In February, I went on a road trip to Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. The shrubby deserts, interspersed with the yellow of the mustard fields is a beautiful sight for the city dweller. The gorgeous sunsets, the magnificient palaces and the rich food speak of a very distinct culture. The forts and palaces are bigger versions of ‘Havelis‘, the palace-type houses in Rajasthan. Made with sandstone abundantly available in this rocky terrain, their grandeur stands out against the the backdrop of blue skies. Jaisalmer is called the golden city with almost all buildings (both old and new) built with yellow sandstone.
Though ravaged by the many wars fought both internally and with outsiders, this state holds itself in all its splendor. Climatic conditions, traditional beliefs and external influences speak in all aspects of life here, including their architecture. Read on or rather watch on as I went trigger happy trying to capture this region’s history and life through its palaces and forts.
Rajasthani architecture is very different from the North Indian architecture and represents an almost ‘West Indian’ tradition. The features bear a huge resemblance to Gujarati architecture owing to proximity and similar climate .With both regions experiencing extreme weather conditions, with little or no rainfall, there was definitely a need to make homes that keeps you cool during the hot summer months and warm during the biting chill of winters. Though we cannot deny the Mughal influence with many Rajput princesses between married to Moguls and thus bringing some of their culture back home, there is a uniqueness to the way it is portrayed here.
The entrances to the forts and palaces are huge. My first guess was that it was associated with grandeur, the larger than life attitude displayed by kings. Later my guide told me that the entrance was meant to accommodate elephants during the many processions, both during royal ceremonies like marriage (polygamy was the norm for the kings) and equally frequent wars!
Jharokha’ is a very important feature in Rajasthani architecture. Considering purdah (not permitted for public viewing) was important for women in the royal household, this feature allowed them to witness outside events without being noticed by outsiders. They are typically balconies covered with a ‘Jaali’. In havelis, usually there is an entire section called ‘Zenana’ where women lived separately from the men.
Another functional feature of the Jharokha are the sloping eaves called ‘Chajjas’ that project out above the balconies. They protect the building from the heat (can be as high as 50 degrees Celsius in summer) and the slope of the eave helps in draining out the monsoon rain.
The exteriors of a Jharoka are intricately carved with sculptures of flowers and peacocks. The ostentatious carvings on the exteriors represent the culture’s need for ‘display of wealth’. In some smaller havelis, the ornate exteriors camouflage the cramped interiors. Historically, each community or region in Rajasthan has tried to outshine the other with displays of bravery, beauty and wealth.
Covering the Jharokhas are the ‘Jaalis’. These are lattice screens intricately carved in either wood or stone and are prominent in most structures, even on balcony railings. Since an open window was not an option owing to security reasons, these screens formed the perfect alternative to windows. Most carvings on the Jaalis depict flowers and leaves.
Note the interesting shadows thrown by the ‘Jaalis’, further accentuating the beauty of the rooms.
The Maharajahs (kings) were patrons of art. There were frequent dance performances for entertainment. Dance halls were built are part of the fort/palace for this purpose and a lot of attention to detail was paid in making these rooms. Stained Glass was imported from Belgium for the windows. Imagine a beautiful dancer swaying away to the tunes of the palace musician. The windows can only add a dash of colour to this vibrancy.
.‘Aalas’ are small niches made in the wall for the placement of diyas (candles). Most of the dance performances were held after sunset. In order to light up the dance hall, diyas were lit inside these niches. The light from the diyas was reflected on the mirrored ceiling in the room. The room was often referred to as the ‘Moti Mahal’, the Pearl Room for the magical illumination that it created.
Courtyards called as ‘Aangan’ are common in the havelis, the one near the main entrance usually has a fountain in the middle. The number of courtyards in a haveli determine wealth of the owner. In most havelis, there are atleast 2 courtyards-one each for men and women. Women typically use the inner courtyard adjacent to the ‘Zenana’, their living quarters.
The ‘Chhatris’ are called so as they resemble umbrellas and are used to demarcate funeral sites. In some cases, they also act as a memorial for royalty. This feature was later copied in all future buildings. In recent structures, they are merely decorative and are not associated with memorials.
Every region is inspired by factors in their environment. Owing to the arid desert landscape, the region is devoid of flora. Most of the vegetation is shrubby, even the trees are bare. Hence the craftsmen here use a lot of flowers and leaves in their design. What they lack in nature, they compensate in their art. The block printers, dhurrie makers, Pichhwai painters, almost every craft here portrays this aspect.
Even structural requirements like columns are carved intricately. They are circular and even the most basic designs have a Lotus design at both ends. Traditionally Lotuses are associated with worship in Rajasthan. In fact, even the famed Pichhwais of Nathdwara in Rajasthan would be incomplete without the Lotus. A square structure similar to the Greek columns completes the design on the top.
Peacocks are a common sight in this part of India. The peacock showcasing its plume signals the onset of monsoon in this dry land. For a region with little or no rainfall, this is a welcome sign. Thus peacocks take prominent place in these sculptures.
The state was constantly at war either for succession or community clashes or invasions. The numbers of forts in Rajasthan stand testimony to that. All forts are fortified with high walls, secret underground passages and cannons at strategic locations.
Since people no longer live in palaces, the craftsmen here have adapted to the needs of today. The golden yellow stone is sculpted into everyday items like glasses, tea light holders and soap cases.
While some homes still accommodate the Jharokhas as part of the design, most others incorporate a few features like ornate Jaalis and columns to add a touch of royal living in their homes. Each of these pieces are hand crafted masterpieces, made by craftsmen who have been making them for generations. Luckily for them, there is still a demand for this craft.
The most fascinating feature of Rajasthan is that inspite of all the wars and turmoil, the art, craft and culture in this region has lived on. Rajasthan has stood the test of time.
P.S: Click Here for more photos.