The Silk Route was an ancient network of trade routes that were for centuries central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent connecting the East and West from China to the Mediterranean Sea.Situated on a branch of the Silk Route that connected to the port of Khambat (then Cambay), the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan was known for traders who dealt in high volumes at low margins.Local merchants and canny businessmen benefited from the activity and quickly rose to dizzying heights of prosperity.
The Shekhawati region is a semi-desert expanse comprising Jhunjhunu, Churu and Sikar district and derives its name from its ruler Rao Shekha.In the middle of the 19th century, with trade weakening on the Silk Route branch through Rajasthan to the port of Khambat, and the strengthening of the new British ports of Mumbai and Kolkata, the traders began moving to other parts of the country, initially going east towards Bihar and Bengal. Later, they would fan out to other parts of the country, including Delhi and Mumbai.Though it was initially the men who travelled, leaving families behind, over time entire families began to move. Over time, the region began to turn into a ghost town, with abandoned havelis and monuments the only reminder of the golden age it had let behind.
Churu is an offbeat choice for a weekend getaway. Located on the edge of the Thar desert, it is blessed with an enchanting topography and is encircled by large shifting sand dunes. it’s main claim to fame today is the extreme temperatures it faces. The region boasts record temperatures ranging from below freezing point in the winters to over 55 degrees in the summer afternoons. Before dawn in the months of December/ January people have found ice in small waterpots or frozen water dew. Yet one may find that summer nights are cooler and winter days are warmer. There is a great variation in minimum and the maximum temperature of Churu. It does not even have much to offer by way of entertainment either- no traditional Rajasthani dances or musicians here. It is however, only 4 hours from Delhi by train on the Gurgaon-Bikaner railway line- and therefore a somewhat attractive proposition.
And so we set off on a chilly Christmas morning. Stepping off the Delhi-Bikaner Intercity Express, the Railway station felt exactly like the hundreds of small junctions that we see on our train journeys. As we walked out of the station, into the crisp morning sun, we were immediately swallowed up in a chaotic confusion of honking buses, autos, rickshaws, cycles and camel carts- peppered with cud chewing cows in the middle of the road- the classic image of India.
It took us about two minutes to negotiate a deal with an autorickshaw and then we were off to our hotel. The auto ride cost us a princely Rs 50/- for a 1.5km drive through the crowded lanes of Churu town. Ten minutes later we were deposited in front of an unassuming iron gate, about ten feet high, with a small sign proclaiming its identity: Malji Ka Kamra. The auto driver himself rang the bell and ushered us inside when a small panel in the large gate was opened from inside.
Stepping in, we were greeted by the sight of a huge green mansion set at the far end of a green, landscaped lawn dotted with statues and garden chairs. A few men greeted us with smiles and ushered us into a room built into the gateway itself- the reception. Checking in took five minutes and then the manager himself escorted us to our first floor room. It took some time for us to realise that the entire staff of the hotel had actually gathered at the gate to welcome us.
Built as a guesthouse for the Maharaja of Bikaner by Malji Kothari – one of the richest Seths of Churu – Malji Ka Kamra is over 100 years’ old. The place was used as an entertainment house for visiting dignitaries with artists being called upon from all corners of Bikaner riyasat to showcase their arts. In fact, one of the rooms still carries an original painting of Ganga Singh Ji – who used to stay in that particular room during his frequent visits to Churu. The present owners carried out the restoration of this heritage building after it had reached a state of partial collapse due to neglect in last few decades. The main building showcases a unique combination of Italian style construction combined with ingenuity of local architects. The hugely impressive stucco work on the exteriors and Shekhawati style murals painted in the interiors are some of the finest examples of art prevalent in early 20th century. Several statues repose on the façade of the building …Lady carrying a pot on her head, Lord Shiva in Rudra thandav pose, and many more. All of them were so realistic .We were very impressed with a statuette of a monkey playing a snake charmer’s flute.The naughty expression of the little monkey was very amusing.
A very loyal set of employees take care of the maintenance and upkeep of this property now. Spacious, rooms, at least 20’x20’ and beautifully decorated fresco paintings on the walls took our breath away. It was splendid to see how these frescoes had retained their colour and freshness even after so many years. This three storied building has at least a hundred ornate doors- some of them are actually windows while others are merely a façade. Our own room had eight doors, one of which opened out into a large semi circular balcony overlooking the green garden.
A late lunch was served for us in the grand main dining hall- once upon a time the inside courtyard of the Haveli. We were the only guests there, and were offered a selection of tasty, simple vegetarian dishes cooked in the local style. Kair sangri wins my vote hands down.
As we ate, an unassuming man approached us and politely stood to one side. When I looked at him, he proffered a large album and stepped back. This album turned out to be a coffee table book of photographs of various ancient havelis, taken by one of their former guests. He softly informed us that he had written the foreword in this beautiful book. This gentleman was Lal Singh Shekhawat- guide and historian par excellence. A post graduate in Political Science, his love for the art and architecture of his native state compelled him to remain long after his peers had left for greener pastures, and he spends his time showing hotel guests around the town. In a trice, we finished our lunch and set off on the Heritage walk around the town.
The streets, lanes and bylanes actually were dusty, crowded and congested. We saw several dozen Havelis- unfortunately they are now in ruins because of sheer neglect and ill maintenance. Almost all of them are empty, save an elderly caretaker or two camping in the outhouse. Lalsingh used his good offices to let us into a few of them and what we saw left us wondering how majestic they would have been in their heydays … with their enormous ornate gates, horse and camel stables, gardens, statues, Italian marble floors, Belgium glass entrances and massive chandeliers. A strange sadness came over us as we realized that what we were seeing was the wilful destruction and loss of Rajasthan’s built heritage.
