulfed us after seeing the crumbling side of the Shekhawati region throughout that day so far. Appreciating the artwork and the artistry displayed in the chamber, we recorded our observations in the visitors’ diary kept on a table. It was full of appreciation notes written by visitors from all parts of the world.
Meanwhile, the priest declined to take any money/fee for the services rendered by him. According to him, more number of tourists should come to see that place and that would do justice to the area. We were impressed by his views so we followed him to his temple. It was a huge temple dedicated to Lord Ragunath, built by Poddar’s family in the year 1905. The outer walls of the temple had beautiful frescos. A flight of steps took us to the first floor, where the main temple was situated.
In the courtyard of the upper floor, there was a temple painted in the white colour. The paint was fresh giving the indication that it was recently renovated. Soon, we saw that many of the columns were also painted in plain white giving them a new look. However, some columns with their beautiful fresco painted walls were also there. The story was clear. In the name of renovation, all the columns and the walls of the inner courtyard were going to be painted with white/cream enamel.
Sad again in my heart, I asked the priest about the authority that approved such acts in the name of renovation. He plainly said that in such a day-to-day affair, he ran the writ. I sulked within myself and thought, ‘If that being so, then only God can save the Shekhawati”. It seems that the new generation has not understood the importance and value of the heritage left behind by the older generations. There is a Hindi proverb that aptly fits into the situation, “Saasu ka odhna, patohu ka nakpochhna”.
Sadly, we came out of Mehansar and reached at the Churu Highway and thought to take another shot at Churu, which was only 12 kilometers away. But, after seeing the crumbling Shekhawati on that day, I had left with no more enthusiasm. So, we decided to return to RTDC, Fatehpur where we had put up. I still remember the severe headache that I carried to Fatehpur that incapacitated me for the rest of the day. Anyway, as it always happens, tomorrow becomes yet another day.