4th March 2020. Divendra had pulled blinder. When, as we honed the itinerary, he had described Le Prince Haveli to us “… not a conventional hotel, it’s more of an experience stay…..” we knew to trust him and looked forward to such experience. When we were welcomed by the gatekeeper we knew to ignore the flimsy scaffolding apparently shoring up the facade. Nothing had prepared us for what turned out to be one of the most visually indulgent and delightful two days spent in India.
Haveli is the Persian word for enclosed space and most havelis have at least one, often two, courtyards. The inner one the zenana, was for the women, the outer mardana for the men. Both created cool, shady spaces in the long, hot summers. In the dusk we had walked through them, and up very steep, narrow stone stairs to reach our rooms. Somehow we had found our respective ways back down through the labyrinth of passages and courtyards and had enjoyed a delicious supper but it had been too dark to appreciate the detail or full colour of the frescoes.
I was woken at dawn by the intrusive wailing of a mullah broadcasting full blast across the roofs of Fatehpur, apparently targeted at my open window, through the tops of the trees. As the sun rose and the light increased I noticed that in every corner there was a piece of sculpture or a little painting. Steep steps led to a stone-pillared balcony where musicians once would have played. A row of cushions had been placed on the raised platform by the window and as I went to sit on them and look out, I saw a peacock preening himself in the tree beyond the swimming pool.
It was impossible to stay in. The door of my room led to the first floor balcony that went round the inner courtyard. The stillness was total. Frescoes covered every surface over two floors. It was stunning.
During the 20thC the havelis fell into disrepair as the owners settled for the excitements of cosmopolitan life afforded by the big cities, in preference to the sand-blown fringes of the Thar Desert with its shoats and camels. Those tourists who stumbled into Shekhawati and tried to buy, to restore, found that the havelis still belonged to the descendants of the original owners. There were cousins of cousins and more cousins, all of whom had to be persuaded to sell and then to agree a price. The technicalities of conservation were way down the line beyond the stumbling blocks of conveyance and ownership. However the Land Lai Devra Haveli, that had been abandoned to the care of a family retainer and his goats in the 1950s, belonged to only two descendant Devras. They were willing to sell. Nadine Le Prince, a French painter, bought it and devoted the next five years to restoring it. The restoration continues, hence the scaffolding. Conservationists from France and Switzerland continue to pitch up each year, for not much more than their keep, and painstakingly restore another section using traditional skills and materials.
Haveli Le Prince is now what they modestly call a ‘homestay’, run by Nadine’s son and his business partner. Full of collected treasures, everywhere one turns one sees the detail in a fresco or a little elephant that one hadn’t noticed before. Add in the French idea of comfort, delicious food, a tree-shaded well-stocked bar – there was even a two horse carriage should the need arise. Divendra had booked us into what transpired to be probably the best restored haveli and certainly the most attractive place to stay in the area.
In the mid 15thC MahaRao Shekha Ji proclaimed sovereignty of the area that is now Shekhawati. It was a lawless land between the Ganges and the Arabian Sea where the Rajputs and Moguls fought and then in the Mid 18thC the Shekhawat Thakurs made the most of the trading opportunities during the heyday of the British East India Company. Trade in opium, cotton and spices flourished and the Marwaris grew rich, and richer. When the British, to tighten their grip on trade, focussed their activities on Madras, Calcutta and Bombay, the Marwaris joined them, especially in Calcutta. During the following 100 years from about 1830 they invested much of their gains in building opulent havelis ‘back home’. They employed craftsmen, many from Jaipur, to carve and sculpt and painters to illustrate religious and historical scenes, that they later laced with paintings of trains, planes and motors to show their neighbours, especially the maharajas, just how successful and sophisticated they had become. There’s nothing new about new money. At one stage it was estimated that 80% of Indian tax collectors were paid by the Marwaris and many 21stC industrialists have Shekhawati roots.
