India from the Inside - a Tour Through Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh
"Would you like to see the Havelis," the manager inquired? "We can walk, they are close by...." Rajesh had read my mind. I had paused in the lobby and was just thinking where to begin my walk to explore the famous Shekhawati mansions of Mandawa. "Yes," I said, "let's go".
We started down a gritty alley that led into the bright sunlight and a few minutes later we stood in front of a huge mansion. The exterior had faded and was blackened with mold but under the eaves protected from the weather, brilliant paintings burst out against the surrounding grime, coloured like they were new. There were depictions of gods, animals, flowers and religious deities, all in fine relief against the plaster walls.
Rajesh had lived in Mandawa his entire life and knew the history well. As we continued our way through town, he told me the story of these dilapidated palaces. Built over a century ago by rich Shekhawati merchants (Mandawa was a key stop on the Silk Route through northern India) these Havelis were grand mansions and grand expressions of their owners' wealth and prestige. Think Donald Trump here - less the gold penthouse.
The extravagant exteriors were decorated with frescoes and carved and painted wooden ornamentation with which the businessmen displayed their success. Highly personalized designs made each home unique, with the teams of 10 or 12 craftsmen executing their patrons orders in elaborate detail. The painting and finishing could span over 2 years as each man tried to better his neighbour.
After trade moved to the coast in the early nineteenth century (shipping by sea from Mumbai and rail transport replaced the old caravan routes) the merchants moved on as well, abandoning their homes to be closer to their business interests. Time and absentee owners excaberated by the yearly monsoons, deteriorated the facades and collapsed the spacious interiors to shells of their former grandeur.
Today, most are still owned by descendants of the original traders. Unfortunately, squabbling heirs and the cost of upkeep has meant these magnificent buildings are continuously declining and as they are private dwellings, the government is unable to step in to preserve them.
In one sad example, the hired caretaker had set up shop and overrun the once elegant courtyard with his "antique collectibles". Squatting with his family amongst a jumble of wooden remnants, odd bits of brass, sepia inked, hand-written postcards, black and white photos and old saris (all scavenged from the deserted homes) they outlined a sorry picture of the once vibrant household.
Truly made me want to weep - for him and the home. Rajesh told me afterwards there are over 50 of these mansions in the city and many more in the surrounding countryside. Thankfully, some now have been restored and are charming, heritage hotels. I saw two that were being re-furbished (gradually) to their original condition - the newly freshened paintings giving an idea of how splendid they were when new.