The streets of Churu’s old town are quiet and rather empty. There is the occasional motorcycle, its absurdly loud horn urging a bull out of its way, and autorickshaws full of schoolchildren that careen through the narrow lanes in the afternoon. There is an abundance of photogenic grand doors here, most of them locked. Some are so definitively bolted that even the locks are covered in plastic to protect them from moisture and delay rusting. The beautiful old havelis they lead to lie unused and in disrepair.
Churu market, on the southern end, is a sharp and lively contrast to the emptiness of the rest of the old town. Here, vendors, animals, shoppers, and two-wheelers jostle for space in lanes lined with shops. There are mounds of dried red chillies, large cloth-bound ledgers of the kind used by merchants of old, kachori-makers with their giant smoking kadais, and bright bandhej dupattas fluttering in the wind. There’s a convivial energy, and a stomped toe is forgiven with a gentle smile. Occasionally a large car tries to squeeze through streets that seem to wind gently, only to make sudden right angle turns. Lanes that are wide enough to accommodate a truck at one end, narrow down just hundred metres along into pedestrian pathways.
Away from the market, the sounds drop away, blocked by the thick walls of havelis that look magical in the golden light of the setting sun. Century-old deep reds and bold blues glisten in that enchanted light, making it look like the legendary Rajasthani lovers Dhola and Maaru—immortalised in folk songs—are still trying to escape their pursuers. Details stand out, so it seems that the ghungroo adorning the feet of the gaily dressed dancer on the wall will start chiming any moment.
The rest of Churu, a town of just over a lakh people in northern Rajasthan, sprawls around this silent core in a tumultuous muddle of vehicles and bright lights, and a riot of the bubblegum pink and pista green favoured by home owners here. A number of India’s richest families, including the Lohias and steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, have their roots right here. Further north, just beyond the edge of the town, lie the creeping sands of the desert.
Churu’s oldest havelis were built in the 1830s and most are completely decrepit. It’s not unusual to see only a fragment of a wall standing, faint flecks of colours on its once-beautiful facade and a giant lock holding closed doors that only lead to wild foliage. Once in a while, bright colour erupts in the middle of the browns and ochres, where a family has made an effort to renovate an ancestral home. Here, one can see in startling detail the care and effort that goes into creating and decorating even functional doors, walls, and windows. The doors, decorated with brass knobs, have up to five layers of intricately carved frames, with painted sentries guarding each side. Standing in that courtyard, I try to imagine what it must be like to live inside a work of art.
The paintings here are in the Bikaner style with some Shekhawati influences, from the work seen in better-known towns like Mandawa and Nawalgarh. Churu’s paintings are not as intricate and their subject matter is often matter-of-fact. Instead of religion, the frescoes here deal with subjects of everyday life. There are elephants and camels, dancing women, portraits of ancestors and royals, fancy cars, and even a train, though the railway didn’t come here until the 1920s.
Interesting stops on the haveli trail include the gaily painted Surana Brothers double haveli that was built in 1871 to have mirrorimage houses for two brothers; the Hawa Mahal with 1,111 doors and windows; the largest fresco in town on the walls of the Bagla Haveli; and the ruins of Malji Kothari ki Haveli, which was built in 1865. Malji ka Kamra, the heritage hotel I’m staying at, was built by Malji Kothari as a rangmahal (palace of colour) where he entertained his guests. There’s a sharp difference in the architecture of the two Kothari buildings. While the haveli has traditional frescoes, the rangmahal, built in 1920, has Italian influences like columns and stucco decorations. In fact, a number of small figures on the outer facade show English soldiers and other foreigners.
Locally sourced ingredients are one of my passions, and Churu’s bustling little market holds a bounty. Walking down certain lanes, my nose begins to tingle. That’s when I know I’m near shops selling dried Rajasthani red chillies, fiery as the desert sun. Another interesting purchase I make is ker, a sour, green berry that grows on a thorny bush: It’s available raw or as a delicious pickle. It’s also one half of the famous Rajasthani dish ker-sangri; the latter is the needle-like fruit of the thorny khejari tree. Both raw ingredients are dried and sold, so they keep for months. Recent studies have shown that ker and sangri have great nutritional value, purifying the blood, cooling the body, and providing high amounts of calcium and vitamin C. Kachri powder is commonly used across India as a meat tenderiser or to add a tangy flavour to dishes, but the wild melons can be bought fresh only in Rajasthan. Kachri are also sold here as a delicious pickle. I also stocked up on the tasty Marwari papad.
Even if shopping is not your cup of tea, exploring a small-town market is a refreshing experience after city malls. People call out greetings to each other, and show small courtesies to a visitor from out of town. While in the market, don’t miss the ghantaghar, which was built by the well-known Birla family in the early 1900s, and the red doorway, which is all that remains of Churu fort. A visit to Nagar Sri, a small museum that houses a collection of traditional household items—utensils, financial records, jewellery, and clothes—donated by local families, is insightful. End the trip with a stop at Vijay Kumar’s chai stall in the heart of the market for delicious masala tea accompanied by sweet petha or onion kachoris. Pop into Sonu Photo Studio to see some beautiful old photographs of Churu town and the havelis in their original grandeur.