Until the mid 19thC red, green and yellow ochre pigments were used for the exterior walls. On interior walls they used ultramarine, vermillion, verdigris, gold, silver and also white and red lead that sadly often oxidised and turned black. Very rarely they used Indian yellow but this was made from the urine of cows that had been fed mango leaves and the practice, thought cruel, was stopped. Then, in the 1860s artificial pigments, including ultramarine and chrome red, started to arrive from Germany and continued to do so until WWI. Emerald green was also used – containing arsenic it was thought particularly good for controlling the rats.
Somehow Monu and Dasrath had managed to get the bus up to Le Prince and turned it round. Soon, to the unveiled irritation of the shopkeeper, Monu was negotiating the corner again, avoiding the tree and pile of stones, and driving us out of town. We visited the Chhatris (cenotaphs) in Ramgarh where successive members of the Poddar family had done their best to make sure their antecedents would not be forgotten.
We wandered, marvelled, and watched people carrying on their lives surrounded by decayed beauty.
Then off to Mahansar where the Niwas Castle, evolved from the fort that was started in 1768, dominates the town. Continuously expanded it is vast and is now reputed to house three quarrelling families of the descendants, all offering rival hospitality in their respective ‘wings’. We enjoyed a delicious lunch in one and fortified by generous shots of daru, Mahansar’s Heritage Liquor, we walked to The Golden Shop. Sone ki Dukan was built in about 1850 by Harkanth Raj Poddar as his office. Narenndra persuaded a shopkeeper to walk across the street and unlock the small, unimposing building. He obliged, then with a theatrical slowness, he unlocked a second set of double doors. The doorways were the only light source and what they lit up was amazing. Besides the copious amounts of gold there is a staggering richness of red and green with beautifully painted panels of fruit, flowers, animals, aerial views, and tales of Vishnu and Krishna covering every centimetre. The artist is thought to be the same as the one who had painted the bastion room in Nawalgarh’s Bala Oila Fort and Pram Girji’s math at Malsisar. No expense had been spared – an office designed to impress. It still does.
Also built to impress, the neighbours this time rather than clients, was the building nearby. A ballroom, built for a single occasion – the party after a wedding. It has never been used again.
We headed for Mandawa, the hub of Shekhawati tourism. Sadly many havelis have been pulled down as it is less expensive and time consuming to replace them with hideous modern villas – still built to impress, painted in eye-catching, acidic colours. However the tourist trade is attracting enough entrepreneurs and potential hoteliers and we were invited to clamber through ruins, teeming with workmen, that would ‘soon’ be luxury hotels.
In every cranny, under every baluster, above every doorframe there were little panels illustrating daily life; soldiers; armies on the move – even canons mounted on camels; and hunting scenes.
Narenndra had been guiding us solicitously through the successive tangles of pipes, cables, stone, dust and scaffold towards a completed haveli hyped for its garden and restaurant. The sun was setting through one of the town gates, which we hoped heralded the cocktail hour, when he took us to the rooftop terrace of a completed haveli. Waiters dragged small tables together to make one long one and covered them with scarlet table clothes. Over the next 20 minutes they made repeated journeys up the many flights of stairs carrying glasses, beer, eating irons and napkins. The sun set. The wind began to whistle across the roof, through the arches. This was no garden or famous restaurant.
Narenndra, who had been missing since seeing us settled with enough Kingfishers to keep us quiet, reappeared and started to make pochettes. He placed cardamom, camphor, black peppercorns and mace into a tissue and gave each of us a little bundle to sniff.
“It will protect you”.
Then he told us. Two Italians, staying where we were to have had supper, had been diagnosed with Coronovirus. Without any fuss, or our realising what was going on, he had managed to divert us and organise for us to be looked after and fed while he scoured the pharmacies of Mandawa for the best ingredients for our nose-gays. The Mace was latticed bright orange – a completely different article from what we see on European spice shelves. He had found it in the third pharmacy he had tried.
Back at Le Prince we agreed that we would be more than happy to be quarantined there for a fortnight.