The resplendent havelis or mansions of Bikaner in Rajasthan once hosted royalty and wealthy merchants passing through India's deserts with their caravans, but centuries later these bygone architectural masterpieces are crumbling.
Made from distinctive red sandstone, Dulmera sandstone, these once grand residences were famed for their vivid facades engraved with intricate patterns. First built in the 15th century by Bikaner's wealthy merchant families, who raked in the moolah being very conveniently located on a profitable trade route between Central Asia and the Gujarat coast.
These Rajasthani havelis boast multiple levels, large balconies, and grand rooms built around a central courtyard, enclosed to escape the summer heat. The architecture has influences of Rajput and Mughal styles as well as British colonial details. The urban layout is practical and unique—it helped mediate the extreme climate of the region as well as celebrate the citizens’ fortuitous growth. But after decades of neglect, a large number lie in ruins.
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Years of Neglect
“Many havelis have vanished in front of our eyes,” said Gopal Singh, who runs heritage walks in the old quarter of Bikaner, adding that in its heyday, the city had more than 1,000 such residences. “What exists is unique. Not just for its intricate architecture but just because of the overall concentration in one single place,” he explained.
Such decay is not confined to Bikaner, with historic residences falling apart in other major Indian cities where the old quarters have been felled by rapid urban development. In India's only UNESCO heritage listed city, Ahmedabad, efforts have been made to preserve the clusters of settlements identified as having huge historic value.
But there has been little cash or interest in saving the
havelis of Bikaner, a once fabled desert outpost where the sands of Rajasthan
skirt the city's ramparts. There are also reports that state the intricate
filigreed sandstone pieces from the havelis are dismantled and sold for a lump
Some 500 kilometres southwest of New Delhi, today it struggles to attract tourist interest and seems largely untouched by India's recent economic success. “It has been a long struggle for us to get the public and government's attention to the havelis of Bikaner,” said Singh.
This is despite, Bikaner’s havelis being put under World Monuments Fund, a private nonprofit organisation founded in 1965 by individuals concerned about the accelerating destruction of important artistic treasures throughout the world, watch in 2012. In 2015, Bikaner joined the Indian Historic Cities Network (IHCN). IHCN is a collaborative system of heritage experts and stakeholders in India that is helping document the city’s heritage in collaboration with the Bikaner Municipal Corporation. The first phase of this documentation project was completed in January 2017.
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Hotels to the RescueA lack of concern about proper preservation has been compounded by
overcrowding, poor city planning, as well as inadequate drainage and waste
disposal. Some families have taken matters into their own hands, reconstructing
the dilapidated manors and reinventing them as hotels and guesthouses.
“We decided to open this so that others too can experience living in a haveli, and it becomes more manageable for us to maintain this huge property,” said Manisha Maloo, whose family manages a popular homestay in the old city—Tanisha Heritage Haweli. A few families continue to reside in the ancestral estates and invite tourists in so they can learn about the heritage and history of the region.
“They come here and are so amazed and excited at the unique colours, heritage and design of our home,” said Rachna Mohta, who greets visitors on walking tours in Bikaner to her palatial 150-year-old haveli home. “It makes me feel proud,” she confessed.
But maintaining the huge, creaking homes saps money and energy. Many buildings have collapsed from years of neglect; others hang on by a thread. “We opened our haveli for tourists as a way to better protect our heritage, and to let people live our ancestors' experience,” Sunil Rampuria, whose family owns Bhanwar Niwas, one of the region's grandest and earliest havelis converted into a hotel, told AFP.
Singh warned that if action is not taken now to preserve and protect the houses, there will be nothing for future generations to see. He warned: “If things don't change quickly, we may not have any of these havelis in two decades.”
Featured image: Shutterstock.com
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