By Nanditta Chibber
In the midst of swirls of sand dunes lies a forgotten town painted with stories of its once wealthy merchants. Cocooned in its own chaotic world of maze like by-lanes skirted by ruined mansions bearing a legacy of its hey days, small town life hums along as flashily decked autos with amusing extended rears honk their way around.
The desert town of Churu is often in the weather news for its record breaking temperature but this sleepy mofussil town in western Rajasthan keeps a leaf in history about the opulent living styles of the Marwari merchants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A four odd hour train ride from the capital’s Sarai Rohilla or Delhi Cantt railway station and the gazers window-view gradually changes to desert shrubs and to sandy dunes when the train finally pulls into Churu Junction.
Churu turns out to be amongst the least explored districts in Rajasthan’s famous and touristy Shekhawati region cloaked by the legacy of the royalty as its locals give amused looks about the increasingly intermittent interest in their languid town. Ironically, as the guest of the town one looks out for Malji ka Kamra — the century old restored guest cum entertainment house made by one of Churu’s richest merchants Malji Kothari honoured with the title of Seth. The mansion locally known as a haveli is the only property in town for now that can host visitors in comfortable luxury while taking them down memory lane of Churu’s once wealthy, elite and usually conservative Marwari merchant community’s heritage.
Originally made as a guesthouse for the Maharaja of Bikaner, Ganga Singh by Malji Kothari in 1920 AD, Malji ka Kamra soon became the entertainment hotspot for visiting dignitaries and artists from all corners of Bikaner’s riyasat. This palatial place was gradually decked over a period of seventeen odd years to make it look like an eclectic party venue hosting ballroom waltzes to performing arts for the elite merchants, the royalty, the British officers and whoever was the toast of the region. The haveli’s pillared exteriors, a fusion of Italian and Shekhawati architecture styles embellished with stucco work of beautiful figurines of men and women, many in various dance moves making up for ample evidence of the place’s bygone revelry.
The statues of the Seths and Sethanis are modelled in fashionable 20th century traditional gear — the merchants instantly identifiable in their trademark dhoti, kurtas and topis or turbans whereas the Indian women draped in silken sarees teamed with puffed and collared blouses in sync with the fashion diktats of those times while daintily decked in pearl jewellery carrying stylish purses. The British officers of various ranks from the days of the Raj with the Memsahibs in chic dresses sporting coiffed hairdos.
As one explores more of the haveli, one realises how aptly designed it was for lavish merrymaking with extended verandas and lawns flowing into a large dining hall overlooked by resting rooms skirting it on the first floor. The place gives a sneak-peek about the lighter side of the Seths usually perceived to be workaholics with their nose always buried deep in ledger books. The haveli’s imperfections are its real charms. Like the fading century old frescoes paneling the walls in the Mughal concept of ‘Paradise’ with motifs of flowers, vines, birds and butterflies conserved painstakingly by the promoters while sprucing up the interiors of this once decaying place.
The chef at Malji ka Kamra is a local who loves innovating. While he cooks excellent traditional Rajasthani Marwari fare — bajra rotis, kair sangeri (desert beans), mooli kachra, gatte ki sabzi, lal maas (the mutton delicacy), lapsi and much more, he likes to experiment with the traditional food with some twists and does manage to come up with a host of other lip smacking delicacies tempting one to let loose the senses in eating, drinking and relaxing in this time wrapped place. But the real journey in Churu starts on foot exploring its countless and endless murals in the ruins of the old town.
Lal Singh Shekhawat leads the way for a heritage walk. He is the best tour guide in the region often acknowledging all his historical facts to either INTACH or the Archeological Survey of India. While walking in the quiet by-lanes towered by walls of old dilapidated havelis, he gives a lowdown on the history of Churu first.