From the Havelis, Lalsingh took us straight into the market, a crowded, congested and traffic filled nightmare. There, in a tight little corner, almost in the path of a variety vehicles, we drank sweet milky chai made by Puneet- the fifth generation to run this tiny little teashop that was started in 1890. Several locals stopped by to say a friendly hello as we sat there. They were open, warm and welcoming and it was nice to sit there chatting cursorily with them.On the way back, Lalsingh regaled us with local lore, tales of romances and the historical importance of Churu ( the town lay on the original Silk Route). We also dropped into a beautiful Jain temple that he said was built in 1915.
Back in our mansion, a quiet dinner of dal, roti and sabji and we were done for the day. The Kingsize four poster beds were so inviting and comfortable that within minutes we were fast asleep under warm blankets. The next day, when we did not appear for breakfast till 11 a.m, a very concerned manager came knocking on our door to enquire. Since we were showing no signs of planning any activity at all and because two of us were still snoring away, he took it on himself to point out that we should not waste the single day we had in his town and suggested that we visit the Tal Chappar Sanctuary, a hundred kilometers away.
Within an hour we found ourselves speeding off on one of the most beautiful roads I have ever seen. Smooth, unblemished and solidly black, we seemed to be rolling up and down the dune like road at an impossibly high speed. We passed through tiny villages and small towns at a smart clip- and the landscape around us, almost desert like but covered in bush lulled us into a stupor. Scenes from Satyajit Ray’s Sonar Kella came to mind. A little later we rolled into the idyllic village of Chappar. An unremarkable signboard proclaimed the office of the Forest Department. We paid a fee of Rs 50/- to an elderly man dressed in the traditional Rajasthani style and who spoke to me in the quaintest of Rajasthani dialects- I almost went into raptures when he said ‘ Thamb yahan apan naam likho aur yahan thamb ke pita ka naam’ and in we went.
A deep silence enveloped us as we entered the sanctuary through unimposing gates. There was no one in sight. High blades of golden grass, large trees and a pretty little path through the wilderness. Not a soul in sight, not a sound to be heard except the chirping of birds. The growl of the car engine sounded loud enough to be heard miles away. We cut the engine in a small copse inside and looked around. And then we saw them. Hundreds, maybe thousands of enquiring eyes were looking at us through the grass. Their bodies almost hidden in the high underbrush, all we could see were those huge huge eyes and big black antlers.
For what seemed like an eternity, we all froze and just looked at each other. And then one of the deer moved. She emerged from the grass and made straight towards us. And then she came right up to us and standing on her hind legs, pushed her head through the open car door.
We went into an ecstatic frenzy of photography of course. For some minutes, all that could be heard was the rapid clicking of camera buttons and the flash of light from the mobiles. She, it seemed, had experienced this before, and patiently blithely waited for us to get over with it. She posed and preened, showing us her prettiest profiles- and then she got down to business. She wanted all the food in the car, every single bit of it. So she ate cookies, chips and even an orange, looking up from her chomping to pose for a photo or two as well. When there was no more food left, she showed her irritation by butting me in the knees, so hard that I almost fell over.
This impossible spectacle was being watched closely by hundreds of eyes. It was obvious that they too wanted to join in, but instinct was holding them back. Finally unable to satisfy our hungry friend, we got back in the car and went ahead. What we saw in that sanctuary will remain in our minds for a long time to come. We were at a waterhole, where the still water reflected the clouds in the sky. Hundreds of deer were drinking while a family of wild boars complete with little babies splashed in the pool merrily. A pair of kingsize eagles sat majestically at the edge of the water, watching the scene with a detached air. In the background, a pair of Nilgai lurked just out of sight. The proximity and unconditional trust of these animals left us praying that a certain famous person, known for his propensity to shoot black bucks, never finds out about this place.
Shutterbug frenzy finally satiated, we set out on our return journey. Stopping at an attractive wayside restaurant(dhaba), we sat down to an effusive welcome from the owner who promised us fresh home cooked food. Two youngsters got busy kneading dough while all four guests, driver included, promptly pulled out their mobile phones and started admiring the pictures they had taken. The food was heavenly when it finally arrived, steaming hot, fresh and cooked with love. Our enthusiastic host regaled us through lunch with tales of local intrigue and the shenanigans of local politicians.
The next day morning, we were up bright and early. A spot of breakfast, a few badminton games in the lawn and we thought we were ready to go catch our 1230 train. Our manager of course had other ideas. They sauntered up and suggested that we go visit some local artists. We agreed, more to satisfy them than anything else, and again within minutes, an auto had driven up and off we went. A long, long drive through the backyards of Churu took us to a village on the outskirts – the home of Pawan Jangid and his family. What a loss it would have been if we had missed this opportunity.
This spectacularly talented family of artists works with sandalwood to create magic. The entire family and several neighbours gathered in their single room to display their work and show us the many awards they had received. These were no ordinary wood carvers- they were magicians. Intricate designs carved into the soft wood, ingenious little secret panels that hid tales of intrigue and adventure and beautiful little showpieces stunned us into mesmerised silence.
Finally, it was time to leave Churu. We bade good bye to the friendly staff and made our way back. The memories of our tiny trip to this step back in time will remain with us for a long time.
Write up credit: Ganesh Murthy and Prakash Singh