It doesn’t take much for the traveller driving past Delhi to be reminded that the national capital is an odd island of thick urbanity along an expanse that is primarily pastoral. Haryana, anyway, is thoroughly agricultural — it can be scenic if farming in the state is in fully flurry.
The road is towards Rohtak. A quintessential Haryana town that can perhaps spring up the image of Devi Lal for a middle-aged Malayali. It was from this constituency three decades ago the highly influential politician contested an election that turned out to be a milestone in his career. When he won that Lok Sabha poll in 1989, tau, as he was fondly called as a paternal uncle for all, became the Deputy prime minister in the V P Singh government.
The Jat rusticity associated with Devi Lal continues to hang over Rohtak. Note those pickup vans that have both sides bulging out like an awkward-shaped balloon! What are these? How dicey can they be? Well, the mystery didn’t last for long. The vehicles are pregnant with just farm forage. They carry loads of crop residue from the sprawling maize fields that extend up to the horizon on both sides of the path.
Beyond Bhiwani, another urban Haryana pocket, is Pacheri Kalan. It’s an obscure point despite the police barricades, but noticeable of late because of its proximity to a higher-education institution: Singhania University. That means you are already in Rajasthan. The 2007-founded varsity is in Jhunjhunu.
Jhunjhunu -- the district’s headquarters is the destination. That is another 70 km away. The roads along the plains are smooth, increasingly giving sight to camels. Riding a cart. Or perhaps grazing, like the herds of sheep that dot the brown patches on both sides of the road. Their wool doesn’t look particularly clean. The herd also has black and brown goats that add to the overall colour.
At least once, the drive is punctuated by a railway cross. The wait for trains is a major ritual in north Indian countryside. None is impatient to get to the other side of the tracks. Often people seem to make the detention an occasion to relax. Some even get down from their two-wheelers and smoke a cigarette or stuff in paan. Laziness rules. Finally, a rumble is heard -- first from a distance, and then closer. The passenger train has its compartments painted in blue that contrasts with the golden colour of the evening sky.
The speed of the coaches tends to shake the surroundings before the sound goes feeble. The gates open, permitting vehicles to proceed. Suddenly, for all the languor otherwise, the traffic is like waters freed from a check-dam. By when you eventually hit Jhunjhunu, it’s night hour. Delhi is a good 230 km behind; budget hotels are thus far cheaper.
Rani Sati Temple
The morning sun confirms the initial impression that Jhunjhunu is at best a big town, nothing more. That doesn’t matter much, because the place is known for its history than geography. Jhunjhunu, in the northeastern part of the desert state, may be more of a dusty scrubland, but it has had a glorious past that continues to reflect in the bright frescoes. Multi-shade murals adorn the traditional mansions called haveli. Their intricate architecture enjoyed its heyday during the medieval period up till even a hundred years ago — all of it starting from the descendents of Rao Shekha, a 15th-century Rajput baron.
The painting-rich haveli apart, Jhunjhunu town today is arguably best known for a pre-medieval temple. The Rani Sati Mandir. It has, however, changed lock, stock and barrel over its possible 700 years of existence, gaining in size, vertically and horizontally. Yet many visit it as if in a throwback to a heroic act, which may not go well with the ideal spirit of contemporary women.
Sati, to trace further back to the Puranas, is Lord Shiva's consort. In an exasperating juncture of events, insult from her father Daksha drives Sati to immolate herself. It’s a popular legend that has seen real-life immolations in the Indian subcontinent. Among them is Narayani Devi, who is believed to have lived between the 13th and 17th centuries in what is now Rajasthan. Unexpected widowhood at a young age led her to commit suicide, lest she’d be (allegedly) captured by ‘invaders’. That earned Narayani the revered name as Sati and the halo of a goddess. Tales around the medieval Sati are varied and numerous; Rajasthan has several other temples in reverence for such women.
The shrine at Jhunjhunu today is large. It looks more like a palace; in fact its gateway has five storeys and two big canopies (besides smaller ones) atop it. Inside, the pavements are laid with white marble, while bright colours deck up walls of longish buildings that house lodges for the pilgrims. Further in, there are murals, but nowhere to be seen is an image of Hindu mythological goddess. Of course, there is a portrait of Rani Sati, else the sanctorum (called 'mand' in Hindi) features a trishul — the trident, symbolising power.
