PRINCIPALLY, THERE are three major forms of building activity noticeable in the
Shekhawati region, the Rajput fort, the Marwari haveli, and the temple. Add to this the well, the chhatri and the sarai, and the list is well nigh complete. Because of the nature of its early settlers and their reluctance to set roots, there is little by way of buildings that predates the 17th century, and of this period too, there
few mosques built by the Kayamkhani nawabs, the ruins of the Badalgarh fort in Jhunjhunu, and some ruins in Fatehpur. The major part of the surviving buildings are remnants from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.
The early forts were fortified settlements, each depending on the size of the thikana and the resources of the local thakur. But in shape it was usually a rectangle with high bastions and a single impressive gate for entry of the chieftain atop his elephant. This gate, of wood with iron spikes, was also a defensive barrier. Later, forts tended to have rounded buttresses for protection against artillery. Within the high walls of the fort would be stables, barracks for the troops to bed down in, large, empty spaces where they could pitch tents at times of battle, and the
apartments of the thakur. The early forts tended to be extremely functional, but those that were decorated, mostly in floral patterns, and with religious, mythical images.
While the Shekhawat Rajputs went about their task of holding their thikanas and consolidating their holdings, the merchants were involved more with financial matters. Known as the Marwaris, it is perhaps no coincidence that the families associated with industry trace their lineage here : the Dalmias, Birlas, Poddars, Goenkas, Khaitans, Singhanias, Jhunjhunwalas, Kedias, Neotias, Biyanis, among others. Great
philanthropists, these families no longer live in
Shekawati, having migrated decades ago, but many have kept their ancestral homes, and return every now and then to commission schools, hospitals and other institutions in the towns of their ancestry.
The first traders who went out on campaigns with the rulers came from Jodhpur, then known as Marwar. Their responsibility was to keep the royal armies supplied with clothes, uniforms,
food grains and other necessities. But being businessmen with a sharp acumen, they also exploited the trading opportunity in carrying with them what was available in Marwar, and bringing back from the region of their campaigns, goods hitherto not found in Rajasthan. Soon, however, the merchants from the Shekhawati region overtook in scope their counterparts from Marwar, but continued to be
known as the Marwaris, a term that still denotes their community
In those early years, the Marwaris seldom ventured out except on campaigns with their kings. With diminished Mughal power, however, and a greater British control over administration, the Marwaris ventured from their homelands for the first time, to settle in alien towns. In part this was also prompted by the closing of the Gujarat ports, since the British had commissioned and controlled harbours at Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. A nation of shopkeepers, the British also saw the importance of the merchant in their affairs, and encouraged them to come and settle in the new cities they controlled.
Since the British offered securities, the trader left his family back home to come and settle in the cities. With his familiarity with the Indian system of trading, he was soon able to set up a network for the British, thus gaining them access to the local market for raw materials required for their industry.
Their new-found wealth found its way back to the towns of their origin, and to their families. This was the period of the greater building in the region. The Rajput thakurs and rajas had fortified residences from where they controlled impressive cavalry. Now, sadly, those days had come to pass. The merchant no longer needed to pay obeisance to his Rajput protector. Therefore, he embarked on an impressive scale of building. In part, this may have had to do with the guilt he felt, at leaving behind his family. For their comfort, therefore, and to establish his new financial status, he ordered the building of havelis on an impressive scale.
No cost was spared. Though the haveli is an essentially north Indian concept, and the Persian term implies
an 'enclosed space', in the race to also borrowed elements of Indo-Saracenic architecture that was making its presence felt in the principal British settlements. Which is why it is possible to find a building that shows the influence of England, or Italy, in its fa�ade.
This inspiration, however, remained limited to the fa�ade and the structure. The haveli, inside, may have had two chowks instead of one, or even four courtyards instead of two, but the layout and planning of the rooms did not change beyond a point, and the rooms themselves remained small.
What did change, however, was the decorative quality of work of the walls of these havelis. Decorative frescos had always been a facet employed by people in the region, but the work was usually modest, limited to small areas of the haveli, and in the muted colours of natural pigments prevalent in that period. Later frescos were more extravagant, both in the scale of their decoration, in the space they occupied, and in the colours they used, particularly the brilliant blues which were then all the rage in Europe.
The entrance to a haveli is usually through a large gate which has a smaller door cut into it for the frequent passage of people. Thus entered, a forecourt led to the baithak and the men's
working section of the haveli as well as nora which was the pen where the cattle, camel and live-stock were barricaded.
A haveli is not merely an 'enclosed space'; it is, in fact, a way of living, ordained, in part, by the architecture of the mansion. Principally, a haveli is a large residence built around a central well, and the courtyard. Here, the women of the large joint family that occupied the haveli, would busy themselves with tasks of running the house. The courtyard, known as a chowk, was surrounded by rooms on all sides, running from two to five storeys high.
