Nawalgarh is a rural and rustic Rajasthani town in Jhunjhunu, a district in the Shekhawati region that’s popularly dubbed as the “Open Air Art Gallery” by art lovers. So, while Shekhawati, with its abundance of fresco paintings, has shot to fame, Nawalgarh is the road less traveled. When Noor Bali, who conducts heritage-walks in Delhi, visits the havelis of Nawalgarh in Rajasthan and redefines it as a museum scape, she gives you a new travel goal.
Nawalgarh, a legacy of merchants and mansions
Founded in 1737 by its erstwhile ruler Nawal Singh, the town is inhabited by business merchants who settled here and dotted the landscape with havelis. The walls of these beautifully painted homes, both small and big, are adorned with Fresco paintings. Initially, ornamental painting and decorating the Havelis was a way to show off prosperity, but gradually became common practice – resulting in a landmark.
Sometimes, unassuming locations are home to some of the most beautiful landmarks. Nawalgarh is characterized by small shops strewn about narrow and busy lanes. While you dodge the traffic and watch your step, you’d stumble upon beautifully painted havelis, some in full glamour and some faded in time, singing the tales of a marvelous era gone by.
I was here, about 140kms away from Jaipur, to conduct researchi on these awe-inspiring buildings and visited two mansions, Podar and Morarka, in the proximity of each other, now converted into museums. I found Podar better maintained of the two and will take you on a virtual tour of this legacy. But first, let’s see what makes Nawalgarh worthy of your time.
Havelis and frescos, a timeless match
When art and architecture cross paths, we usually get something timeless. The havelis of Nawalgarh are a fine example of this.
Haveli is a traditional mansion and the term is derived from an Arabic word ‘’Hawali” which means a private or enclosed place. A characteristic feature of haveli is a big courtyard surrounded by rooms. The courtyard is an important architectural feature for ventilation and cooling effect. In Nawalgarh, typically the havelis have two courtyards, an outer for visitors and an inner courtyard for domestic use.
Fresco is a painting technique in which lime is used along with organic pigments to paint the walls. In Nawalgarh both Fresco Succo, a technique in which the color is applied on a dry surface, and the traditional Alagila or Arayash technique, in which the colors are applied on wet surface has been practiced. The outer walls of a haveli relied on the Fresco Succo technique while the inner ones have utilized the Alagila.
Podar Haveli Museum, Nawalgarh
The flamboyance and grandeur of the realistically rendered fresco paintings on the entrance and outer walls of this haveli welcome you. Depictions of kings and queens, rasa-lila, Radha-Krishna, Ram- Sita, paintings of embracing couples and beautiful floral designs adorn the exterior and make it stand out. The Haveli is divided into 3 parts. The outer courtyard and the baithak to entertain the visitors, while the private area was reserved for family members.
The courtyard, with a tulsi plant, is beautifully decorated with paintings. You get to see versatile themes from mythologies to the prevalent culture of the time such as kite-flying, social gatherings, and processions and celebratory festivals like the Teej and even aspirations of a community. For instance, what caught my fancy was a depiction of passengers traveling in a train, drawn at a time when Nawalgarh did not have a rail track. A master’s wishes, however, did not get the better of an artists’ imagination. The colorful train coaches are rendered in a way to act a separator between two panels of an artifact and blend perfectly.
A colorfully painted baithak faces the outer courtyard. Usually reserved for business meetings, discussions and guests, the baithak had a red carpet topped with a traditional thin bandhej-pattern mattress and bolsters. With its traditional setting retained, the baithak is likely to transport you back in time. While the men conducted meetings in this room, the women participated or listened in from rooms on the first floor overlooking the baithak. What I found peculiar about baithaks was the manually-operated fan for the visitors. Well, not the fan itself, rather an anecdote that the person appointed to swing it had to be either deaf or dumb. That way, no business secrets leaked out!
The mythological paintings in the baithak, including the women’s seating area on the first floor, depicted deities from the Hindu pantheon such as a playful child Krishna with his mother, Lord Krishna playing a flute for the Gopis, goddesses Saraswati sitting on a swan, standing stop a crocodile is goddess Ganga depicted holding pots of flowing water and lotus flowers in her four hands, ten avatars of goddess Shakti with the Bhairav avatar of Lord Shiva, a marriage procession of Shiva and Sati, and a fire-breathing Lord Agni. The baithak was also a place to showcase an owner’s taste in crafts and you’d notice decorative artifacts such as a flower vase with intricate floral depictions.
An elaborately decorated door separates the baithak and the private area of the haveli. This door was first featured in the “Discover India” travel magazine.
The private area is double storied and it has a big inner courtyard with rooms at the corners. The themes here too mythological and cultural. The distinction here though is that along with the walls, the ceilings also carry evocative artwork. The private area is characterized by familial and romantic gestures such as scenes from the Ras-Lila depicting Radha and Krishna in love with each other or a mother beholding her reflection in a mirror while breastfeeding her child.
There is also a smaller room by the inner courtyard which contains traditional utensils and kitchenware. What stands out in the private area is a wall painted with an Indian couple dressed in western attire, depicting European influence. Since the conversion of the haveli into a museum, all rooms have been made into galleries for tourists such as bridal costume galleries, fairs and festivals gallery, handicrafts gallery, Podar family photo gallery etc.
In contrast, the Morarka Haveli has retained the original look of the rooms, with the used furniture from the time, offering a more authentic feel of the lifestyle. Morarka also has a backyard, used to maintain animals, with painted walls and ceilings.
Legacy and Tickets
Ramnath Anandilal Podar in 1902, constructed this haveli with more than 750 frescos. His grandson Krantikumar. R. Poddar converted it into a heritage museum and a cultural center. The entry ticket to tour the Podar haveli is INR 100 and students get a discounted price of INR 60, where it costs INR 70 to visit the Morarka Haveli Museum.
Nawalgarh’s Naya Bazaar, a potential museum scape
While Podar and Morarka Havelis are the popular ones, there are others too, all situated in the Naya Bazaar area of Nawalgarh. Some continue to be inhabited while others have been abandoned, reduced to a garbage dump. There’s definitely a case for a revival of these mansions to potentially transform Naya Bazaar into a museum scape, with a trail of havelis for tourists to explore on foot.
Why do I say that? Because a museum is a place where knowledge is transmitted and awareness is spread. These havelis are a window about the lifestyle of merchants, architecture, and artistic excellence. The skilled fresco paintings on the wall render realism, fantasy, mythology, our socio-cultural and religious practices. Secondly, for an authentic experience, culture needs to be lived. Walking through Naya Bazaar, you not only get to witness the grandeur of the havelis, but also the buzz in the adjoining markets – places to shop and eat, or the clothes and jewelry people wear, etc. Lastly, instead of observing objects behind a glass pane, a natural setting of heritage is more appealing for visitors to have a real interaction with the structure and area around and to learn about an era gone by.
So, the next time you think of a holiday, consider Nawalgarh. Your visit to Podar and Morarka Havelis could potentially bring a transformation to Naya Bazaar as a museum scape and put it on the tourist circuit, enabling livelihoods and restoring heritage.
iThis post is edited suitably from the author’s research paper submitted to Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management
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