Nothing in the bumpy ride from a desultory train station to your hotel quite prepares you for the whimsy-wonder that is Churu. On the face of it, it is just another unexceptional town fringing the Great Thar, largely notorious for mercurial swings ranging from near freezing point to hovering around the 50 degree mark in high summer.
Detail from Tolaram Kothari Haveli, circa 1870AD
In recent times it has been trying to rid itself of another ignominious mantle. Finding itself at the bottom of a list on sanitary behaviour a few years ago, it vowed to become North India's first Open Defecation Free district. To its credit, the mounds are no longer piling up, though it is clear that even now turning around mindsets mandates larger shovels.
Side entrance, Malji Kothari Haveli, circa 1870 AD
That said, you're really here for Churu's forsaken past, one that included considerable commerce along a busy trade route that sliced through the Shekhawati region. And one that proved hugely advantageous to an assiduous Marwari community during the 19th century. The community celebrated its ka-ching moments in a grand and, quite literally, monumental fashion with massive multi-storeyed, many-courtyard havelis (mansions), often with European flourishes, enclosed within lofty walls accessed through soaring portals.
Venetian arches, Sagarmal Baid Haveli, circa 1925
Their mud-washed surfaces are swathed in strikingly hued frescoes, with the painted artistry depicting experiences, aspirations and prevailing interests of an affluent, well-travelled people. In more ways than one analogous to today's social media, these fanciful "status updates" of the past were also marked by incredible amounts of creativity, boasting variously humour, faith, irreverence, story-telling, tradition, leanings and acquisitions. Not to mention generous doses of narcissism!
Multi-level Ashok Kothari Haveli, circa 1875
Then, sometime during the second quarter of the 20th century, most merchants left to grow their fortunes in Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi; imminent business centres, all. Entrusting home and hearth to caretakers, locks and pigeons, they were to rarely return. No wonder then that moseying along, around or inside Churu's embellished albeit deserted bulwarks, while artistically overwhelming, led to moments of abject desolation. The few families that stayed on are unable to arrest the pace of disrepair even as these structures cry out for thoughtful renovation.
Legend of Dhola-Maru wraps around the exterior of the Bagla Haveli, 1880
It falls to the credit of those at Malji ka Kamra for having somewhat retrieved the town and its fading legacy from near oblivion. Remarkably Venetian in appearance, the confectionery-coloured, lancet-arched facade of the town's only heritage hotel fronts 15 well-appointed guestrooms over three floors. Adding to its light-hearted trimmings are quirky doe-eyed figures in stucco lending themselves to many an hour of amused neck-straining.
Humorous highlights at Malji Ka Kamra
Others who remained did so for reasons quite funerary in nature. This is borne out by a cluster of sepulchral pavilions in neighbouring Ramgarh, a settlement that owes its existence entirely to the Poddars, a well-known last name amongst the Marwaris. Harking back to the mid and late 19th century, these structures are every inch as magnificent as the havelis once inhabited by those now resting here. Keep an eye out for the Ram Gopal Poddar Chhatri built in 1872; a wide flight of steps leads up to a fresco-rich and pavilion-laden upper storey.
Ram Gopal Poddar Chhattri, Ramgarh
This is crowned by a slender-columned dome, the underside of which is beautifully embellished with images from the Ramayana and Krishna's Raas-leela. Other chhatris within the premises are near replicas, sporting rooms or temples in the lower sections, and one, a double dome. Ramgarh is a convenient 15km from Churu, should you to choose to visit, and can easily be clubbed as a day-trip with Mandawa, another 45km from here.
Detail of Poddar Chhatri, Ramgarh
Places of faith also benefited from the hard-earned munificence of Churu's success stories. The Jain Temple here is empirical evidence of their grateful generosity. A cornucopia of artistry that borrows unabashedly from Neoclassical Italy and Victorian England and marries it to Rajasthani elements, its interiors are a burst of stunning kitsch. Brilliant frescoes, glossy chess-board floor, fresh gild and cobweb-free crystal chandeliers clearly suggest recent refurbishment.
Jain Temple, Churu
But the gods weren't always kind, and along came the famine of 1896. It was time for well-meaning individuals to step up. The Sethani ka Johra, a chhatri edged water reservoir on the outskirts of the town is attributed to one such -- Brij Kanwari, the widow of Bhagwandas Bagla. It appeared to me when on a visit here recently that it was time again for yet another philanthropic intervention. This time to prevent a calamity more cultural. For it was evident that continued apathy towards Churu's matchless heritage will find it altogether fading sooner rather than later from both mud and memory.
Setahni Ka Johra, Churu
Are the Poddars, Kotharis, Baglas, Khemkas, Ruias, Suranas, Baanthias, Bachawats et al listening? Anyone?