A Jat Chietan named Churru founded the city in 1620 AD and aptly named it after himself. Soon, the city was ruled by the Rathore Rajputs of Bikaner and it fell on the caravan route in the 18th century. The business of the city’s Marwari merchants thrived till the local Thakur started imposing heavy taxes on them which compelled many to move across the border. Some of the wealthy ones like the Poddar Seths settled to establish a new town called Ramgarh Sethan which literally translates as ‘the merchant town of Ramgarh’. Later, when Churu fell of the caravan route, the merchants moved to newer business centers set up by the British like Kolkata and Dhaka in the late 18th century making even more money in the shipping trade and in Hundi operations while also travelling to faraway lands, especially Europe. It seems they instantly took fancy to the lavishness of Venetian architecture and painting styles and sent back money to replicate it with local artisans. Their purpose clear; they wanted to display their increasing wealth and stature among their peers, rather outdo each other and so it was the grandeur of their havelis that made that declaration.
Among the first stops is the crumbling haveli of Seth Malji Kothari built in 1860. It is among the older ones out of Churu’s 100 odd palatial havelis, most of them built between the 1850s and 1940s. This was the golden era of the city with most of these havelis distinctly fusing Italian and Shekhawati styles of architecture for their gateways, arches, pillars, murals and even interior decor. The jharokhas in symphony with Venetian pillars as floor to ceiling frescoes decorate each and every inch of the exterior walls at times. The murals on the ceilings of churches and other structures during their European travels seems to have stayed in the mind of the merchants as most of the havelis have lavishly decked guest bedrooms, in brightly colored frescos along with Italian chandeliers and antique furniture. The guest room being an obvious choice since they not only wanted to make the stay of the guest welcomingly comfortable but also wanted to flaunt their wealth and stature.
The walk in the old city stirs up one’s imagination about the glorious days of this once upon a time merchant neighborhood which would have been teeming with large joint families enviously sizing up their neighbor’s wealth and extravagance; the size of the havelis and its commissioned murals stating much. The wealthier ones covering every possible inch of their walls narrating many a tales of allegiance, interest, familial cords or reverence dominated in frescoes in traditional hues of greens, blues, reds and yellows.
Like the Parakh Haveli’s owners who seem to have adored their Maharaja Ganga Singh as they had him painted on every possible corner of the exterior walls documenting his life; from his child portraits to student days in Oxford, England to his love for cars, especially Rolls Royces. Walking amongst Churu’s havelis is like exploring a large art gallery — the city becoming the gallery itself as the frescoes never seem to end; portraits being extremely popular. There are several ones Englishmen and English ladies who were either important or elite along with numerous ones of the Seths themselves, their families and especially their forefathers still watching upon their haveli’s visitors mainly at the huge arched entrances.
And then there are frescoes of local folktales of love and heroism like of Dhola and Maru — Shekhawati’s region’s own Romeo and Juliet pictured on camel backs. The crux of the tale according to Lal Singh being that on a journey across the desert Dhola and Maru were attacked by the well known robbers Sumra and Umra but a brave Maru killed them.
Interestingly, one notices that the frescoes in Churu don’t just stick to traditional or official themes of utmost relevance rather it seems that the Seths had the local artisans paint whatever they fancied; locations in Europe where they travelled, luxury cars, a game of chess or women having high tea. The outer wall of Banthia Haveli built in 1930 AD even has a portrait of man with a striking resemblance to Lord Jesus who is smoking a cigar!
As by 1889, the Jodhpur-Bikaner railway line had also started operations, the Seths of Churu even documented this historical development. The outer wall of Rajkumar Baid Haveli, 1900 AD sports a huge mural of a several bogies train with its raised outer verandah serving as the painted train’s platform. The staff of Malji ka Kamra has chosen this venue as an apt location for small tea break amidst soaking in the murals while haveli hopping. And it seems that even the charms of Hindi cinema did not escape the Seths fancy with portraits of yesteryears earliest heartthrobs like Deviki Rani, Ashok Kumar and Balraj Sahni’s also duly frescoed.
Lal Singh points out to the base of most of the frescoes painted on a pearly white surface which almost resembles marble till he reveals that it is a special plaster made with crushed sea shells that has weathered Churu’s extreme temperatures and the neglect of the havelis to still retain colour, craftsmanship and texture even a century later.
