27. Fatehpur – An Old Capital

26. Starting With Ramgarh
October 22, 2020
His face is from a photograph but the picture style is that of the 'tickets'.
28. Labels And Prints
November 5, 2020
Fatehpur's bowri looking west towards the gateway in the early 1980s

Fatehpur's bowri looking west towards the gateway in the early 1980s

A fter surveying Ramgarh, we decided that Fatehpur, 20km further south, should follow. There, Ashok, a friend in the municipal office, produced a battered copy of the street map. That was fortunate since, founded in 1451 by a Muslim baron, Fateh Khan, Fatehpur followed the meandering complexity of most old towns. It was a longer commute. On one occasion our rattletrap vehicle only evaded a direct collision with an over-exuberant bus by running into a lamp post. We didn't get much beyond adjusting the map before the end of April, when I returned to Purbeck to escape the summer heat which, in Churu, crosses 50 degrees.

Returning to Delhi in early September I found Rabu still had not been released, nor had the motorcycle. Rabu's release took another month during which, partly due to a minor religious disturbance in Fatehpur, we started work surveying Churu. A further fortnight yielded the bike. To be closer to Fatehpur, we put up with Rabu's newly-married brother, Arvind, who was renting a haveli in Mandawa.

Fatehpur offered several buildings from the Muslim era, which ended in 1731 when the Shekhawati Rajput ruler of Sikar invaded. These included the 1614 bowri, (numbered 1 in the Fatehpur section of The Painted Towns of Shekhawati), a handsome stepwell where steps led down to the water table, no mean depth in a desert. The old eastern town wall must have stood somewhere near the north-south street through modern Fatehpur. It has left no trace but a crossroads is known as Bowri Gate. The bowri would have been just outside those walls.

Around 1960 the neighbouring haveli had collapsed into it and it became an ever-worsening rubbish dump. A peepul tree in its masonry tore the gateway apart and its inscribed tablet was stolen – not before it was recorded. To hide the shame, the muncipality walled it off. It had a brief respite when, in 2015, a new official gathered volunteers to clean it out, but he was too late: work halted, threatened by further collapse.

Rabu inside the Chaudhary haveli shortly before it fell. A decorative mirror and carved window surrounds have gone to market.

Rabu inside the Chaudhary haveli shortly before it fell. A decorative mirror and carved window surrounds have gone to market.


The square, still moated fort (13) suffered a similar fate after the Rao Raja's rule ended at Independence. We found many of its fine brackets, pillars and archways, carved from yellow sandstone, torn out and stacked. Similar elements lay with Ramgarh dealers and I saw a carved arch with inlaid blue glaze for sale said to come from here. A few solidly-built residential buildings, even faint traces of floral painting, remain inside the walls.

After covering these monuments, we started work from the north end of town, were there were several 17th century sandstone chhatris and maths (cells of holymen), some bearing Islamic style geometric patterns in thick ochre 'Jaipur fresco'. South of these the street leading towards Mandawa is prone to flooding due to downpours coupled with the present excess of waste water. On its south side was a locked Chaudhary haveli (5 in the book), its outer walls with interesting paintings in ochres including an erotic gem. Behind the figure of a woman was a donkey, its head projecting from the right side of her skirt. Here respectably-named man fed it. Left of her skirt the ass's arse received very different attentions from a crudely-named fellow.

Around 1880 this haveli was extended northwards; here the paintings were in red and blue. This pigment change, triggered by the availability of imported artificial colours, took place throughout Shekhawati after the 1850s. Previously, the best blue was expensive powdered lapis lazuli from Afghanistan called ultramarine in Europe. The Germans manufactured it in bulk. With difficulty, we acquired the haveli's keys. Its richly painted interior warranted three survey forms listing the murals' subjects and stressing its vulnerability. Stripped of woodwork and decorative mirrors, it collapsed in 2004. The wreckage remains.

 Another Chaudhary haveli, already frail, collapsed during the 2001 earhquake in Kutch, Gujarat, exposing interior paintings.

Another Chaudhary haveli, already frail, collapsed during the 2001 earhquake in Kutch, Gujarat, exposing interior paintings.


Not far from this haveli are two handsome early 18th century wells, from Fatehpur's Muslim period, each named after its builder, a Rajput wife of the nawab. The Chauhan well (number 6) sinks at the centre of a long, rectangular platform bearing eight regularly-placed cupolas. The Rathor well, suffering worse from age, retains a decayed inscription naming Nawab Sardar Khan (1703-1731). Near it, the tomb (21) of Alef Khan (died 1570) remains a place of prayer.


While we were examining the doomed haveli a bright small boy told us of another: his father had the key. Most such diversions were disappointing - not this. It was a small, unremarkable c1915 haveli but inside the principal room was rich in chanderliers and mirrors, all draped dusty scarlet cloth. At one end, carefully copied from a foreign print, was a large illustration of the 1912 Delhi Durbar, an imperial gesture when George V & Queen Mary visited India and shifted the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. Later, in London, I saw the original print, published by Vivian Mansell & Co, hanging in a friend's flat. In 2012, while having a haircut nearby, I witnessed the building's demolition.


Gradually advancing across the town, often lost in its wandering alleys, we came across several remarkable havelis. West of the main street was a Saraogi haveli (number 5), often locked. In the courtyard was a picture of a paddle steamer such as carried goods up the Ganges from Calcutta in the mid 19th century. On its street wall some panels were plastered over (in 1912?) to accommodate George V & Mary amongst a storm of Union Jacks: in business it is best to keep in with the government! Across the street an intricately-carved Red Stone Haveli (4), almost unique in Shekhawati, still standing in 1985, has slowly collapsed into total ruin.

It was soon apparent that Rabu was the better motorcyclist. Villages along the road from Mandawa were marked by 'speed bumps'. Thoughts elsewhere, I invariably forgot them. The passenger got the worst of the impact. He was better at dealing with market crowds, too, dawdling securely through. Sharing the driving equally on the main roads, I deferred to him in towns.


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