Make a sunset trip to the beautiful Sethani ka Johra (4 km/20 minutes northwest of Churu). The construction of this pond was funded by the widow of Bhagwan Das Bagla, the man who is considered the first Marwari millionaire. It was built in the 1870s during a famine, to generate jobs for the local population and create a water catchment area. It is a great spot to enjoy a few moments of quietude, punctuated only by the sounds of lapping water, birds, and a shepherd herding his flock home. Lean back and enjoy a cup of tea in one of the little chhatris around the johra, where the original paintings are still visible on the roof (Malji ka Kamra organises tea for two for ₹650, including travel).
To see some magnificent painted havelis, head to the town of Ramgarh (14 km/40 minutes southwest of Churu). It is a small town of only 40,000 people, but has over 300 havelis. Two-thirds are locked, so a stroll down any street is like walking through a majestic ghost town. Imposing doors loom over the narrow streets, walls are marked in fading brown handprints that signify a birth in the family, and creepers prise their way into the cracks. Even the shops are built right into the mansions in a curious intermingling of the past and present. At the Poddar haveli, one of the oldest in town and now reduced to near-rubble, there is a single room on the first floor that has somehow survived the cruelties of time. Bright floral patterns still decorate the walls and pillars of the room, which was probably the owner’s private study.
Ramgarh is also dotted with about 45 chhatris or cenotaphs that were built by wealthy Rajasthani families to honour their dead. The most beautiful among these is the Poddar group of chhatris, where the murals depict important scenes from the Ramayana and the life of Krishna. A mesmerising red-and-blue mural of the raas leela decorates the inner roof of one of the chhatris, the colours so bright that it is hard to believe that it dates back to the 1850s. But one of Ramgarh’s most striking sights is the Shani Mandir, which was constructed in 1840. It is an astounding temple—though a small structure, nearly every inch of the interior is decorated with Belgian glass mosaics that dazzle the visitor.
Closer to Churu is Prem Sarovar, another pond that is the result of philanthropy by rich merchant families (8 km km/20 minutes south of Churu). Since it’s farther away from town than Sethani ka Johra, it is quieter and I even spotted a couple of deer during my visit.
Malji ka Kamra was built in 1920 and restoration started in 2006 after more than 20 years of being locked up. The heritage property opened in 2012. Lit in the evening, the mint green building definitely looks like a seth’s rangmahal. The colour may seem a little garish but the restorers took care to match it to the original as far as possible. The rooms are large and comfortable with oodles of historic character while the bathrooms are mercifully modern (01562-254444; maljikakamra.com; doubles from ₹3,500, includes guided haveli walk in Churu, trips to see local crafts like bandhej and blockprinting).
Bhawani Kothi is located in the centre of town and has a large and lovely front garden, but it was closed for renovation when I visited. It is slated to reopen in September 2014 (98285 84540; www.facebook.com/churuhotel.bhawanikothi; doubles from ₹2,500).
Hotel Sun City Palace is located in a quiet lane in the centre of the town, providing the best of both worlds. It’s a small town business hotel, but clean and rather busy (01562- 255701; hotelsuncitypalacechuru.com; doubles from ₹1,400).
Food in Churu is predominantly vegetarian and features several must-try dishes. The traditional breakfast of bajra roti, eaten with homemade curd and fresh garlic chutney, is quite satisfying. Ker-sangri is a sweet and spicy local speciality that is rarely available outside Rajasthan. Gatte ki sabji is a curry with koftas of seasoned besan, and papad mungodi is a dish made using two Marwari favourites, papad and tiny pellets of moong dal.
Pawan Kumar Jangid won his first award for miniature woodcarving in sandalwood when he was seven. Over the years, many more awards have followed for the 30-year-old and when I visit his home to see his art, it is easy to understand why. A peanut shell opens up to reveal a village scene, complete with a turbaned and moustachioed farmer. A hand fan unfolds to show lord Krishna on his flute. Four generations, Jangid’s family have been woodcarvers and even today, his 70-year-old father works away at a detailed carving without the aid of spectacles. Even their tools are created by them at home (01562-250742).
Appeared in the January 2014 issue as “Mansions and Markets”.
Map: Urmimala Nag
Churu is the main town of a district of the same name in northern Rajasthan, close to the state’s border with Haryana. Often considered part of the historical region of Shekhawati, famous for its grand painted havelis, Churu belonged to Bikaner state until 1947. It is 200 km north of the state capital Jaipur.
Rail Churu is a 4-5-hour train journey from Delhi and there are several convenient day and night options to pick from, including the Bikaner Intercity, Delhi Bikaner SF Express, and Sujangarh Express.
Road Churu is 280 km/6 hours west of Delhi. The route goes via Rewari, Singhana and Jhunjhunu. After NH8, it winds through beautiful countryside on district roads with light traffic. An alternative route with marginally better roads goes via Rohtak, Bhiwani and Sadulpur. Depending on which part of Delhi you start from, one or the other can take slightly less time.
Shared autorickshaws ply throughout the city, though these can be quite crowded. Taxis can be rented by the day (about ₹2,200) or for specific trips (₹1,200-2,200 depending on distance and time). Within the old town, walking is the best way to get around.
Churu registers some of the hottest and coldest temperatures in Rajasthan, with daytime highs in summer soaring to 48°C. Night-time lows during winter occasionally dip below 0°C. The monsoon (July-Sept) is mild (20-35°C), turns the landscape green. The smell of rain on desert sand is intoxicating. During winter (Nov-Feb), days are warm with temperatures in the mid-20s, but the mercury drops sharply at night to 2-6°C.
is Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She is happiest trotting off the beaten path, trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving in Andaman & Nicobar, or exploring local markets in small towns. She tweets as @nehadara.
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