kunzum travel mag - september 2012

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This is the 10th edition of the monthly Kunzum Travel Mag dated September 2012. Full of stories illustrated with images from India and neighbouring countries. Covers wildlife, cities, train rides, tribes, cultures, religion, books, photography, hotel reviews and more.


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  • About ShekhawatiShekhawati is a region comprising many towns and villages, and it is not always easy to keep track of all their names and respective attractions. The best way to navigate around is to stay at just one or two towns of your liking, and drive around during the day to other places. Shekhawati roughly spans the three districts of Churu, Jhunjhunu and Sikar.

    Rao Shekha, belonging to the Kachhwaha clan of Rajputs, conquered a considerable territory in the 15th century that came to be called Shek-hawati; his heirs were known as Shekhawats. Shekhawati lay entirely east of the Aravalli ridge, but the rulers extended their holdings both north and west in the 18th century. It was subsequently absorbed into the Jaipur state.

    Marwari RichesIf you see the dry arid landscape of Shekhawati, and commerce limited to small time trading and subsistence agriculture, the once-opulent havelis or mansions seem out of place. They were all built by Marwaris, a rich business community, with roots in this region, who made their wealth in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Mumbai (formerly Bombay) initially, spreading their footprint in the rest of the country and international-ly over time. This small region has given some of the most illustrious of business families in India known by famous surnames like Birla, Goenka, Ruia, Poddar, Bajaj, Dalmia, Kedia, Khaitan and Jhunjhunuwala. Those who did well came back to build havelis, baolis (stepwells), chhatris (cen-otaphs), temples, dharamsalas (rest houses) and even educational institutions and hospitals. These were funded both out of a sense of public service and to show their stature amongst their community. Many of them continue to own these ancestral properties, most not caring if these go to seed and thus destroying irreplaceable artistic heritage.

    An image of Hindu God Shani, son of the Sun God Surya and his wife Chhaya. Shani plays an important role in astrological charts, and Saturday is called Shanivaar in Hindi. The temple in Ramgarh dedicated to Shani was built in 1840 by Gurudayal Gangabaksh Khemka but the murals may belong to a later date.

  • Shekhawatis ruling class, the Thakurs, came into wealth by charging levies on trading caravans; in return, they offered protec-

    tion to businessmen from brigands. The route through Shekhawati was well suited to traders plying between the ports of the

    western Indian state of Gujarat and Delhi. Some of the important trading items included rice, cotton, wheat, sugar, opium, wool

    and textiles including Kashmiri shawls. On asmaller scale, business was conducted in silk, hemp, coffee, tin, camphor, spices and

    elephants teeth besides others. Revenues from this source came in easy, especially in the 18th and the early 19th centuries, as

    Shekhawati sensibly charged lower levies compared to the competing neighbouring states of Jaipur and Bikaner. But this easy

    source of revenue was mostly lost when Jaipur was persuaded by the British to lower their levies.

    Metal plates looking like glass in the Shani temple in Ramgarh; notice the buildings reflected in the same.

    A statue of Hindu God Shiva in the Ganga temple in Ramgarh built by Ramchandra Shivdutt Poddar in 1845. It is a rare case ofShiva being depicted like this; He is usually shown in the form of a Shivalinga, a cylindrical pillar with a rounded top. The temple is well decorated with frescos on both its outer and inside walls.

  • The Painted Havelis

    Shekhawatis golden period for new and opulent buildings started in the 1830s and continued well into the following century as the rich business community invested in both public and private projects in their homeland. While the ruling Rajput class focused on building fortifications and palaces to protect their kingdoms, the bania business community splurged on lavish havelis and temples - the investment in the latter by the seths or businessmen was primarily to leave behind something in their names.

    The full name of this over 200 years old temple and haveli in Nawalgarh is Jagatnath Dwarka Dhisji Mandir Gher ka Mandir (Mandir means temple). By this time, architecture had evolved to include cenotaphs or chhatris and arches.

    A well in Ramgarh. Water being a scarce commodity in the desert state of Rajasthan, wells in Shekhawati tended to be elaborate structures on platforms with two or four pillars around the well-head, sometimes with pyramidical or domed chhatris (literally means umbrellas) at the corners. All these were usually painted but this was lost due to exposure to the elements.

  • Over time, architecture moved from a defensive mindset to the palatial, with a focus on appearance. Between the 1830s and the 1920s, carved wooden elements became fashionable before going out of favour. These included wooden ceilings with polished plaques of metal giving the impression of glasswork, and ornate windows and doorways. Sadly, many of these have been ripped apart by those looking for a quick buck in the antiques market. The havelis began to boast artistic figurative work on its external walls, giving the region a look of an open-air art museum. Before this, such painting was limited mostly to the inner rooms. These frescos and murals were painted by skilled artists from Jaipur or by the masons themselves who learned the art without any formal training. The themes depicted popular stories and events and developments of the day.

    Despite the neglect, it is these investments that have fueled a tourism boom in the region. You can see a few and feel you have had enough. Or you can go on for days, or even weeks, going through the maze of streets and back lanes of the towns of Shekhawati observing and studying the painted havelis of Shekhawati before they disappear altogether.

    Imagery on a wall inside one of the rooms in a haveli in Mandawa.

  • Frescos depicting a train in Ramgarh.

    The walls are crumbling in this building in Ramgarh but a part of the frescos have not yet lost their colour.

    Restoring the art of oldThe Indian law has provisions to protect monuments, there are none for civil

    architecture resulting in the decline of havelis of Shekhawati. Only a handful are being preserved and restored by their respective owners or any trusts who may have taken over the management of these old buildings. Some of those in good

    shape are the ones converted into eateries, museums and hotels - like the Haveli Nadine Prince in Fatehpur bought and restored by French artist Nadine Le Prince.

    It serves as a gallery, museum and an exchange centre and residency for art students.

  • A wall painting depicting Hindu God Krishna playing the festival of colour, Holi, inside the Shani temple in tt. Many buildings have a series of artworks depicting a story from history or from epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana.

    A haveli built in 1900 by Seth Jairam Das Morarka in Nawalgarh has been carefully repaired and restored to much of its original state under the careful supervision of Dr. Basandani Hotchand. The buildings walls and ceilings were largely damaged, full of cracks and holes. The walls had been turning black, and woodwork being eaten away by termites. It was painstaking and expensive work taking years; the process also involved training workers in the art of fresco painting where artists apply vegetable dyes over wet plaster. This technique enables artworks to last

    hundreds of years if taken care of.

    By some estimates, only 10 percent of the original havelis are expected to be restored; others are slowly crumbling away.

  • Inside the restored Morarka haveli in Nawalgarh

    A chakki on display in the museum at Morarka haveli in Nawalgarh. Traditionally, Indian households would have these hand operated stone mills to grind wheat into flour.

    A time to shop for antiques, and moreHere is a little kept secret of Shekhawati: the havelis are a storehouse of stuff,

    some of it as old as the buildings themselves. These include furniture, garments, decorations, lanterns, family photos, picture frames, candle stands and more. You have to ask around to get a peek in; dont be fooled by new stuff rubbed and polished to look like old. Negotiate right, and you could pick up bargains.

    They may not really fetch much in the antiques mar