When you decide to travel into the heartland of Shekawati, what draws to your popular imagination is its painted havelis filled with themes of 18th-19th centuries India commissioned by erstwhile Marwari merchants of the region who made their fortunes at Calcutta and elsewhere. Almost all travel websites and bloggers allure you to its splendid havelis. A few who are a bit sensitive tells you the disturbing stories of their destructions.
Yes, I had the same romantic impression before I decided to explore this erstwhile kingdom of maharajas and merchants.
Shekhawati is one of India’s most hostile climatic regions. Situated on the edge of the Thar Desert, one sees stabilized sand dunes far and wide. I was told in summer, when the temperature shoots up to 500C, desert sandstorm is a common sight in Shekawati. There are no perineal rivers nearby. The only exception is the Indira Gandhi canal that brings the Himalayan water to the desert at a distance of more than 100 km from Shekawati heartland.
Against this backdrop, what I noticed is the numerous wells and step-wells that are scattered in every human settlements of the region.
I was curious to know why there are so many of these structures within a small territory. While flipping through the accounts of Thomas Hendley’s, a medical surveyor and amateur artist of 19th century I discovered the answer – ‘Rainfall in these districts, being irregular and variable, especially in Bikaner, and parts of Marwar, and also Shekawati, there are frequent periods of scarcity if not regular famines, both as regards grain and fodder, which act prejudicially on the health of the people and their cattle, the latter being even more important matter, for its cattle die from want of nourishment, the fields for a long time are thrown out of cultivation’.
In Shekawati, famines were like unwanted but expected visitors. They resulted not only in death and devastation, but also in large scale desertification of villages.
This explains why it was a part of every Shekawati merchant’s philanthropic attempt to build a well or baodi. In some of the murals, one can visualize how these wells functioned and buzz of activities around them in the days of yore at Shekawati.
To me beyond the world of fairytale settings, here one sees an aspect of desert culture that revolved around the optimal use of water, a lesson for every one of us today as we are heading to most severe water crises in the history.