The Crumbling Mansions of India’s Billionaires
India is a land stepped in history. It is the birthplace of one of the oldest, living religions in the world. It also gave birth to three other religions as well. Inside India, in the Thar Desert, lies the forgotten home of some of India’s oldest billionaires. These historical mansions or Havelis are slowly crumbling away. Even today, their past glory is still visible. As of late, efforts are being made to preserve these historical pieces of architecture located in the Shekhawati region. The towns and villages in this region have some of most impressive frescoes located in a single area. The districts of Shekhawati have banned the sale of those havelis to anyone intent on harming their historical look. The purpose is to make this interesting spot a tourist destination. With a little bit of tender care, these mansions are being restored. This area was founded by the Rajput chieftain Rao Shekha, in the 15th century. The area prospered well into the 19th century. The region had lower taxes to lure merchants and caravan traders. The low tax initiative worked. In time, Shekhawati became of the most prosperous merchant regions of all of India. The locals managed to amass great wealth, through the sale of cotton, spices and good old fashion opium. In time, even modest merchants were able to afford to live in their own mansions. With so many mansions, each merchant set about to personalize their own little piece of heaven. This gave rise to plenty of mansions with unique designs. Even when the railways came in 1820, Shekhawati still managed to maintain its wealth. The merchants went abroad, while still maintaining their past opulence. [gallery ids="5758,5759,5760,5761,5762,5763"] During that time, the havelis acquired many lavished decorations. Merchants used their mansions as a form of boasting, to undermine their competitors. Still, they all maintained a similar architectural pattern, following the modality of the day. The Havelis are formed by two storied buildings, with 2 to 4 open courtyards. They are all arranged in rectangular blocks. Each room and courtyard had a specific purpose. The first belonged to the men, and the second for the women. The other two were for the hired help, and the animals. It was in the walls decorations were the merchants truly pulled out all the stops. They had ornamented wooden entrances, luxurious mirrors, and paintings on the roof and walls. This trend started in the 17th century. They were inspired by the ochre frescoes introduced by the Rajput kings. The merchants tasked artisans to make intricate paintings in all the mansion walls. This also included both the ins and outs of the mansions. The usual theme were scenes from the epic Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Closer to the 19th century, exposure to outside culture made the paintings include other subjects. For example, some featured the God Rama driving a car and there were even paintings of Jesus. In 1860s, new synthetic pigments were added. This made painting cheaper, and gave artists more pallet choice. By the 20th century, the frescoes had a mix of Hindu and European art. Even the mythological scenes start getting a bit out of whack. In the early 20th century, the havelis were abandoned for good. It became more profitable for the business tycoons to live in the city. They left their luxurious mansions to slowly waste away, into nothing. When trade moved away, Shekhawati slowly became deserted. According to Forbes, 25 percent of India’s richest business people had their origins in Shekhawati. By the 1950s, it became too much of an expensive enterprise to maintain a mansion that could house 50 families. Since these mansions are still technically private properties, the government is at a loss as to how to preserve them. In 1999, the French artist Nadine Le Prince bought an 1802 Nand La Devra Haveli. Using his wealth, he had it restored to its former glory. Now it functions as a public museum. In other neighboring towns, family mansions are also being restored and turned into public museums. Truly, these mansions are worth checking out.