Nawalgarh: "The Haveli and Mundan Sanskar"
February 20, 2007
Dear Family and Friends,
"Jan, why India?" "Why now?" Perhaps you are asking these questions. The obvious answers are: "India is close to Thailand." And, "There's no time like the present." True. Very true.
The real truth is that my friends in Mumbai, Paawan and Sushma, invited me to an auspicious family celebration.
I met Paawan and Sushma Seksaria in Hanoi four years ago. They were on their honeymoon.[*] Now they have a one and a half year old son, Agastya. And when a Hindu boy reaches that age, he must endure a traditional haircutting - hair sacrifice ceremony -- Mundan Sanskar.
Paawan and Sushma and I meet in Jaipur. Sushma takes me shopping for Indian clothing. That evening we have dinner with cousins at an amusement park. The next morning we rendezvous with Paawan's parents and in a two car caravan, including two drivers, the family servant and Agastya's nanny, we drive north to the Shekawati region to the town of Nawalgarh and the family Haveli.
So, what's a haveli? Haveli is translated as a "traditional, often ornately decorated residence." This particular two storey haveli is the largest and most prominent building in Nawalgarh. It was built about sixty years ago by Paawan's great grandfather who shall we say was a "successful" cotton speculator and trader. A plaque in his honor is installed at the Chicago Rice and Cotton Exchange.
The approach to the one hundred room Seksaria Haveli is impressive. The exterior is a series of archways of different widths. The carved stone work above the arches is intricate and artistic.
The full complement of household staff greets us at the top of the driveway. The chief housekeeper escorts us through the grassy central courtyard to one of the four smaller inner courtyards. Even this smaller tiled open courtyard is quite large with oversize comfortable couches, a wide-screen TV and a large dining table at one end. The surrounding upper walkways and bedroom doors look down on to this family area. In the rear is the kitchen area and storage closets. The tile walkways and floors have elegant geometric designs.
For two days I accompany the family as we visit several temples and shrines in the area. These religious sites are especially significant for my hosts, their extended family and their ancestors. One small shrine is located outside a village in a field under a huge tree. Another site is an enormous temple with colorful carvings on the outside walls and the roof. Magnificent glass mosaics and silver plaques decorate interior walls and passageways and ceilings. Hundreds of visitors and their small children gather for their religious devotions.
At our very first temple visit, we mount the stairs to the main sanctuary. Paawan and Sushma present their small son to the priest who proceeds to clip large swatches of the boy's hair. The hair is left behind as an offering in the temple. The parents are happy; the grandparents are beaming and proud; and Agastya, well Agastya is feeling around his shaved head and I must say he is not happy at all. Perhaps that is part of the meaning of the ceremony; the boy is learning to face surprises, disappointment and sacrifice.
Paawan and his parents are the most generous hosts. We eat lunch in restaurants on the road but breakfast and dinner are served at the haveli. Since the family are strict vegetarians the cooks provide an unending array of salads, savory crunchy desert beans, corn or peas and cottage cheese in a rich butter and tomato sauce, chutneys, mango pickles, yogurt soups, and the ever-present dhal - lentil puree, prepared each day with different ingredients - sometimes a bit spicy.
My favorite dish is a slightly sweet wheat germ pudding. Several types of wheat or rice bread, baked or fried, are always available from the constantly circling servants.
Mrs. Seksaria is the typical "Hindu Mother" as she presses more food into my exploding stomach and expanding waistline. Now I understand why Sushma encouraged me to purchase draw-string pants.
The Seksarias also understand my needs as an independent traveler so one day they just turn me loose in Nawalgarh. I wend my way through the narrow streets, past the shops and markets, with a detour at a small music kiosk where I find CD's with Rajasthani music. My destination is the famous "painted havelis."
Just as my "home" here in Nawalgarh, the large havelis in the Shekhawati region were built by wealthy industrial merchants and traders from the late 18th Century to the early 20th Century. The paintings are striking and vividly colorful frescoes on the outer walls, eaves, and inner walls of these splendid ancestral homes. The paintings depict gods and goddesses at play and in love, martial heroes, and contemporary images of British ladies and gentlemen, and such modern devices as telephones, cars and the railroad.
Two of the haveli are now museums. The Morarka Haveli Museum focuses on conservation. The Podar Haveli Museum restores the paintings using the ancient system of dyes from ground minerals and vegetables.[**]
In Nawalgarh and in other towns in this region, I also find several abandoned and sadly decaying havelis where the images on the walls are fading. But under the eaves I discover bright paintings that are protected from the sun and the rain.
Yes. There is so much to discover. One of my secrets is to look up, straight up to find decorated ceilings, carved brackets and gargoyles, lintels and pillars. One need only stretch just a little bit to discover elephants and snakes and flowers and birds and the most ingenious designs.
I stretch out for the motor trip back to Jaipur. The senior Seksarias sit in the rear of our large vehicle; they insist I ride up front. My new friends are headed to the Jaipur Airport and their return to Mumbai. I am booked at a small guest house, Govind Niwas. From there I will continue my voyage of discovery of the forts and temples and palaces of Jaipur, the Pink City of Rajasthan.
Jan -- needing a haircut of his own very soon.