In the desert, painted onto once-great — and now, mostly abandoned — houses, is dazzling proof of the Indian state's opulent history.
Aatish Taseer writes of this extraordinary past in T Magazine's upcoming May 22 Travel issue:
The pale hard land surrounding Delhi runs west into the Rajasthani desert. In the bottom corner of that desert is Marwar. If in that name you can hear the echo of words such as mortuary and murder, words of death, it is because it is there: The Sanskrit word for desert — maru, which gives us Marwar — is probably derived from an old Indo-European root for death. Death and the desert: The image is old, but the desert never did the Marwari traders, in southwest Rajasthan, any harm. In fact, it nourished them. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the fame of those traders had grown so wide that eventually, all the mercantile communities of Rajasthan came to be known as Marwaris. Like La Mancha of Cervantes, Rajasthan was possessed of the elements of an arid feudal culture. It was a land of war and wander, of heroism and gypsies, of strong winds and trade. The law of the desert, based always on scarcity, enforced a fragile equilibrium, easily disturbed: now by drought, now by the closing of a trade route. By the mid-19th century, the spread of British rule and the advent of the modern economy had forced the Marwaris to the cities of the coast (Calcutta, in particular), where their names — Birla, Goenka, Poddar and Singhania — became signifiers of monstrous wealth.
Success in faraway places did not make the Marwaris turn their back on their desert homeland. They sought instead to most impress those they had left behind. With the pride of native sons who’ve made it big abroad, a pride tinged with guilt, they lavished money on their old homes — havelis, as they are known locally.