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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Cartagena, Colombia – December 2009

Bougainvillea on the streets of Cartagena de Indias.

In December we took a vacation to Cartagena, Colombia. It was the perfect combination of culture and relaxation. The architecture reminds me of a cross between Bourbon Street and Cuba. Lots of high balconies over narrow streets.

Toucan at the Santa Clara.

The old town of Cartagena is surrounded by Spanish colonial walls. Its position on the edge of the Caribbean was a strategic trading point in the 1600-1700s. It also made it vulnerable to pirate attacks.

The people are a mix of African, Spanish, and Indian cultures. The streets are bustling with vendors – fruits beyond your imagination, cheese arepas, and fresh coconuts. There are a number of swanky hotels, and upscale shops, mixed with shops frequented by the locals. It’s not a secret anymore and I’m afraid it will become one of those places that’s more tourist destination (like Venice) than a living, working city. For those concerned with safety, there were more police officers on the streets of the old city than I’ve ever seen in the States.

We stayed first at the lovely Casa La Fe, owned by the British Geoff and Colombian Carmen. They met after Geoff sailed across the Atlantic and fell in love with both the city and Carmen. The hotel is actually an old brothel. After they refurbished the whole building some of the women came by asking for their jobs back.  The location is fantastic and their hospitality is wonderful. They do not however, offer the services of the above mentioned ladies.

After 3 days at Casa La Fe, we took a sailboat charter with Geoff out to the Rosario Islands. We enjoyed a couple days of swimming, sailing and siteseeing. It was wonderful to be on the water and the weather was perfect.

The last few days we spent at the Sofitel’s Hotel Santa Clara. Our hotel room backed up to a view of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s house overlooking the ocean in Cartagena. Despite my rubbernecking, I was unable to catch a glimpse of him. The hotel rooms were pretty standard, but the huge pool was great and the hotel itself is built on the grounds of an old Spanish monastery. The design of the interior courtyards was spectacular.

Beautifully decorated courtyards of the Santa Clara.

And just so you know, it’s pronounced “Cart-uh-hay-nuh”. You can thank Michael Douglas’ character in the movie “Romancing the Stone” for the misspronunciation of “nya” instead of the hard “n”.