Churu: Rajasthan’s Forgotten Marwari Marvel
Nothing in the bumpy ride from a desultory train station to your hotel quite prepares you for the whimsy-wonder that is Churu. On the face of it, it is just another unexceptional town fringing the Great Thar largely notorious for mercurial swings ranging from near freezing point to hovering around the 50 degrees mark in high summer.
In recent times it has been trying to rid itself of another ignominious mantle. Finding itself at the bottom of a list on sanitary behaviour a few years ago, it avowed to become north India’s first Open Defecation Free district. To its credit, the mounds are no longer piling up, though hundred per cent is an off-way mark, and turning around mindsets clearly mandates larger shovels.
That said you’re really here for Churu’s forsaken past, one that included more than considerable commerce along a busy trade route that sliced through the Shekhawati region. And one that proved hugely advantageous to an assiduous Marwari community during the 19th century. Which celebrated its ka-ching moments after a grand and, quite literally, monumental fashion. Raising massive multi-storeyed, many-courtyard havelis (mansions), often with European flourishes, enclosed within lofty walls accessed through soaring portals.
Their mud-washed surfaces are swathed in strikingly hued frescoes, with the painted artistry depicting experiences, aspirations and prevailing interests of an affluent, well-travelled people. In more ways than one analogous to today’s social media, these fanciful ‘status updates’ of the past were also marked by incredible amounts of creativity, boasting variously humour, faith, irreverence, story-telling, tradition, leanings, and acquisition. Not to mention generous doses of narcissism!
Then, sometime during the second quarter of the 20th century, most merchants left to grow their fortunes in Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi; imminent business centres, all. Entrusting home and hearth to caretakers, locks and pigeons, they were to rarely return. No wonder then that moseying along, around or inside Churu’s embellished albeit deserted bulwarks, while artistically overwhelming, led to moments of abject desolation. The few families that stayed on are expectedly-evidently, too-unable to arrest the pace of disrepair as these structures increasingly necessitate thoughtful renovation.
It falls to the credit of those at Malji Ka Kamra for having somewhat retrieved the town and its fading legacy from near oblivion. Remarkably Venetian in appearance, the confectionery-coloured, lancet-arched facade of the town’s only heritage hotel fronts fifteen well-appointed guestrooms over three floors. Adding to its light-hearted trimmings are quirky doe-eyed figures in stucco lending themselves to many an hour of amused neck-straining.
Others who remained did so for reasons quite funerary in nature. This is borne out by a cluster of sepulchral pavilions in neighbouring Ramgarh, a settlement that owes its existence entirely to the Poddars, a well-known last name amongst the Marwaris. Harking back to mid and late 19th century, these structures are every inch as magnificent as the havelis once inhabited by those now resting here. Notably the Ram Gopal Poddar Chhatri built in 1872; a wide flight of steps leads up to a fresco-rich and pavilion-laden upper storey.
This is crowned by a slender-columned dome, the underside of which is beautifully embellished with images from the Ramayana and Krishna’s Raas-leela. Other chhatris within the premises are near replicas, sporting rooms or temples in the lower sections, and one, a double dome. Ramgarh is a convenient 15kms from Churu, should you to choose to visit, and can easily be clubbed as a day-trip with Mandawa, another 45kms from here.
Places of faith also benefited from the hard-earned munificence of Churu’s success stories. The Jain Temple here is empirical evidence of their grateful generosity. A cornucopia of artistry that borrows unabashedly from Neoclassical Italy and Victorian England and marries it to Rajasthani elements, its interiors are a burst of stunning kitsch. Brilliant frescoes, glossy chess-board floor, fresh gild and cobweb-free crystal chandeliers clearly suggest recent refurbishment.
But the gods weren’t always kind, and along came the famine of 1896. It was time for well-meaning individuals to step up. The Sethani Ka Johra, a chhatri-edged water reservoir on the outskirts of the town is attributed to one such – Brij Kanwari, the widow of Bhagwandas Bagla. It appeared to me when on a visit here recently that it was time again for yet another philanthropic intervention. This time to prevent a calamity more cultural. For it was evident that continued apathy towards Churu’s matchless heritage will find it fading sooner rather than later from both mud and memory.
Are the Poddars, Kotharis, Baglas, Khemkas, Ruias, Suranas, Baanthias, Bachawats et al listening? Anyone?
If You Like: Contact Lal Singh Shekhawat (+91 9784015111) for a well-researched guided walk around the havelis.
Note: This article has earlier appeared in Huffington Post.