It takes a whole day to just walk around exploring the palatial havelis of the Marwari Seths of Churu and soak in their life and times in magnificent frescoes; a facet of the merchants never documented much and always overshadowed by the touristy circuit of Rajasthan’s royals. As the call of the evening azaan is heard, Lalji takes us to the rooftop of the Surana Hawa Mahal Haveli, 1871 AD said to have 1100 doors and windows to witness a lowering sun in the never ending landscape of Churu’s forlorn havelis while they hold on to their fading painted stories. Many a ghost tales do the rounds often narrated by their lonesome old watchmen.
The frescoes of lives lived a century ago linger on in the mind but the town has more treasures tucked in literally in gold just 18 odd kilometers off in Mahansar Village in district Jhunjunn. The local kirana or grocery shop owner in this hamlet is the descendent of the wealthy Poddar family whose haveli from his family’s hey days stands weathered. His forefathers were among the richest merchants in Shekhawati region till they lost all their money in a ship wreck. But the glory of his forefather’s ostentatiously decorated office in intricate frescoes in real gold has remained, carefully preserved by the descendants under lock and key as a museum. Over tea served and sipped in his shop amidst of bags of rice, flour and shelves other everyday essentials, he calls for the keys of the museum narrating the shipwreck story and its resulting enormous loss of wealth and stature for the family.
As the door of the Poddar Sone ki Haveli or Golden Haveli built in 1846 is unlocked, the golden leaf work on the murals immediately shimmers in the sunlight. The interiors leave one awe struck as from floor to ceiling, every inch of the room is covered in the finest of murals — the artwork intricate in the traditional Shekhawati miniature painting style. Each ceiling is separated by an arch is like a story book in itself narrating tales of mythology in detail; the Ramanayana, Vishu’s reincarnation and Krishna’s birth followed by tales from his childhood and the rasleela.
Just opposite to the Sone ki Haveli it is the Raghunath Temple built in 1850 AD and is famous for its marble statues of Indian mythology’s perfect family rarely seen together and the family man himself modeled unusually, almost like a Mawrwari merchant — the gods Shiv & Parvarti with their children Ganesha and Kartikeya along with their celestial vehicles the mouse and the peacock.
For sunset, Lalji leads the way to his ancestral home — the Mahansar Fort built in 1768 where he and his extended family still reside with the property divided amongst 10 families and still holding on to their ancestral pride even if the property is deteriorating steadily. On the way back to Churu is a water body known as Sethani ka Johara built by the Bagla family in 1899 as a water reservoir for the locals in this drought prone area along with a Chhattri for the Sethanis to enjoy the pond’s tranquil waters visited by many chirping birds. Nowadays it is a popular picnicking spot where the guests of Malji ka Kamra are often hosted for high tea or lunches.
There is more to Churu than just the frescoed havelis. The main market is abuzz with traditional Rajasthani crafts, especially lac bangles which if you sit patiently the bangle maker will customize to colour, design and size specifications — a rarity in today’s mass manufactured era plus the sneak peep into a slowly dying art. The main market square has a clock tower — the English phenomenon during the days of the Raj localized for the locals with the dial’s numbers surprisingly written in Hindi. Nearby is a temple dedicated to the river goddess Ganga, a rarity again but extremely important and revered in this water scarce area.
Being the largest desert district, the sand dunes are right outside the town to experience. It is best to go in a gypsy to explore the undulating sand dunes just before sunset and later dig your heels deep in the sand and sip tea watching the sun vanish behind a sandy horizon. Staying a little longer and one can easily get lost in the dunes under the evening stars while all the tales from the Arabian Nights feed the imagination. But for a real desert safari to spot wildlife, early mornings are best to zip past Bajra crops literally growing in sandy fields to clearer patches of dunes with startled blackbucks and cheetals sprinting all along.
By the time one says goodbye to Churu, this forgotten town of the once upon a time opulent Seths lingers on in the mind as a heady mix of fusion architecture, art, merchant heritage, mystical sand dunes and adrenalin pumped desert safaris.