From the ramparts of the fort, a heritage hotel today, Churi Ajitgarh looked like a movie set. A period epic involving wealthy people who loved art and the good life and, just like a lot of wealthy people, given to self-aggrandisement. They were merchants who travelled far and wide and brought back with them architectural and aesthetic flourishes from Europe and the rest of the country. Around me were the grand havelis they built incorporating their newfound sensibilities, each trying to outdo the other with Italian marbles and Belgian mirrors, Venetian statues and sometimes kitschy renditions of rococo design. The wives turned out in gold-brocaded saris and the finest gemstone jewellery, broods were plentiful and their garages housed Rolls-Royces, Morrises and Impalas.
But like many classics this golden era too was ill-fated. The king-sized building and living were bound to last just a little over a century before the vagaries of commerce dealt a crushing blow forcing their abandonment and eventual falling into desolation and disrepair. What remains today are lofty-walled courtyards, driveways employed as wattle stockyards, raided niches, crumbling corbels and nooks filched even of trumpery. Instead of liveried docents who frittered about there was one withered old peasant who shook a staff in response to all my queries.
The story doesn’t end here. A few kilometres away in Mandawa Mishra has displayed ancient watches, snuff boxes, single mould brass daggers, semi-precious trinkets and old, odd-shaped coins inside his shop; the bigger ones like the remains of charkha, a still-plangent chandelier and faded picture frames are arranged by the side of the road itself.
“The havelis are falling, they won’t be there tomorrow.” He told me. And added helpfully “But we have collected these from them so you can take with you a part of the heritage.” This was better in a way – on an earlier visit to Churu 45 km away I had met someone who was selling stuff salvaged from the haveli right in the haveli itself.
While many blockbusters like Bajrangi Bhaijaan, PK and Paheli have been shot here and this threnody through time might read like a movie script, this is the real story of the Shekhawati region in northeast Rajasthan. This arid region covers around 14,000 square kilometres and includes, besides Churi Ajitgarh and Mandawa, Sikar, Fatehpur, Jhunjhunu, Nagaur and Churu. These little historic townships teem with havelis, mansions, built by the Marwaris, a merchant class, between 1830 and 1930 approximately. The eclectic stuccos on the spandrels, bright-hued frescoes depicting scenes from the Epics, folklores and daily life, the grandly ornate cenotaphs have accorded Shekhawati the touristy but largely true epithet of ‘the largest art gallery in the world’.
Exit to Sikar
Delhi to Jaipur via NH8, though among the busiest in the country, was a breeze on the weekend morning – I did the 270 km in under three hours. As dawn broke misty mustard fields and tarpaulined national permit trucks parked in huddled clusters blurred past me. The welcome sign marking your entry into the city – a mammoth stone slab with ‘Jaipur’ in bold with white embroidery and cut-out windows inspired by the Hawa Mahal on top – is a let-down considering the city’s immense historicity and later comparing with the more imposing magenta-orange sandstone pillars which announces your entry into Jhunjhunu district (pic). At 8:30 AM it was rush hour but strangely none of the shops were open. Traffic flowed in and out of the Sanganeri and other Old City gates, the Paanch Batti junction on the MI Road was a beehive of activity. Raj Mandir, the only cinema hall listed as a tourist attraction – however one does that – stood like an overdressed granny.
Returning to Delhi the next day we decided on a scenic detour – through Shekhawati – longer by a little over a hundred kilometres. The exit was to Sikar along the Agra-Bikaner highway; Reengus, which sounded like a skin infection, was another major town on the way. Except for ginormous structures in glass that might have been large fish tanks but actually some discarded or dysfunctional educational institution there is nothing else on the 110 km to Sikar. Probably it’s the lack of rains or a great government or both, the roads of Rajasthan are generally makhan-like. (I know I keep repeating this usage in my blog posts but I always dreamt of being a truck driver.) Enjoy while it lasts – it curdles into frequent humps and plain bad roads once you enter Haryana; probably rains or a lack of a great government. Or both.
