ShekhawatiPainted land of Rajput Art & Culture.

History of Shekhawati

History of Shekhawati :

In the medieval era, Rajasthan stood divided into five large and several smaller principalities. The big 5 were Amber (Jaipur), Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur (Marwar) and Udaipur (Mewar). The first two kingdoms shared the region which was destined to become so rich in murals. The founder of beautiful Shekhawati region was MahaRao Shekha Ji, a descendant of the illustrious Kachhawaha Rajput clan who held Amber-Jaipur for centuries. The chieftains of Shekhawati were the descendants of Baloji, the third son of Raja Udaikaran of Amber, who succeeded to the throne of  in 1389.

The story of MahaRao Shekha Ji’s birth is interesting. Mokul Ji was a 15th century chieftain in the Amber territory who was much troubled because he had no son. In those days, it was almost sinful for a ruler to die without an heir, for who would sit on the throne after his death? So having heard a lot about the miraculous powers of the Muslim saint Sheikh Burhan Chisti, Mokul Ji and his wife decided to pay the man a visit. With the blessings of the Sheikh, a son was born to the Rajput couple. Mokul Ji christened his boy Shekha, who was to become the founder of Shekhawati or the ‘Garden of Shekha’, an important part of the surface of Rajputana.

MahaRao Shekha Ji(ruled 1433-88) was the chieftain of Amarsar in Amber where he refused to pay tribute to the Kachhawaha rulers of Amber-Jaipur. Thus breaking away, he proclaimed sovereignty in 1471 AD. In the following years Shekhawati comprised of a disparate sequence of small fiefdoms locally known as thikanas, the notable of which were Sikar, Khetri Nawalgarh, Dundlod, Mandawa and Parasrampura. However, the chieftains of Shekhawati retained a nominal loyalty to the Amber (Jaipur) State, who in turn honored them with hereditary titles. It was more like they were in alliance with, rather than subservient to the Amber throne. and it was probably due to this exposure to the beautiful courts of Amber-Jaipur that Shekhawati’s forts and havelis (mansions) came to be decorated gloriously with murals. Anyway, the Shekhawati-Amber power equation is best expressed in James Tod’s words: “The history of the Shekhawat confederation, which springing from the redundant feudalistic Amber, through the influence of age and circumstances, has attained a power and consideration almost equaling that of the parent state; and although it posses neither written laws, a permanent congress, nor any visible or recognized head, subsists by a sense of common interest.”

As the Mughal Empire fell into decline after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the descendants of MahaRao Shekha Ji, who had already spread themselves in the east of the Aravallis, began to encroach the west and north through the Udaipurwati and Sikar gaps in the hills.

Before the Shekhawat Rajputs could properly establish their fiefdoms on a large scale, the land had to be wrested from the ruling Muslim nawabs (governors). The latter had secured their estates with the help of the Delhi sultans who were in the country until 1526 when Babur came and routed them . Anyway, the Shekhawats were there to announce their arrival on the scene. In 1730 Jhunjhunu was seized by Sardul Singh (ruled 1730-52). The following year he allied with Sheo Singh (ruled from 1721), the powerful ruler of Sikar and evicted the nawab of Fatehpur, Sardar Khan. Rohella Khan and Sardar Khan were descendants of Kaim Khan and therefore called Kaimkhanis, were the most powerful of the nawabs of the region. With their defeat, important portions of territory thus got added to Shekhawati. By 1732, these two Shekhawati thakurs (chieftains), Sardul Singh Ji and Sheo Singh Ji, had carved a big niche for themselves. They grew very powerful and many of the other thakurs looked up to them for help.

Shekhawati was flourishing, and the signs were obvious. The Shekhawat Rajputs got their forts and palaces covered with murals.

Jhunjhunu lorded over by Sardul Singh, was richest and the most happening thikana of the painted region. It served as the capital of the new and extended Shekhawati. After Sardul Singh’s death in 1752, the estate was divided equally among his five sons – Zorawar Singh, Kishan Singh, Akhey Singh, Nawal Singh and Keshri Singh. Jhunjhunu thus came to be known as the Panchpana – the five estates. But it did not stay so for long, because Akhey Singh died without leaving an heir. His share was to be redistributed among the other four. Sardul Singh had made for himself a big empire, for even at the end of it all, the sons got big chunks and ruled autonomously. Zorawar Singh inherited Taen, Gangiyasar and Malsisar; Kishan Singh got Khetri and Alsisar; Nawal Singh  founded Nawalgarh and Mandawa; and Keshri Singh Bissau and Dunlod. The thakurs of every village in the region covered by the Panchpana were all descended from one or other of these men.

In course of time, the cake that Jhunjhunu was got cut further. The most prosperous region remained Mandawa and Nawalgarh, because of the excellent relations they shared between them. On the other extreme was Bissau, which in the hands of Keshri’s grandson Thakur Shyam Singh.

From the turn of the 19th century till about 1822, a vast amount of trade was diverted through Shekhawati and more and more merchants got attracted into the region. This was the meeting point of the camel caravans from the Middle East, China and India. Trade in opium, cotton and spices flourished. The merchant community that grew then is still a prominent class in the Indian society today – the marwaris. The huge sums of money that they dished out was to pay for the sheer volume of artistic expression that adorns the walls of Shekhawati. These marwaris and banias (traders by profession, not necessarily belonging to any particular region) built palatial havelis for themselves and memorials for their ancestors. For, the haveli was to a bania what the fort was to a Rajput. These havelis were like fortified houses which walled in the lives of the women, who spent most of their days in the zenana (women’s apartments) built around an inner courtyard. The men conducted their business on the white cotton mattresses of their sitting rooms. The marwaris also financed many temples, gardens, baolis (step wells) and dharamshalas (caravansaries) for the people. It was obvious that Shekhawati was growing prosperous, thanks to the industrious trading classes. But greater wealth was yet to flow into Shekhawati.

The flourishing cross-desert commerce wilted away as the British political set up grew stronger. More and more stress was being laid on the ports of Bombay and Calcutta instead, to establish monopolies for the East India Company. By the 1820s and 30s, it became more than clear that the future of trading did not lie in the sands of Rajasthan. But the marwaris of Shekhawati would not be so easily put down. Leaving their native land, the menfolk migrated all the way to the upcoming eastern colonial capital to put their trading genius to good use. Here too, they flourished which inspired more of their brethren to join them in an alien land. and by the end of the 19th century, the marwaris had carved a pretty big niche for themselves in the economic sphere in Calcutta. Similarly, they took position in Bombay, Surat and Hyderabad too.

Nothing in the history of India compares with the successful migration of the Shekhawati merchants. According to an American sociologist “it is estimated that more than half the assets in the modern sector of the Indian economy are controlled by the trading castes originating in the northern half of Rajasthan”. and of these, a majority originates in just a dozen little towns of Shekhawati.

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