Shekhawati: India’s Open Art Gallery

I know I am not admiring at Mona Lisa at the Louvre or wandering on the streets of Met; but there is something tantalizing in these streets which is making me do the comparison. It is not Sistine Chapel or any art museum of Paris, but it is surely an open art gallery. It is not a mural on the wall but a mansion full of them and a village full of such mansions. Tucked away in northern Rajasthan, in the districts of Churu and Jhunjhunu, is this outdoor art gallery or the Shekhawati region. Shekhawati was once a cradle of India’s richest families who built these grand havelis and decorated them with frescos of such jaw dropping ideas and details. Though the Marwari diaspora has now dispersed across India, their marvels remain in Shekhawati awaiting discovery.

haveli_nawalgarh

Shekhawati still breathes in its finest painted traditions. The rich Marwari families brought some of the finest European and Indian artists together to bring alive their walls. These walls were enlivened with artistic retellings of Indian epics and fables, murals of locomotives to depict a rail journey for citizens, Europeans in a horse carriage or taking off in a hot air balloon, trade treaties between Indian rulers and French and British merchants, playful depictions of Radha and Krishna, Rajasthani love story of Dhola-Maru and even scenes from Kamasutra. In these havelis, through baithaks or sitting room, ornate silver hookahs, Belgian glass chandeliers, stinted glasses imbued with folksy perspectives and tales, arched gateways, courtyards and durbars; fresco art was celebrated and thrived with family’s growing wealth and prosperity. And this didn’t end at frescos and havelis, the region saw development of many structures from architecturally well laid schools to stepwells to ornate temples as a result of educational and cultural philanthropy of these rich merchants.
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A slice of Shekhawati in Alsisar

The desolate roads, the pastoral calmness hung in the air, changing colour of the mud-dunes from clayey brown to camel yellow, the nomadic hue of the lifestyle, frequent calls of a peacock and the half-forgotten monuments set against the backdrop of an azure, blue sky, this region seemed to have soaked its beauty in the rustic chill of its lifestyle. It was six in the morning when I reached and was welcomed by the precious silence of the Alsisar village.  A slice of Shekhawati floated in the air; the charm of havelis, cenotaphs, stepwells strewn around me and the mighty Alsisar Palace standing in front me against the backdrop of a struggling sun amidst the monsoon clouds.

The Alsisar Palace stands like a royal guardian of the village.

The Alsisar Palace stands like a royal guardian of the village.

When Raja Shekha established the Shekhawati region in the 18th century, he made it a tax free zone for commerce and trade and invited rich merchants of the erstwhile Marwar belt of Bikaner, Jodhpur, Kota and even Jaipur to settle and establish business in the Shekhawati region. Many of these merchants, the Goenkas, Piramals, Birlas, Poddars, Agrawals and the Khetans settled in this tax free state with a condition that they would be ready to provided financial help when the state asks or requires, thus setting the base of a thriving business and cultural center of Rajasthan. In the 19th century when these merchants moved to and prospered in new commercial centers of Bombay, Gujarat and Calcutta, they sent money back home and build grand havelis to tell their families and villagers of their prosperity. And as more merchants moved out, more havelis and cenotaphs were built. And thus a ‘never to die’ Shekhawati was born.

The story of Alsisar is a bit different. Alsi and Malsi were two sisters. Unable to bear taunts aimed at his sisters who went to draw water from the village well, Thakur nawal Singh decided to dig his own well. He dug through the night until he struck water. Alsi settled at this sar (water source) and the place came to be known as Alsisar and the village where Malsi settled became Malsisar.

The royal durbar which once saw meetings between rich merchants of the area.

The royal durbar which once saw meetings between rich merchants of the area.

Alsisar keeps its soul in its palace which stands in the center of the village as a royal guardian. We entered through a massive arched gateway, protected by a wooden door and were led to a massive courtyard. On one side of the courtyard was the reception room, which once functioned as the main baithak or durbar hall, where all the trade related meetings used to happen. The rich frescos with intricate gold leaf work done on them, the stinted glasses depicting various scenes from Lord Krishna’s life, heavy chandeliers bought from France and heavy work done on the Belgian glasses; all create a fine play of luxury in unison. There was a screened off latticed windows, above the durbar, for women to look at the proceedings of the durbar. The grandiose of the durbar looked like a leaf taken from a lavish Bollywood movie set in historical times.