The modest but thoughtful sandstone pillars marking your arrival into Jhunjhunu district does a fine job of making you go ‘ah, I can smell heritage in the air.’ Soon enough signboards announce Nawalgarh, Dundlod and Badalgarh – but removed from the road. Nawalgarh is ensconced within four loamy walls and the Nawalgarh Fort or the Bala Qila today houses a handful of banks – almost like all of them have tapped sub rosa into the same kingly treasury. Many of the havelis including Dundlod are heritage hotels today. The Badalgarh Fort is stark and spartan with none of the aesthetic relishes generally attributed to forts like imposing citadels, ornate facades or opulent pavilions. It is still on a steep escarpment with protective bastions – the fort was exclusively used to board and lodge warhorses and camels. Right, not too many frescos here. Some camels roamed around throwing an occasional forlorn gaze towards the fort. ‘We keep wanting to save those who are forlorn in this world,’ says Michael Ondaatje in The Cat’s Table. He says it is a male habit. Well, however rebarbative, I had this earnest desire to hug one or two.
Whether we notice it or not, one of the best things that happens to us on the road is we break most of the barriers that otherwise surround us in the safe carapaces of our urban lives. An open eye is the way to an open mind. I saw this youngster ploughing an arid plot of land with a camel; he stopped work and smiled at me. I smiled back. I was genuinely happy: in a faraway barren wasteland, in the midst of nowhere, two perfect strangers made a connection. Further on in a roadside shack hung knotted black tassels like a heroine’s false hair. These are tied to the rear view mirrors by truck drivers to ward off evil eye. There were golden ones too, like epaulettes, but these were more decorative than kick ass. The seller knew very well that a purchase wouldn’t be forthcoming, still launched into a narrative of its many uses. The drivers use them to dole up and protect their trucks which they regard and love as their ‘doosra biwi’ or second wives. I fell in love with him – I believed then I would forego a Mjolnir for one of these. Anyway it made me think: those we dismiss as yobos – hanging around puncture and cigarette shops and pushcart eateries in the cities – are probably so because they are far away from home?
About 18 km short of Jhunjhunu town I turned left for Mandawa; you can access Mandawa closer to Jhunjhunu as well through wider, better roads but this route fits the desert diorama better. It was a band aid strip of tar passing off for a road, fighting a losing battle with the encroaching, encircling desert. Every gust of simoom, or ‘loo’ as it is known in these parts, brought it one step closer to doom. As it did the milestones. A couple of camels gambolling about the road nibbling at the spiny canopy over it eyed us carefully. One decided to make a lolloping spring into the distance while the other sauntered close. I couldn’t figure which was the scatterbrain of the two. Tuk tuks bound by shiny metal framework with ornate knobs and whole plastic flower gardens on top juddered along like chariots of a Chinese Cinderella.
Mandawa is a polite little town, quiet too. Then horns don’t mean much when there is a camel cart ahead of you. Or you are driving one yourself. Little shops selling grocery and gilt-edged saris, English medicines and leather jootis line both sides of the road. This is serious haveli-land – the school and college are housed in havelis, even the main road passes through what looks like one. This is the Sonthalia Gate – an arched passage above which there are three floors with elaborate frieze work and jharokhas. Just before the Gate is the Mandawa Haveli, a heritage hotel with freshly painted frescos and an enervated watchman. Another attraction, the Akhram ka Haveli, comes soon after the Gate.
Mishra’s shop lies further ahead like a Marwari garage sale.
The havelis are falling…
The ‘Mandawa Manoeuvre’: The trick, I learnt, was to create an impression of veering away. This they achieved by sticking to a straight path at high speeds which, along the narrow lane, made them appear to be hurtling towards me. I would swerve and jounce over ragged shoulders while they scurried past nary a wheel off the edge. It was difficult to subdue the initial disbelief that borders on the belligerent. But once I accomplished that I set about tutoring myself on this crafty art. Now we both approached each other unwavering, swerving at the last instant. What fun.