I was advised to hold my breath before I entered a narrow crowded street which looked like buildings falling over each other. But I quickly understood what my guide meant when he warned me about visiting a site that will blow my mind. A huge overlooking intricate cluster of 5 mansions stood there looming over me. I was confused on where to start as every single corner of the Haveli was intricately designed and a piece of art!
The term ‘Haveli’ is derived from the Persian word “Hawli” – meaning an enclosed place. In earlier days, merchants traveled to Persia and were mesmerized by its stunning architecture. They brought back artists with them to build similar mansions here. Patwa was a rank given by the Maharaja to the Jain community artisans specialized in gold and silver threadwork. Guman Chand was one of the traders, who built Patwa Ki Haveli, 5 mansions next to each other for each of his 5 sons. The construction of these havelis started in 1800 and completed in 1860. The entrances to these havelis were roughly 7 feet tall to protect them from the sand and dust of the desert. Each haveli has 25 to 30 rooms, spanning 5 or 6 floors and up to two basements.
When you visit the city, you will notice that all the havelis are built outside Jaisalmer fort. Though Jaisalmer is the only living fort in the world, none of these beautiful architectural buildings were constructed inside the fort. One of the reasons was the Caste system prevalent at that time. Only the priest and the warrior clans were allowed to live in the fort. In spite of the huge economic prosperity, the trader class was forced to live outside the fort. In a unique act of defiance, they built huge and stunning architectural wonders outside the fort to make the king jealous. All the jharokas (windows) of the havelis face the palace in an almost “in your face” gesture to the king! The havelis are located strategically between the hill and the Jaisalmer fort to protect against the frequent sandstorms.
When Indira Gandhi (former Prime Minister of India) visited the place, she was struck by the beauty of the glamorous mansions. In her desire to share this beauty with the rest of the world, she asked the local administrators to conserve the beauty of the buildings and throw it open for the tourists. The management of the first haveli was given to the Jodhpur based Kothari family. They bought the first haveli for a mere Rs.75000 at that time from the Patwa family. The first haveli is also called Kothari’s Patwa Haveli. Today it has a museum restored with beautiful mirror work, paintings, local hand embroideries, and other collections. The second haveli was bought by the local management and is improperly maintained. The third haveli is rented by a group that hosts beautiful collections of Pashmina Shawls. The descendants of Guman Chand still live in the fourth haveli. The fifth haveli is owned by the government of India.
Guman Chand was one of the richest traders in his time. He used to own around 350 shops in the area and used to trade in spices, opium and silk. His trade markets extended to remote corners of Afghanisthan, Pakistan, China and India. As part of the trade and barter system existing at that time, he brought in lots of silver from Persia. Merchants and traders who worked for him used to rest in these mansions and it was used as his own personal Caravan Serai. Adjoining these mansions, there are hooks to which the traders could tie their camels – parallel parking in the 19th century! Today there are more than 200 families in the silver trade because of the Patwa family. During the separation of India and Pakistan, the Patwa family and other traders suffered huge losses as the silk route was closed. Their trade was severely affected and later they migrated to greener pastures of the country leaving behind their beautiful haunted mansions. Some of them sold their mansions at practically throw away prices to outsiders.
Although he wanted his sons to live together, Guman Chand chose to live an independant life. I accidentally stepped in front of his house which was a bit further away from Patwa Ki Haveli. He opened the first antique shop in Jaisalmer which was listed in Lonely Planet displaying collections of doors, windows, carpets and other antiquities.
The architecture and the carvings are intricate and done with great skill and care. One is likely to mistake the intricate sandstone carvings for wood carvings. Only on closer inspection, the artisan’s incredible skill is noticeable. Lining each of the jharokas are umbrella shaped structures with stone work that looked like dew drops.
The beautifully carved lattice work is very intricate and it somehow resembles the line of business (brocade embroidering) that the Patwa family dealt with. No wonder then that it is also known as the ‘mansion of brocade merchants’!
Patwa Ki Haveli is the largest Haveli in Jaisalmer. No one could have guessed that the narrow lanes of Jaisalmer were hiding such breathtaking art and rich heritage!
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