That doesn’t mean the Sati temple has no idols at all. They are of gods, and even of Sita as a goddess, but they are all in the annexes. There you have Lord Shiva, Rama and Hanuman as well. The temple has also a new-look gallery adorned with paintings and designs on its pillars and roof.
Outside, a 70-something man, sporting a V-shaped tilak going up his broad forehead, is taking an ISD call over his mobile phone. Perhaps his young grandson is calling from the US. Piety, in new-age India, goes well with technology. Religiosity doesn’t stop any from making immediate announcements of one’s visit to temples. Quite a few families are seen taking selfies and promptly pass them over WhatsApp and Facebook to whom all.... Obviously, these are new darshan rituals.
It’s said the shrine regularly hosts an 'aarti' by lighting camphor and ceremoniously showing its glow to the devout, but that is in the evening. It’s a good 10 hours away.
Cobbler amid the Khetans
'Mohalla' means locality in Hindi, and is no different in the Rajasthani dialect of the language. Khetan (or Khaitan) is one among the several communities of Marwaris who are into trade and traditionally belong to the Bania caste. Khetano ka Mohalla is the centrepiece of Jhunjhunu when it comes to haveli murals. A walk towards its heartland is defined by alleys with spots that have people huddling together and chatting.
Bhagirath Regal is among them, but he is not whiling away time. A cobbler all his life from a family who has been into footwear-repair for generations, the middle-aged man would sometimes call out strangers walking in front of him and invite them for a talk. Under a tin-sheet roof on the narrow corridor sits a fellow villager almost of the same age. “These days, I only make shoes and sell them,” he informs with a streak of pride. “We sell it for anywhere between 400 and 500 rupees a pair.”
Did the changed times bring any change in the profile of Bhagirath’s family at large? “Well,” he explains with a smile, “We are four children. All sons. Of my three brothers, two are into government service. The other runs a grocery shop.” Like his father, Bhagirath, too, has four children. “Again all boys; they go for construction work.”
The local chaiwallah brings the gathering the forenoon tea he apparently serves daily. Bhagirath continues with his desultory talk. So engrossed is he in it that the man makes no effort to ask the tourists if they would like to share the tea. That apart, when the conversation ends, Bhagirath gives a smile and extends his long arms to give a warm handshake.
The sleeping havelis
Ahead of another, the tiled path gives way to what a local resident assures is the entry to Liladhar Khetan’s multi-storey haveli. The rich man’s guard spends long hours around its premises. Loneliness seems to have made him bored with life and reluctant to talk to the tourists. His answers to the questions are measured, bordering on reticence.
So, what’s your name? That’s the only time he chuckles, saying, “Liladhar”. The hint: the servant and the master share the same name. Inside, the guard isn’t too suspicious of the visitors, whether they would be up to some mischief, more so with kids around.
The gateways bear brighter hues, possibly because the frescoes are new, but the walls around the courtyard have vintage looks more so with shades of maroon. This is another of those 19th-century Rajasthani mansions with its owners living elsewhere. For instance, Prabhat Khetan of this family. “Saheb lives in Kolkata; only that he comes for a long sojourn in February-March (when it is salubrious spring-time weather),” says Liladhar. Not surprising, the haveli also had new-age facilities: a fridge and even air-conditioners.
Downtown Jhunjhunu has the Modi haveli of 1895 vintage and bearing a more distinct Mughal influence in architecture. Again, its owner is in the eastern metropolis: Kolkata is where Mohanlal Ishwardas Modi runs his business. His chowkidar Lakhan Singh is younger, a slightly warmer than Liladhar. Your boss too is an occasional visitor? No, Ishwardas visits his Jhunjhunu abode “every month”, informs Lakhan.
A bit away from the city’s bustle, the spacious auto-rickshaw will take you through the labyrinthine alleys. It stops in front of a ground partly shaded by a huge tree under which children are playing volleyball. Women carrying pots of water above their heads walk with practised ease, almost covering their faces with the bright-bordered saris.
