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.

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A Fairy Tale Hindu Wedding in Jaipur

IMG_0276Indian weddings are always intriguing to the Western imagination – they supposedly last for days, include elephants, loads of jewelry and music and a riot of colors. An exaggeration, right? I am happy to report that the wedding my husband and I attended in November lived up to our imagination and then some…

The handsome groom Lalit with his young nephew.
The handsome groom Lalit with his young nephew.

We’ve known the groom Lalit for 5 years or more. We buy furniture from his family in Jodhpur. When he informed us it was his turn to get married, we jumped at the chance to celebrate it.

The beautiful bride Shipra.
The beautiful bride Shipra whose family is from Udaipur.

His bride Shipra was introduced to him about 3 months before the wedding. She hails from the lovely city of Udaipur. 90% of all weddings in India are arranged. These arrangements are based on the couples religion, caste, profession and appearance.

IMG_0109 The day we arrived in Jaipur we joined the family at their home and participated in traditional henna painting. Usually the women of the family get their hands painted, as well as the bride and groom.IMG_0112 Traditionally the initials of the bride are painted into the groom’s hands and the bride must find them (or risk bad luck). IMG_0132Local village women chanted outside the groom’s room as he was treated with a face masque. They chanted all night long.IMG_0201The painting itself took about half an hour, and about 5 hours to dry. By the end of the evening we were impatient and started picking the dried henna off rather than wait until the morning. Fortunately the henna dye took.

IMG_0474 (2)The next evening we joined the family for a huge song and dance performance. There were about a 1000 (yes!) guests. Professional singers alternated with family Bollywood performances.  And the family was good! They had been practicing for weeks. It was fun to see how much they got into it.IMG_0333Less fun was when we were asked to get up on the stage and dance (I quickly demurred – not being up on the latest Bollywood dance moves). Let’s just say it’s been a while since I’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire.IMG_0515Pyrotechnics lit up the stage (this guys was wiring together the electricity below the stage). We didn’t stand too close…IMG_0366Long rows of tables were loaded with local vegetarian delicacies and we eagerly filled up our plates with these delicious dishes.IMG_0398Fresh baked rotis and chapati were baked in clay ovens and over coals, while warm spiced Masala chai was served in clay cups. IMG_0420 (2)We were introduced to a new drink – Kashmiri tea – which is flavored with slivered almonds and spices – a real treat on a cool fall evening.

IMG_0231And finally… the actual wedding night! We were running late because my sari top (called a “choli”) wasn’t finished on time and we had to fight Jaipur traffic back to our hotel. We quickly located the wedding planner who expertly wrapped and pinned me into my sari – no small task!IMG_0253We arrived at the wedding venue at 7:30 only to find we were among the first to arrive. Indian time tends to be a little on the delayed side, so we assumed we were early. Fine, except for the fact we didn’t recognize anyone. Concerned we had been dropped at the wrong wedding, we asked around and confirmed the venue was indeed correct. But where was the groom’s family? IMG_0255Suddenly out of the unfamiliar crowd a man appeared with a cell phone. We were told by the groom’s brother we needed to join the groom’s entourage – quick! We got into the stranger’s car and were driven a few blocks to a huge wedding procession…

IMG_0307We saw Lalit riding on a decorated white horse (with pony tails!) wearing $2 million dollars in nugget sized green emeralds and dressed in a glittering white wedding suit. Now this is how to enter a wedding!IMG_0319Accompanying Lalit were hundreds of women in colorful saris loaded with serious jewelry, men wearing saffron turbans pushing beaded white lamps on wheels, men dancing on stilts, and a live band with professional dancers. What a scene!IMG_0314 IMG_0336IMG_0317

We followed this colorful, joyous crowd back into the wedding venue, passing a painted elephant along the way….IMG_0342When we arrived at the wedding venue, we were serenaded by a red turbaned Punjabi bagpipe band whose set included throwing drums into the air and clicking their heels. IMG_0246And soon the bride arrived on a palanquin carried by eight men, proceeded by dancing women…IMG_0420Her family procession followed behind. Shipra wore a beautiful red sari embroidered with $50,000 in diamonds and a quarter of a million dollars in wedding jewelry – mostly necklaces. (!!!)

IMG_0424The wedding venue was huge – over two football fields long – and held approximately 3500 guests. I’d never seen so many colorful, bejeweled saris.IMG_0386And then there was the food… There were about twice as many tables as the night before. All sorts of amazing Indian delights.

IMG_0263 IMG_0384 (2) There were spicy curries, rich dals, warm rotis dripping with ghee, barbecued vegetables and tandoori cheese, Italian pizza, kulfi, ice cream, traditional Indian desserts including gulab jamun, and wedding cakes covered with candied silver and pomegranates. Divine…

IMG_0422 IMG_0456 The bride and groom participated in several choreographed performances (more dancing!) and then spent a good portion of the evening patiently posing for pictures with wedding guests. Their stamina was admirable!IMG_0476We finally left at 1am but party hearty guests, family and the wedding couple stayed until 7am the next morning performing Saptapadi (Hindu fire rituals) which sanctified the marriage union.

IMG_0383We left  the wedding with full stomachs, warm hearts and memories for a lifetime.

Travel Diary: Celebrating Holi in Rajasthan

We just got back from a buying trip to India where we have been sourcing unique reclaimed Indian furniture. The trip marvelously coincided with a holiday in India called “Holi”.

David getting some local color.

Holi is an ancient Hindu celebration of Spring, which is known as the “Festival of Colors”. It is observed on the last full moon of the lunar month.


Participants traditionally throw bright, vibrant paint powders at friends and strangers to celebrate the arrival of spring.  It also commemorates the Hindu god Krishna’s pranks, and allows people to drop their inhibitions and simply play and dance.

We had a blast celebrating with one of our Indian factories and spent the afternoon throwing paint and dancing with the factory workers.

David and Julie looking very colorful.

Some of the factory workers were dressed up as women dancers, and a DJ played loud dance beats.

The paints took days to come off, but it was well worth it. A great time was had by all! We can’t wait to join in the merriment again.