The baithak, was the men's room where they, in turn, went about their work. Here they met visitors, ran office and spent the major part of the day. The baithak was the most impressive room in a haveli. As in the rest of the house, however, there was no furniture, for the merchants spread mattresses on the floor, and draped them with white sheets, using bolsters for support. The baithak would be surrounded by low-roofed chambers from where service to the men in the baithak was provided, and from the screened windows of which, the women of the house could look out to observe meetings of importance, festivities and celebrations.
Away from the baithak, forming a separate wing, or, in fact, a quadrangle, would be the main section of the haveli. Set into its centre would be the chowk or the courtyard. This would contain the well, ample
space to roll our papads, bottle pickles, dye clothes, or any of the many tasks undertaken by the women of the household. Since residents of a haveli consisted of a very large joint family, different segments did their own cooking, along fire-lit stoves set along different parts of the courtyard walls. Water for drinking was cooled in earthen pots kept in the parinda, a room with pierced screens to let in the breeze. Bedrooms were located around the courtyard, and on floor a room with pierced screens to let in the breeze. Bedrooms were located around the courtyard, and on floor levels that kept getting higher as the size of the family increased. The rooms were small, with smaller windows opening out on to the streets. Those on the highest floor often had bedrooms that were roofless, moonlit rooms that were called the chandini where a couple could sleep cooled by the nigh breeze, as they looked out on the
star above. For the women, this was probably the only contact they would have with the world outside, for the haveli was like a self-sustained community. Certainly, it provided no reason for the women to venture out. A bedroom was usually a suite of rooms, since there would be low-roofed chambers for the storage of one's clothing, woollens and the like, as well as terraces to sit out in with a degree of privacy.
Havelis were often given to excesses. Size was important, and the larger, more impressive a haveli, the greater its owner's presumed wealth. For, a new nouveau riche class had been given birth with the arrival of the British. Prior to this, in the service of their kings, the merchants had led a more modest life. The kings provided them shelter and security, the merchants in turn loaned them money for their campaigns, and for the task of kingdom building. They also made sure that they did not lead ostentatious lives, something that might well have earned them the wrath of their rulers.
The British, as a state, were perhaps more tolerant, and the Marwari wanted to re-negotiate the position of their trade. Which perhaps is why, when Seth Duli Chand invited the British Resident Commissioner to his haveli in Chirawa, tea was prepared by burning a fire of currency notes. All in the hope of preparing a richer cup of tea, no doubt!
The first temples were simple, mere shrines where idols would be placed, with the north Indian shikhara or spire above. It was the changed fortunes of the Marwaris that converted these simple temples to rather more ornate ones. Once the merchant had built himself an impressive residence, he deemed it necessary to contribute to appeasing the gods. Shekhawati's characteristic temples date to the 19th century and consist of a basement upon which the entire structure is raised. The temple too featured a courtyard, with rooms on either side that were called tibaris on account of the entrance through triple arches (similar to those in many havelis). The main shrine consisted of an impressive structure that was flat roofed, and featured a series of ornamental domes and arches. A flight of steps leading to the shrine lent it a grandeur. Towards the end of the century, these temples became as decorative as the havelis, and some of them were adorned with mirrors, as well as lithographs and oleographs of English ladies that, viewed today and out of context, appear incongruous with the idols and images of Indian gods and goddesses.
The monkey god, Hanuman is the guardian of the wells, and these, understandably in a desert, are major features. To mark a well for
travellers, two or four pillars topped by domes would be raised. Since the water table is very low, water would be brought up by skins pulled by ropes that would be attached to oxen, or even camels. The skin would be emptied into runnels from where it would be collected by the people in pots. Any extra water would run down into reservoirs on the sides where it would be used for bathing, or by thirsty livestock. On occasion, a room might be added to the wells for travellers to camp in . Usually, it was the facades of the well that were decorated in later times.
Chhatris were commemorative memorials raised by the merchants, dedicated to their ancestors or to themselves. Essentially the chhatri is a simple dome set atop pillars that stands on a rectangular terrace approached by a flight of steps. The larger chhatris, built on the edge of the town, were meeting places for the men folk, who would gather here to catch up on news, smoke, or play chaupar, a game akin to chequers and chess.
The sarai was the least ostentatious among Shekhawati's dwellings, but among its most necessary. For, this was occupied
by the caravans passing through on their overland trading route. It was usually a single-storied structure manned by a high gate courtyard
providing shelter for the pass. A large tree or trees in the courtyard provided shelter for the travellers. The sarai was the least decorated, the haveli the most so.
By Kishore Singh from the book
"Shekhawati", Published by Cross Section
Publications Pvt. Ltd.