Opposite to their way, the road takes a cut and goes for a steep climb. It’s lined awkwardly with streaks of urine from the goats trying to munch on thorny shrubs. Up, at the entrance of the fort, the entry is closed at the mid-noon hour. A neighbour calls out to say one needs to only call in the number seen scribbled on the wall and the caretaker of the fort would arrive.
Pandit Govindji looked more like a temple priest than a museum guide when he appeared on a ramshackle two-wheeler in a matter of five minutes. His sense of history is expectedly limited even as the middle-aged man strays off the realm of reality by saying the fort is roughly three-centuries old. Apparently, a certain nawab called Fazal Khan built it in the early 16th century.
Govindji is matter-of-factly in his guided tour inside. He displays no emotion on showing the dilapidated stables that once used to house horses. The fort has a temple, once alive as the place of worship of the Rajput maharajas. Today, Govindji is its solitary guard; he doubles as the priest as well. The mandir (shrine) has a pair of drums that should sound when it is aarti time by dusk.
Mertaniji ki Baori
Stepwells are a celebration of basic life in a semi-arid belt like Rajasthan. Collecting water for daily consumption used to be much more than mere routine, given that it would anyway require a whole lot of time and energy. So, going down the earth to fill the pot with precious little of water was a community activity involving a lot of banter. The wells not just had steps, but also corridors and mandaps (porches) which had shade and let people enjoy long chats. The architecture of the buildings too was not just restricted to just engineering.
"Baoli" is the Hindi word for stepwell, but in Rajasthan that "li" become "ri". This one at Jhunjhunu was built in 1783 as per the orders of a Rajput widow called Mertani. She spent a good Rs 70,000 for its construction, or so goes the story. The whole complex is 235 years old if it is in 2018 you are visiting.
The steps are typically punctuated with arches, though the lack of an ornate feel is visible after a recent cleanup of the monument that is 30 metres deep at the start of the well. The water isn’t potable in the rare months the well gets wet. Will the "baori" regain some of its beauty? “Haanji, zaroor (sure, sir),” says local person Shyam Sundar, not with much conviction writ on his face.
Kamruddin Shah’s dargah
Still farther from the city is a beautiful Islamic complex housing a mosque, an educational institution and a grave -- a masjid, madrasa and a dargah, to be precise. Together, they are named after a saint named Kamruddin Shah, who was born a year after Mertaniji commissioned her 'baori'. The dargah was erected in the mid-19th century — that is 1841. It finds visitors from members across communities, given that Kamruddin was famed for his love for universal brotherhood. A swastika at the entrance encapsulates the spirit, making the complex a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity.
“Don’t miss the mehfilkhana,” says Mohammed Sohrabuddin, a tourist more familiar with the place. To where he pointed his fingers is a beautiful concert hall that hosted many a religious song in its heyday.
The morning hour adds to the eerie atmosphere. A tree inside has its branches cut so that uncensored sunlight comes in once the day picks up.
The return journey re-emphasises Rajasthan’s modern-time stature as an agricultural land. For all the social studies the Malayali learned in upper-primary schools, the desert state has its geography changed in a massive way. It’s far fertile, in fact unbelievable green in certain areas. All that, courtesy the Rajasthan Canal that began to be built from 1965 and had its first phase completed in 1983, a year ahead of the assassination of the then-prime minister Indira Gandhi in whose name the irrigation project got rechristened.
Today, far east of the state where the canal benefits people, farming is a major activity in Jhunjhunu district as well. Earning its advantages are the common people like Mathuram and Mathuram.
They are both traders in a nondescript crossroad not far from Jhunjhunu on the Delhi road. One sells 'kinnow', a variety of orange, while the other sells groundnuts a little away in his cart. The fruit-seller looks richer vis-à-vis his namesake, who has only a sad story to narrate: “My son met with an accident 18 years ago, and so his mom has to stay back home to take care of the boy.”
The 'kinnow' man has a chubbier face and twirling moustache that looks even more royal when he smiles. You buy the fruit from the wholesale market? “No,”Mathuram says with a guffaw. “We run a farm. We own it, ji.”
So Jhunjhunu fields are much more than just mustard fields, peas, maize, groundnut and wheat.