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House of history

The Birla haveli in Pilani offers a glimpse into the beginnings of India's premier business family

Prakash Bhandari 

Elephants and tigers form the main frescoes on the facade of the Birla haveli in Pilani
Elephants and tigers form the main frescoes on the facade of the Birla haveli in Pilani

The Shekhawati region is a triangular semi-desert enclosed by New Delhi, Jaipur and Bikaner. The Rajputs encouraged trade in the region by charging lower tariffs compared to the neighbouring areas. As a result, the desert region became a crossroads for traders who travelled from Gujarat in the southwest to northern India, as well as to central Asia and China. Merchant families from all over Rajasthan moved to Shekhawati to establish themselves as trading agents along such routes. These families, who later came to be called Marwaris, began to consider Shekhawati their home.

Most of the painted havelis built by the prosperous Marwari community in the Shekhawati region came into existence between 1860 and 1900. Their construction coincided with the development of rail transportation and increasing migration to the colonial cities. Ironically, then, most of the Marwari mansions in Rajasthan were built during the period that saw the highest out-migration. After all, it was only after the migrants had established themselves in business in the colonial metropolises that they would have been able to afford such elaborate housing in their native region.

The majestic courtyard
The majestic courtyard
One such haveli was built in 1862 by the founder of the Birla empire, Shiv Narayan Birla, in his ancestral village, Pilani, in the Jhunjhunu district. Shiv Narayan's father, Shobha Ram, who worked as a munim (accountant) for a business clan in Ajmer, died young. After his father's death, Shiv Narayan was offered the job by the family, but he refused. He, instead, set up his own business and started dealing in silver, cotton and opium. But the urge to mint more money took him to Bombay. Seven years later, he returned to his native Pilani and started construction of a new haveli. The Birla haveli is today a popular tourist destination.

Shiv Narayan intended to build a massive structure that could accommodate a joint family. Although he drew on local structural design, the haveli also had some European features that he had seen in Bombay.

The haveli houses seven courtyards and 50 rooms - the outer rooms were built for visitors and for conducting business, and the inner ones for the family. A courtyard opposite the kitchen was used by the domestic helps. The bathrooms and toilets were located near the courtyard; the toilet even had a separate entry for sweepers.

Visitors entered through a heavy carved wooden outer door into an inner courtyard, and were ushered into the surrounding rooms with white cloth-covered cushions. Furniture was minimal.

Shiv Narayan called artists from Jaipur to paint the massive haveli - perhaps he wanted to add a little colour to life in the desert. Made of lime and boulders, the structure has very few exterior windows. Instead, it depended on ventilation from the open ceilings of the inner courtyards, thus leaving large blank surfaces on the exterior and interior walls that become amenable to mural paintings.

The main courtyard fresco was made with the use of limewater mixed with pigment onto wet plaster, which produced a highly durable surface painting with an impressive longevity. The images on the walls ranged from Mughal miniatures and Jaipur mural paintings to the Company school with British influence.

The haveli was built to house the women, children and the elderly members of the family when the men spent much of their time in the metropolises of Calcutta and Bombay to earn money. It was divided into separate quarters for men and women, thereby preserving the practice of gender segregation. The internal and external courtyards marked degrees of domestic privacy.

The Birla children had their primary education in the village school. Clearly, the haveli was a vibrant place in the 1920s. A large number of family members were even sent to the haveli during World War II, when bombings hit Calcutta. Over the years, however, the visits to the haveli became less and less frequent.

In the inner courtyard, a small room without a window houses a jhoola and paintings of the ancestors adorn the walls. In one of the paintings, the wife of Shiv Narayan's son, Baldeo Das Birla, is offering water to the sun god.

The kitchens had traditional chulhas. The rear courtyard has a huge well. A large chimney leads from the kitchen to the roof, which offers a bird's eye view of Pilani.

A canopy on the rooftop with a wooden ceiling and a wooden floor was a relief from the summer heat. The residents often played cards or chess under the canopy.

The rooms today remain locked, and are opened only once a year when a puja is performed.

There is a staff of five to six people who maintain the haveli and all efforts are made to do repairs using the traditional building material," says Ramakant Kedia, an officer of the Raja Baldeo Das Birla Santati Kosh, the trust that owns the haveli. "It has been noticed that the ceiling of the main haveli's hall, touching the roof, has developed some cracks and efforts are being made to restore it. There is a department that looks after the building and the museum."

Just opposite the Birla haveli is the haveli of Radha Krishna Birla, a cousin of the Birlas who was a member of the Lok Sabha from Jhunjhunu. It was in this haveli that he breathed his last. The haveli has undergone a lot of changes in recent years. Complete with large corridors and a small lawn, it looks more like a colonial bungalow than an ancestral haveli.

Another haveli adjoining the Birla mansion belongs to Nagarmal Birla. It wears a deserted look, with trees and shrubs crawling its walls.

" We do not know who the present owners of the haveli are, as nobody has come to take care of it, the walls of which are attached with the main Birla haveli," says Kedia.

A temple stands adjacent to the haveli, but it was not the Birlas who built it.

"The temple is older than the haveli and all the members of the Birla clan used to come here to worship," says the temple's priest. "They still come."

On the first floor of the haveli, a staircase leads to the family's museum. On display are rare photographs, paintings and personal belongings of various members of the Birla family. The museum also showcases clothes, books, shoes, glasses, pens, knives, scissors and the wedding dresses of some of the Birla women - one being the beautifully embroidered 15-kg dress of Brij Mohan Birla's wife.

But it is, really, Ghanshyam Das Birla who occupies a major portion of the museum. Photographs of him and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as some letters written by Gandhi, are on view in the museum.

First Published: Sat, February 27 2016. 00:24 IST