Havelis – Old Merchant Mansions of Shekhawati

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Can I share a secret? I have new obsession… On my last trip to India I discovered a world of beautiful crumbling mansions and faded frescoes. The only problem is they are hours away from the closest airport and a harrowing drive across the Rajasthan desert.

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The grand havelis of Shekhawati were owned by the merchant princes of Rajasthan (who are now some of the most successful business families in India). Located in Jaipur state, Shekhawati mansions are found in the districts of Jhunjhunu, Chur and Sikar. Many of these buildings have been left abandoned to the harsh desert climate by familes who have migrated to the modern commercial hubs of India.

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The word haveli comes from Iran, and means “enclosed space”. In Mughal India it was known as a home for the wealthy and powerful.

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Built by the business-minded Marwari, these mansions are a testament to past business successes and remain beautiful examples of Indian artistry from the early 1800s to the beginning of the 20th century.

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Haveli architecture exemplifies Rajput and Islamic building forms, as well as occasional European influences. The richly painted frescoes reflect both the religious and folk art of Rajasthan, combined with the colonial influence of “Company School” style painting.

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As in most of India, havelis housed extended familes. Havelis often consist of two courtyards – a semi public meeting place for the men called a “mardana” and a private “zenana” for women (who stayed out of public view).

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Havelis were built inward facing which functioned as both a mechanism of privacy as well as protection from the desert and invaders. The traditional Indian courtyard home is built on the principles of Vastu Shastra, which state that all spaces emerge from the center of the house. All activities revolve around the center, which has a divine power and energy associated with it. 

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Ornate haveli doors were built to reflect the family’s status and wealth. Covered in wood carvings,hammered metal and elaborate murals, these grand entrances only suggested the splendors inside.

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We had the opportunity to tour two beautiful restored havelis in the Shekhawati region. First stop was French artist Nadine Le Prince’s gorgeous old haveli in Fatehpur.

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She has been lovingly restoring it over the past 15 years and has maintained it’s original artwork and features. A labor of love and definitely worth a stop if you’re in the area. For more info on tours and hotel reservations, go here.

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Further down the road we stopped in Ramgarh, Shekhawati where we spent a wonderful night at Ramgarh Fresco. It is owned by Raghvendra & Priya Rathore, who are from a prominent Rajasthani family.

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We were woken early by the sounds of traditional village life – cows mooing and the local Hindu temple bells clanging.

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If you get a chance to visit Rajasthan, it’s well worth a trip off the tourist triangle to visit these elaborate desert mansions. One can only hope that some day this region will be recognized as a World Heritage Site and given the restoration and attention it deserves.

Travel Diary: Shanghai’s Shifting Skyline

IMG_3106We travel to China four times a year, and it’s always fun to watch the changing skyline. It has changed dramatically from our first visit in 2006, and I was curious to see what it looked like 20+ years ago. A friend recently sent me a photo, and I was blown away…s_s03_aTX1292LHere’s a shot of Shanghai in 1987. Wow! The skyline today is really beginning to rival Hong Kong. And from what I hear, that’s exactly what the government intends to achieve.IMG_3094

Shanghai is the world’s fastest growing city – growing at a rate of 10% a year. The current population is 23.5 – nearly double what it was in 1987.

IMG_3080This is the newest tower going up – Shanghai Tower. It will be China’s tallest building and the world’s second tallest skyscraper, at 2,073 ft high. It is scheduled to finish by the end of 2014.IMG_3083It goes up into the clouds…
IMG_3121One of our favorite Shanghainese restaurants overlooks the Bund – Shanghai Min (in Mandarin it’s Xiao Nan Guo). After indulging in amazing hong shao rou (red-cooked pork) our tradition is to take an evening stroll and check out the ever-changing river skyline.
IMG_3132The ghosts/buildings of Shanghai’s past, still line the Puxi side of the Huangpu River. These stately historical Bund buildings once housed numerous banks and trading houses from the around the world.IMG_3123Today they are home to high end restaurants, nightclubs, boutiques and museums. IMG_3119It’s fun to see the old and new in close juxtaposition. Shanghai continues to be one of the most dynamic, interesting cities in the world.

