Tom Vater on India’s Disappearing Havelis in The Wall Street Journal


Tom Vater’s feature on India’s disappearing Havelis and Their Fabled Frescoes has been published in The Wall Street Journal.

SHEKHAWATI, India — It was the McMansion of its day.

Built in 1900 for a wealthy trading family in a dusty outpost here in India’s Rajasthan state, the house was designed to be a bold statement to anyone who passed that the Morarka family was rich beyond imagination.

Palatial, even by modern measures, the mansion, called a haveli, stands three stories tall. Grand archways and row upon row of delicately shaped windows decorate its facade. The family has long since moved away; the courtyards and inner rooms have been empty since the 1950s.

Today, thanks to funding from the family’s foundation, the ancestral home has been refurbished and turned into a museum open to the public. The mansion’s once weatherworn frescoes, which cover the exterior and interior walls, have been cleaned to show colorful scenes of Hindu life: A marriage procession of elephants and well-dressed well-wishers parades across one exterior wall. Inside, through a finely carved wooden gate, courtyard walls are decorated with scenes from the Sanskrit epic love tale Ramayana.

Originally, the term “haveli” was used to describe the temples of a Hindu sect, which featured colorful frescoes illustrating Hindu myths. From the early 1800s, Shekhawati’s wealthy families imitated and incorporated this style into their mansions, most of which were built between 1820 and 1930. In other parts of Rajasthan, havelis are famous for their stone carvings. In Shekhawati, what’s remarkable are the frescoes and the sheer number of havelis.

At the Morarka haveli, Basandani Hotchand, a preservationist and archaeologist, with a small team of workers spent four years cleaning frescoes. In all, some 700 wall paintings were treated, 160 wooden doors and windows were repaired and brass fixtures were restored at a cost of two million rupees (about $40,000).

The Shekhawati region in northeast Rajasthan has about 20 townships, all of which are veritable open-air museums of crumbling havelis. Of the roughly 5,000 havelis that dot this semi-arid area, more than half are beyond repair, says Dr. Basandani, who worked with the Department of Archeology and Museums of Rajasthan in Jaipur for 30 years. The ones left standing, he says, are clustered around the forts of Shekhawati. About 1,000 of those havelis feature the fabled frescoes favored by the wealthy trading families that were known as Marwari.

Shekhawati’s havelis are still privately owned. And Dr. Basandani is hoping that growing tourism may spur more owners to do restoration work. “Slowly, a consciousness is emerging among the old industrial families to come back, take a look around their own backyard and invest in the continuation of our culture,” he says.

A handful of havelis other than the Morarka’s have been restored as hotels, museums and restaurants, but it’s a race against time: Thousands of frescoes have faded, have been covered with advertisements or have been defaced by religious zealots who found too risqué some of their more modern European imagery, such as beautifully dressed ladies.

“It’s a great loss for Indian culture,” says Ratanlal Mishra, who teaches museum organization at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur and is an expert in Shekhawati history. “We lose an important aspect of our artistic work when we lose the haveli frescoes.”

The story behind the Shekhawati havelis began nearly 300 years ago. Back then, the lesser princes of Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region were competing economically with their more powerful counterparts in neighboring Jaipur. The Shekhawati rulers hit upon a plan to make the transit taxes charged on trade crossing their region lower than Jaipur’s.

Soon, camel caravans carrying spices, precious stones and silk from the ports of the Arabian sea began to bypass Jaipur, and go through the towns of Shekhawati on their way northeast to Delhi and beyond. It made Shekhawati’s rulers fabulously rich. And the Marwaris, who controlled the caravans, profited from the lower taxes and expanded their businesses.

When British-built ports in cities now known as Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata made trading caravans obsolete nearly 100 years later, the Marwaris moved their trade empires to the new metropolises, where they made fortunes selling textiles and spices. Some Marwari families became prominent industrialists, such as the Mittals (steel), the Birlas (Hindustan Motors) and the Bajajs (motorbikes, rickshaws and trucks).

From the second half of the 19th century, most Marwari businessmen quit Shekhawati but left their families behind there and sent money back, with instructions to build the most sumptuous homes imaginable. Fueled by these remittances, the townships experienced a phenomenal building boom. Some structures took up entire blocks in town centers and typically stood two or three stories tall.

Several generations of a family usually lived inside a haveli. A typical haveli was divided into two or more courtyards, with the innermost one being the sanctuary for female members. (In conservative Hindu society, men’s and women’s quarters were segregated.) Some havelis contained large halls for entertaining; others were far more modest, with many small rooms grouped around several courtyards.

“The particular building style of the painted haveli is completely unique to Shekhawati,” says Dr. Mishra, the historian. “In those days, the craftsmen were very skilled and they painted the houses” so that the owners “could show off their wealth,” he says. “A haveli was not considered complete until it was painted with art containing the social beliefs of the region.”

The Marwaris covered the inner and outer walls of their homes with frescoes depicting tales from the Hindu pantheon, as well as scenes from daily life and the quickly changing times: Trains, planes and automobiles, top-hatted European men and fabulously dressed women were all featured. More fanciful, bizarre compositions also made it onto the walls, such as Indian gods flying through the air in cars, or carnival strongmen demonstrating their skills.

By the time India achieved independence from Britain in 1947, the Marwaris had integrated so well into India’s dynamic commercial centers that they had lost interest in their home region: They walked away from their painted mansions.

“The complete abandonment of the havelis did not take place until the 1950s,” says Dr. Mishra. “Initially, when the Marwari traders moved away, their relatives would look after the houses. Later caretakers were installed.” Eventually, he says, the families “lost contact” and today almost all the mansions are deserted or inhabited by squatters.

Randhir Vikram Singh, the owner of Castle Mandawa, a historic hotel in the heart of Shekhawati, notes that besides the fact that many owners are long gone or uninterested, “it is not easy to restore even a single building.” But he adds, “perhaps the rise in tourism will help” kindle some awareness in the owners that they own all this cultural heritage. Many tours of Rajasthan now include side trips to Shekhawati — primarily to see the havelis.

The Morarka family made its fortune in infrastructure construction, mainly bridges, and cement. From the 1880s to the early 1900s, the family built four havelis in the Shekhawati town of Nawalgarh. They were all abandoned in the mid-1900s and sat untouched for decades. Then in 2004, the family’s M.R. Morarka-GDC Rural Research Foundation, a nongovernmental organization working in agriculture and microfinance, expanded into heritage conservation. To date, the foundation has restored the biggest family mansion, the Morarka haveli, and restoration is under way on a second building, the Uattara haveli built in 1890.

“Havelis are like old people; they need a lot of attention,” says Dr. Basandani, who is handling the Uattara restoration. He says the focus has been on replacing fallen plaster and cleaning the frescoes rather than retouching or repainting them. “In any case,” he adds, “the artists who could do that sort of work simply no longer exist. So it’s a difficult task.”

Besides the obstacles that restorers typically face such as sunlight and termites, says Dr. Basandani, the paintings are fragile. “Every time we clean a fresco, some layer of paint comes off and we cause further damage.”

Still, because of his efforts, the colors of the wall paintings in the Morarka Haveli Museum and the scenes depicted, such as Jesus in Shekhawati, have taken on a new life. According to Mukesh Gupta, an official at the Morarka foundation, about 1,000 visitors a month come to the museum; a year ago, a guest room with a toilet was added and about 100 guests have stayed overnight.

Havelis are “our heritage,” says Dr. Basandani. “If we don’t restore the havelis now, whether for commercial or cultural reasons, there’ll be nothing left in a few years.”

Photographs by Luke Duggleby.

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