On the other side of the main courtyard is the men’s palace (Mardana Mahal). We moved inwards towards the suites or as our host said ‘towards the women’s palace (Zanana Mahal). We were basically led from one courtyard to the other and as we were told there are ten courtyards in the palace. The courtyard arrangement, with its thick walls, provided plenty of shade to cool the rooms, a basic necessity in this sun scorched land.

The rich frescoes in the now turned dining hall area a treat to watch.

The rich frescoes in the now turned dining hall area a treat to watch.

And being in palace, isn’t the only thing one can do in Alsisar. Set off for a village tour and you will be amazed by the richness of architecture in the village. Shekhawati stills lives in its past, decades or centuries old temples, cenotaphs, wells are still the main landmarks in the village. There are havelis which have been restored and converted to schools. There are havelis which are now abandoned and looked after by a caretaker, but these weave a story for us, they tell a tale of the era when this region was a strategic trade point. These random havelis are emblematic, existing as symbols of lost pleasure, wealth and easy life. Today they are dwelled by pigeons, grasp for some fresh air to live their rich past in their present, but they still pull you. Alsisar has uniquely positioned itself as less touristy but more restored of Shekhawati villages. Many of these havelis are now been restored by the present Thakur Gaj Singh ji and will be converted into more useable form than just exist as symbols.

The one of many cenotaphs in Alsisar.

The one of many cenotaphs in Alsisar.

And a rugged landscape of Shekhawati belt with its mud-dunes, charming panoply of frittered trees, rocky terrain dotted with acacias and every unutilized piece of land flowered with sunflowers; never fails to mesmerize the travelers. What’s better than to go for a desert safari to acquaint oneself with the hardships of life in this scorched belt as women dressed in their traditional dresses laden with bangles struggle to get potable water from far off or men walking languorously with their camels or camels walking aimlessly down the road, pulling their carts with their frustrated owners behind them wearing an air pessimism. The safari jeep takes you through narrow muddy roads or sometimes through fields (where once roads existed), but every bump looks inviting as you look around you; the inescapable melody of the landscape, calls of gazelles from some hidden corners, hoots of owls, a carpet of wild sunflowers and the optimism in the maize plants planted on the slopes. And then the jeep takes you to a hillock; step down and breathe in the moment, the magnetic beauty of the nothingness of the arid landscape is before you. Your chauffeur will lay down a table for you for you to sip in the most memorable coffee of your life.

It's like rewinding your life to the start @sanddunes in Alsisar

It’s like rewinding your life to the start @sanddunes in Alsisar

It seems that in Alsisar there’s always something more to be offered. Travelling here is a shift in perspective, landscape is tricky and amazing and constantly changing, there’s value in nothingness, centuries old cultural panorama, incredible tales, the colourful tuk-tuks dressed like princess and the long forlorn acacia trees – everything commands an inviting charm in unison and then a palace standing as a royal guard of this historical cultural and natural vista.

Fast facts

To go – You can get down at Churu railway station, Alsisar is 40 kms from there and you can get a taxi from the station at a rate of Rs 1000. If you are coming from Delhi, you can get down at Saddalpur that will save you an hour.

To Stay – Alsisar Mahal is a good option that will fit in your budget too, with rooms starting from around 3500 a night. Apart from being historic, Alsisar Mahal has options unparallel in Shekhawati. Imagine fresh pizzas being served to you in a roof top restaurant, a discotheque with all the elements you can list and an unique lounge based on the concept of World War II.

More to plan – You can plan a trip to Shekhawati belt from Alsisar, it should take 2-3 days to cover the entire belt.

Alsisar Mahal also doubles up as a venue for three days of music, art and food festival in December. Magnetic fields (as it is called) promises to bring the newest Indian sounds and music from worldover with 30 DJs and parties that promises to be none other. It wears a different hue these 3 days, brighter enough to beat the charm of our metros. Bonfires in the wild, camping like vagabonds, a taste of regal life in the palace, workshops from local artists and artisans and a grand display of culture and cuisine, Magnetic fields has set an unmatchable scale.

Photo credits – Mohit Goel