Shekhawati region of Rajasthan gets its name from Rao Sheikha (1433-1488) who was a chieftain in the court of the Kachhawa Rajputs, the rulers of Amer (Jaipur). The free-spirited Rao Sheikha broke free and established independent control over his fiefdom. He and his descendents, however, continued their token alliance with Amer and in return they retained their position and salutation of ‘Tazimi Sardar’.
Around the same time, another region of Shekhawati was witnessing the rule of another new clan, the Kaimkhanis. Kaimkhanis are Muslim Rajputs. This clan was founded by Nawab Qaim Khan, who was born Karamchand, a Rajput, in the Churu district of Rajasthan. He was converted to Muslim religion by Firoz Shah Tuglaq. Kaimkhanis established and developed the town of Jhunjhunu and Fatehpur. The hold of the Kaimkhanis on the region was broken in 1730 when Sardul Singh of the Shekhawati clan took over Jhunjhunu. The Kaimkhanis were recognized as the martial race by British. Even today the horse mounted cavalry of Indian Armoured Corp. has many Kaimkhani recruits.
In-fact not only the Kaimkhanis, the Shekhawati has an enviable mix of proud communities with the tradition of sending maximum recruits for the Indian Forces and so the region is also known as the land of warriors.
Shekhawati lies in the easternmost extent of Thar Desert. The small towns of this region cuddle with the vast expanse of sand and oases. It was on important ancient trade route connecting Delhi with Sindh. As the trade on this route flourished, Shekhawati gained an economical edge to cherish. Its merchant community, the Marwaris, prospered by the trade and the land owning Thakurs reaped good earnings by the tax levied on the passing caravans.
There was a difference in the way the two communities spent their money. While Thakurs were known for their lavish life-style, the Marwaris were (and still) known to be extra cautious in their spending. These expenditure habits started to have reflections on their wealth as well. The Marwaris grew richer than the Thakurs in whose court they served.
To show respect and also to avoid conflicts and drawing Thakur’s ire, the Marwaris never built their havelis as grand and as opulent as the local rulers. However, the Marwaris had surplus, so instead of spending the money on external facade, they chose to have frescoes painted on the walls of their havelis which reached its peak in painting every facade, interior walls, arches, ceilings and even the pillars.
With such spendings, it was difficult to hide the abundance of money from the Thakurs who were in the constant look out for the new sources of money to sustain their lavish lifestyle. They desired and demanded piece of pie from the Marwari wealth. The Marwaris resisted it. Money matters made the two communities rivals of each other.
Some rulers in the dire need of maintaining their life-style went ahead and sponsored robberies against the Marwaris and other rulers turned blind-eyes towards such events. The callous attitude of the rulers forced the Marwaris to get into alliance with the British. It was a god sent opportunity for the British who were always keen on expanding their control and the area of influence. In this case, the control was over an important trading route and an alliance with the rich merchant community who were ready to pay extra for their security. The British based a small cavalry force in Jhunjhunu to protect the Marwaris. In long run this alliance worked in favour of the Marwaris as with time the trust between them and the British strengthened.
The arrival of railways reduced trade between Delhi and Sindh. Bombay, Madras and Calcutta gained importance. The business there was booming and they were becoming major trading centers.
The British suggested and encouraged their Marwari friends to move to these emerging financial hubs. Merchant communities, traditionally, were open to explorations. Even the colonial rule was result of the desire to explore new areas to expand the business. It was the same with the Marwaris. Traditionally the male members would leave their ancestral places to start, manage, and also to expand their business in far-flung areas. In-fact, the merchant community of Shekhawati is known as the Marwaris because they migrated from the Marwar region of Rajasthan, Jodhpur and Pali, to establish and expand business on this important trading route.
The Marwaris were aware of the hardships in such pursuits, so in order to protect their families from the undesired and unforeseen events of the foreign land, they left them behind. This helped women folks and the children to lead a stable life in the familiar surroundings. It kept Marwaris strongly connected to their native place, which they could always call their home and the money earned at foreign land traveled to their hometowns. It in a way also secured the money from the brigands of foreign land.
As the business grew, in some cases into empires, the money continuously made inroads to the tiny hamlets of Shekhawati. This money was then spent in making grand and elaborately decorated havelis. It improved the health of the local business and provided comfortable life to the family in the absence of the patriarch. Such expenditures defined and raised the social status of the families and also helped in prospective matrimonial alliances. Sometimes the purpose of constructions and painting murals and frescos was to provide aid at the times of famine as well.
With time, as the fire of independence got ignited in the heart of common Indians, several of these Marwari stalwarts associated, aligned and contributed to the India’s freedom struggle. When Birtish left India, these Marwari Businessmen were the ones who had the money, influence and know-how to manage the business arena of newly freed country and resurrect its economy.
Shekhawti today is known as the land of Kubers, the Hindu God of wealth, with most of the who’s who of the India’s Business arena and the media tycoons originating and belonging to this region like L.N Mittal, Birlas, Modis, Poodars, Singhania, Goenka, Pilania, Piramals, Rungtas, Ruias, Khetans, Dalmias.
I tried to explore the structure and uniqueness of this region that led it to achieve the distinction of being the Land of Kubers and Warriors. Next, we would wander into the havelis of bygone era, admire the frescos and the murals, appreciate their uniqueness, and learn why travelling to Shekhawati is not like visiting any other tourist place but its like visiting an art gallery, an open art gallery to be precise.