When Deepak Balan invited THN for the weekend to Malji ka Kamra, I didn’t know I was going to discover treasures of the past in the little known and less visited town of Churu. The colours of the desert are unique in vibrancy and heritage abounds. But Malji ka Kamra and the breathtaking frescoes on ancient havelis is a visual delight for all those who like to have the feel the world unknown.
My December winter morning started at Delhi Cantt Railway Station where I watched the good old steam engine whistle away as coal was being put in. It was the beginning of a journey to another era. Getting off at Churu, Balan took us on a tuk tuk (local shared auto) to the haveli renovated into a hotel. And I have to say, the kamra is a misnomer! Looking at the sheer proportions of the haveli, it was no kamra or room. I was told that it was actually Malji’s guest house cum entertainment place (athiti graha and rang mahal). Dating back to the 1920s, the exterior abounds with sculptures of Hindu gods, the British officers and even the dear old langoor. The unique bit is the pillars, as these form the base of this 100-year-old structure. With a garden in front, Malji, our guide Lal Singh, tells us was a merchant/trader belonging to the Kothari family.
In fact, Churu has had its share of fame with some famous merchant families such as Suranas, Kotharis, Lohias, and the havelis in the old part of town are their ancestral homes. But it was sad to see the neglected state of these heritage structures; history rolling in dust.
The streets are named after the famous merchant families and some even had their private roads, now of course used by all. The small, narrow streets reverberate with the sounds of tales untold and history not recorded. And we were going to discover it all with Lal Singh after a sumptuous lunch.
Malji’s haveli has 15 rooms, all done up to suit the needs of today’s traveller. Each room is different, so I suggest you look at the different ones to see which ones match your energies. What I must mention is that room numbers 203, 204 and 205 have the most variety of frescoes and sculptures. My room on the terrace had three doors opening out. Narrow stone steps from inside lead to the terrace while there are bigger ones on the outside.
In fact, the architecture of yesteryears is a remembrance of times when women were not allowed much in public. The havelis in the area have the smallest windows possible, so that it remains cool in the desert heat.
Our lunch at Spice Court, which was the erstwhile courtyard of Malji’s Kamra, was a mix of Rajasthan and had a home-cooked touch–gatte kee sabzi, roti, salad, creamy rajma-urad dal, palak paneer. For those who like their sandwiches and pizza, there is a menu to choose breads. And liquor is only served to in-house guests.
Getting into walking shoes, we were ready to check out the area and the havelis. This was going to be the eye and mind opener to the heritage the little town has. Most of the havelis date back to the 1800s, the closed doors, the cobwebs speak tales which we would have liked to discover but found no one to tell.
Painted frescoes do have some tales though—Lal Singh tells us that Maharaj Ganga Singh of Bikaner was the patron then. The merchant families of the town would supply him with goods and things for his army. So most havelis have a fresco of the erstwhile Maharaja, scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are aplenty. Krishna was the favourite god. And the interesting bit is the colour. Lal Singh informed that reds indicate older times, blues and greens suggest closer to 1900s and stronger blues are of time even closer. But no one has bothered to date or work on the dating.
Walking around, we even saw a Jesus fresco and reached the clock tower built by the Birlas. Now the place has vendors and hawkers. It is also the main bazaar area of the town.
Another interesting restored place was the Jain temple. Fabulous, opulent interiors with a large chandelier, coloured lamps, golden borders and frescoes in abundance. There were paintings of Sita, the Jains’ famous Dada Muni. This was certainly an artists’ delight.
Sunset, Balan, told us was amazing at Sethani Ka Johra which is a water body a little away from the main town. Built by the wife of the first Marwari millionaire merchant, Bhagwan Das Bagla, this was her gift to the dry land during a severe drought. So we had high tea in this stark land with its no shrubs and vast moonlit sky.
But more adventure was to come at night when we went to the desert dunes for some barbeque and were witness to the most amazing meteor shower. We sat, sheikh style, around a bonfire, on mattresses and with lamps around us, eating chicken tikkas, gulati kebabs and downed it with beer. The moonlight, the company, the little lamps, it was an experience to savour. The day ended at midnight with us tucking into yum Rajasthani dish Lal Maas and masoor dal at Spice Court.
How to reach Churu
It is about 277 km from Delhi and well connected by road and railway. From Delhi, it is about 5 hours by train and 6 hours by road. A great weekend getaway for history lovers.
Malji ka Kamra Address: Behind Jain Market, Churu 3310 001, Rajasthan, India
Telephone: +91 (0) 1562 254444
Lal Singh Shekhawat
The Castle, VRO Mahansar, Distt. Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, India
Mob: 919784015111, 9166977111
Text by Ambica Gulati