From Stepwells to Self-Help: Delwara, the Other Face of Rajasthan

Why the deities and stone temples here are in good hands. | By Ali Khan Mahmudabad  
Potter Delwara Kumhars Udaipur
Among the many communities that live in Delwara are the Kumhars, who are traditionally potters. Photo: Alexandra Bergman

A town of temples and gods, Delwara historically guarded one of the three main routes into Udaipur and is about an hour’s drive north of the city today. The village, not to be mistaken with the Dilwara temples near Mount Abu, is also a refreshing departure from the throngs of tourists that glut the old city, and indeed many of Rajasthan’s attractions. It is worth a visit for anyone who wants to witness a well-functioning marriage between sustainable development, tourism, and living historical sites.

I set out for Delwara on a warm afternoon with Jason Silberstein, who created the “Delwara Heritage and Community Walk” as part of his volunteer work with the local NGO Seva Mandir. As we left Udaipur city, we wound past hills that seemed to be dozing in the warm glow of soft winter sunlight. Flashes of greenery appeared and disappeared as we rounded the roads hewn into the ancient rocks of the Aravallis. We passed the ancient complex of Eklingji, with temples dating back to 971 A.D. and the founding of Udaipur. Many of these are still maintained by the royal family who worship there on special days.

As we approached Delwara, we could see Devi Garh, an 18th-century fort (now a luxury hotel) built by Raghudev Singh II, a Jhala Rajput whose ancestor was awarded the principality by Maharana Pratap of Mewar for his help with fighting the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1576. Over the centuries, Delwara, which once had more than a thousand temples, earned the name devkul paton nagri, or the town of gods.

The tour began at Sadhna, a handmade textile cooperative jointly owned by 700 women. Our guides—two young men smartly dressed in Sadhna kurtas—took me to a vast workshop with modern sewing equipment, mounds of green, red, yellow, pink, orange, and purple cloth, and about 20 women who all turned around to look at the interloper. The guides, Himmat and Kundan had been trained by Silberstein over a year, and vastly improved their English as a result. Along with four others, they spent hours recording and talking to local residents to glean various aspects of Delwara’s history and the social changes currently underway. These conversations enriched our wandering down the town’s arterial roads. As we walked through the meandering streets, pausing every once in a while, the guides pointed out where the neighbourhood of one caste ended and that of another began.

Seva Mandir Guide Udaipur

Seva Mandir trains Delwara locals to be guides. Here, two young guides pose with a tourist outside one of the town’s many temples. Photo: Jason Silberstein

After exploring a beautiful old stepwell, another guide, Dinesh, joined us. Ducking in and out of centuries-old Jain temples and walking past traditionally built houses hidden between their concrete cousins, we came to a potter’s workshop. The potter was resting on his charpoy, but got up to give us a demonstration, despite the fact that we had intruded on his afternoon nap. I asked the guides if I could leave something for the old man, and they suggested it would be better “for the dignity of the potter” if I bought something instead.

Further along, we went into the 900-year-old Parshvanathji Bhagvan temple where some old statues and carvings had been recently unearthed. The community’s recent restoration of the temple was not a patch on the intricate work I saw in some of the other, older Jain temples, such as the Rishabdev Bhagvan temple with its 149 carved pillars and 52 devalkulikasor individual shrines. Later we also passed the 11th-century Kasheshvar Mahadev temple, which was recently restored by Seva Mandir, using funds from a group of concerned citizens.

Another very different Seva Mandir initiative we encountered was a man with a rickshaw partitioned into two halves for compostable and non-recyclable garbage, who was going door-to-door to collect waste. Delwara was far cleaner than many other rural towns I have visited—an outcome, I was told, of the way trash collectors were formally employed by a people’s council organised by Seva Mandir. Further evidence of Seva Mandir’s work with the nitty-gritty of Delwara life was visible in a Bhil neighbourhood, where the Adivasi community lives on the outskirts, much like it did a century ago. Here, toilets had been built to prevent people from having to go into the fields.

Delwara Temple Udaipur Mahavira Sculpture

The Delwara temple complex near Udaipur has striking black and white marble sculptures of Mahavira. Photo: Universal Images Group/Dinodia

Later, we would visit Indra Kund, a large stepwell, where a women’s self-help group was discussing a fund for wedding loans. We also stopped in a charming chowk with a Jain temple, a Hindu temple, and a mosque festooned with pink and green flags. Himmat pointed out that the various religious communities of the town lived side by side just like these houses of worship. Tucked away in a small room to one side, Jason pointed out a basic makeshift café, where he had spent hours sitting with locals while being fed warm aloo parathas.

Meanwhile the sun setting over the waters of Palera Talab, a lake created in the 19th century by a queen in memory of her husband, (and now the city’s main source of water) was unforgettable.

But the strongest image I took back was the unimpeded view of Devi Garh from the Bhil neighbourhood. The area’s inhabitants would have as much trouble getting into the luxury hotel today, I realised, as they might have had getting a royal audience a hundred years ago. Over half the households now have toilets, but there’s still much work to be done.

Appeared in the June 2015 issue as “Town of Gods”.

The Guide

Getting There Delwara is 30 km/1 hr from Udaipur. Buses and taxis ply between the two places, and Seva Mandir organises taxi pick-ups from Udaipur.

Delwara Heritage Walk ₹300 for a two-hour walk;www.sevamandir.org/walk.

Sadhna www.sadhna.org.

Devi Garh by Lebua www.lebua.com/devi-garh.

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