Travel Diary: Doris Duke’s Islamic Art Inspired Shangri La Home

Doris Duke's pool at Shangri La.
Doris Duke’s pool at Shangri La.

It’s been a crazy couple months and I’ve been remiss in posting. So let’s do some catching up! At the end of August my husband and I spent a week in Oahu. I finally got a chance to visit Doris Duke’s mythical Shangri La home. A regular feature on design blogs like Style Court Doris Duke’s house seamlessly blends architectural traditions from India, Iran, Morocco and Syria as wells as 1930’s modernist architecture. And oh what a beauty it is!

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When Duke died she left almost a billion dollars. Her will stipulated the funding of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art which owns and manages the site. Our tour guide was super informative and taught us a great deal about Turkish and Persian tile work, and pointed out recurring motifs in Islamic artwork.

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The setting is stunning – right on the beach near Diamond Head overlooking Oahu’s rocky coastline on the Pacific Ocean. For over 60 years, Duke commissioned new pieces and continued to add to her artwork collection. A total of 3,500 art pieces are on display.

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The only child of a tobacco magnet, Doris Duke inherited a great deal of wealth upon her father’s death when she was only 12 years old. Duke’s love of Islamic art began on her honeymoon in 1935 when she traveled to Egypt, India, Indonesia, China and Japan. The trip ended in Honolulu. The marriage didn’t last, but her passion for Islamic art was ignited.

Doris Duke and then-husband James Cromwell at Shangri La, 1935 (photograph by Martin Munkacsi)
Doris Duke and then-husband James Cromwell at Shangri La, 1935          (photograph by Martin Munkacsi)

Duke’s collection includes a wide variety of pieces including Persian and Turkish (from Iznik) luster pottery and tiles, Spanish lusterware, Syrian inlaid wood furniture, Syrian pierced brass lamps, and colored glass bottles from Iran. Interestingly enough, she left very little in the form of memoir regarding her collection choices but her commitment to Islamic art is evident in the mission statement of her foundation: “promote the study and understanding of Middle Eastern art and culture”.

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The master bathroom at Shangri La. David Franzen 1999. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2012.) Damascus Room East wall of the Damascus Room. On display in the historic wall vitrine are examples of Syrian, European, Iranian and Turkish works of art from the DDFIA collection. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2012.) General view of the ceiling. The four hanging lamps were purchased with the room from Asfar & Sarkis. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2012.) Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.) Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.) Detail of the Damascus Room's ceiling. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.) Detail of the Damascus Room's ceiling. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.) Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.) Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.) Detail of the Damascus Room's 'ajami surfaces. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Rittermann, 2005.)   Historical Images of This Area The Damascus Room was originally built as a guest room, July 31, 1937. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Because of its Moorish-European—especially Spanish—furnishings, the guest room was sometimes referred to as the Spanish Room. July–August 1946. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Photograph taken in Damascus in c. August 1954 of Georges Asfar seated in the retrofitted interior purchased by Doris Duke in 1952-53. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Photograph taken in Damascus in c. August 1954 of the retrofitted interior. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. The east (Koko Head) wall of the Damascus Room during Duke’s lifetime, no earlier than 1962. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Damascus Room, 1999. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 1999.)    Damascus Room, 1999. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 1999.)
Damascus Room – Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.     (Photo: David Franzen, 2012.)

During the tour we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside so I’ve included some images I found online. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed into Duke’s Mughal Suite which was inspired by the Taj Mahal. Duke commissioned inlaid marble works from Agra, using the finest pure white Makrana marble. Her outdoor Mughal Garden is also an homage to the garden and water works in front of the Taj Mahal.

Mughal Garden at Shangri La.
Mughal Garden at Shangri La.

When you walk through Duke’s home and gardens you can’t help but appreciate her love of beauty and art. I highly recommend this book: “Doris Duke’s Shangri La A House in Paradise”. The tour has inspired my own further study into Islamic art motifs which I’ve seen on our trips to India and want to delve into further.

DorisDukeShangriLa_cover_FINALTours must be book in advance with the Honolulu Art Museum. For more info check out the website here. If you’re coming for vacation, book before your leave because the tours sell out quickly.