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.

Fashion Diary: Wearing a Sari for an Indian Wedding

IMG_0482In November I attended an Indian wedding in Jaipur, India. And of course I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to wear a sari! A friend in Jaipur recommended the store Zari, so I headed over there to check out their selection. IMG_0142IMG_0098I’m always out of my element in India because black isn’t a color choice. Bright pinks, fluorescent greens and yellows – all fight for attention – and none look so fabulous on a blond with pale skin. I had to dig deep to find some colors that would work for me.IMG_0101IMG_0100When I made my selections, the salesmen unfurled the saris so I could get a better look. My first choice was a deep red sari with beautiful gold beading.IMG_0088It was lovely but I also spotted a beautiful green sari I tried next. I asked one of the salesman to demonstrate how a sari is folded.

I can guarantee this takes some expertise! I thought it was interesting that the sales people were men rather than women. In such a conservative society it was a surprise to be dressed by a man.

At the end of the sari there is extra beaded fabric that is used to make the cropped top you see below. The top was tailored to fit.IMG_0221The lady shown in the picture was called in last minute to help me get dressed before the wedding. She expertly pinned and draped the sari – saving me from certain sari disaster!IMG_0224

Earlier in the day I shopped for some lac bangle bling to go with my sari.IMG_0167 IMG_0166 On the recommendation of my “Love Jaipur” guidebook I went to the old Tripolia Bazaar, and visited a lac bangle shop called Naaz Bangles. It’s been in the same family for many years. IMG_0184 The sizes were a bit small for my hands, but they stretched them on the spot. There were so many gorgeous bracelets to choose from! Prices start at about $1 per bangle. The more you buy, the better the deal! IMG_0201On my way out of the bazaar, I ran into a cow and a holy man. Just another day shopping in Jaipur…IMG_0191 IMG_0155 So here’s the final look – I have to say I felt like an Indian princess. It’s not often you get to wear something so lovely…IMG_0486 IMG_0492To buy your own sari go to:

ZARI 10/11, Narayan Singh Cicle, Opposite City Pulse Mall, Jaipur, Rajasthan 302004, India
PH: +91 141 511 2276

The Nagas – Hidden Hill People of India by Pablo Bartholomew

My recent obsession is the Naga tribe, a group of historical headhunters relatively unaffected by modern society. They are a nomadic Hill Tribe who live in and around Burma and India. I stumbled across this magnificent collection of pictures by photographer Pablo Bartholomew that was on display at the Rubin Museum of Art in 2009. Click here for slide show.

Here’s the blurb from the website: “Indian photographer Pablo Bartholomew (b. 1955) grew up hearing stories of Naga tribes from his father Richard Bartholomew, who fled persecution by the invading Japanese forces in his native Burma (present-day Myanmar) to India during World War II and encountered Burmese Nagas along the way.

Bartholomew’s father related tales of the Nagas’ hospitality and kindness, planting a seed of curiosity in his son’s mind that would finally bear fruit in 1989 when Bartholomew began what he calls a “visual anthropological project,” photographing Naga tribes over a period of nearly ten years.

Despite the danger posed by low-level warfare between the Indian army and secessionist groups along his path to the Naga hills, Bartholomew describes his trips there as “an escape…where phones didn’t work, there were no faxes, and just the hill tribes and people of the valleys.”

“Residing in the low Himalayan hills of northeastern India and Myanmar (Burma), the Nagas are a people faced with both tradition and transition. This very diverse community is divided into a number of tribes and sub-tribes and speaks as many as 30 different languages. In Nagas: Hidden Hill People of India photographer Pablo Bartholomew offers a visual anthropology of these historical headhunters, particularly the preservation of their traditional culture and their interaction with and adoption of Western religion and influence.”

A Rich Kaleidoscope Pillow from India

18 x 18 Embroidered Kaleidoscope Pillow from India
I’ve been madly uploading photos to Wanderloot.com with the hopes of launching soon.  Here’s a taste of what’s to come – a super fun embroidered pillow from India. It’s made from linen and comes with a pillow down insert.  It adds a wonderful pop of color to any room. 

Hand Carved Rosewood Opium Cup from India

Rosewood Opium Cup
I love the design of these unusual wooden cups.  This vintage, hand carved Rosewood opium cup was used by farmers in Jodphur, India to consume a drink made with opium. After a hard day in the field, it was used to relieve fatigue. I will have several of these items for sale on Wanderloot.com. They are 50-100 years old.

Beginning a New Journey

For the last 6 years I’ve been dreaming about starting Wanderloot.com. What is Wanderloot, you might ask? Well, it started with an idea of selling things I find on trips overseas. My husband and I have a furniture business in Portland which requires frequent trips to Asia. Most of the stuff we shop for is traditional furniture. But I have a secret (and occasionally nagging) passion for traditional and ethnic items.

It started with the odd Mao tchotchke but over the years I’ve been travelling, I’ve gotten a better sense of what’s unique vs. the typical tourist fare you might find in Shanghai or Ho Chi Minh. I’ve also gotten better at bargaining (thanks to my husband’s mad skills). 

My goal is to launch Wanderloot.com within the next month or two. It will start with some cool pieces we’ve imported from Jodphur, India. My mission is to find one-of-a-kind, artisanal pieces which will bring a smile to your face, and a brightness to your house.

And by the way, I happened to Google “Wanderloot” and found that my made up name really isn’t so made up. James Joyce beat me to it in his novel “Finnegans Wake”.

Let Wanderloot.com begin…