Saturday, June 22, 2002

Magnificent havelis of Nangal-Sirohi
Ranbir Singh

Wall paintings of Radha and Krishna and a soldier in the vault of a haveli  --- Photo by the writer
Wall paintings of Radha and Krishna and a soldier in the vault of a haveli

NANGAL-SIROHI is nine km from Mahendragarh towards Narnaul. This is in the south of Haryana, which is still full of wild shrubs, vast expanses of sand and dust storms as also hospitable and lovable people. Mahendragarh’s old name was Kanaud. In fact, it got its new name sometime in the early 1860s when the region was given as a grant to the erstwhile rulers of Patiala State in lieu of the material support provided to the British for crushing the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ of 1857 in Delhi and Haryana. Maharaja Narendra Singh of the Sidhu Jat clan renamed Kanaud as Mahendragarh after his son Mahendra Singh. However, even after 150 years, the old name has not been forgotten by the older generation and in their conversations, rituals and gatherings they love to relate it with events. The people of the region like to be called by the surname Kanaudia.

Sarpanch Ram Chandra accompanied me to the old serai in Nangal-Sirohi and introduced a local trader, Brahma, who happened to be from among the older generation of the local Mahajans who had built several artistic havelis in this village. In spite of his old age, Brahma took pains to take me to the old settlement known as Oopla Baas where all the old havelis are situated. He told me that the owners of most of these havelis — whose gotras are Mittal, Garg and Goyal — had migrated eight generations ago from Satnali. They did business, prospered in trading, earned enough but never forgot to commission masons and artists to raise beautiful mansions for themselves. The first one to settle here was Lala Tek Chand, who had later built a magnificent haveli in the centre of the Oopla Baas, literally a fortalice.


View of Lal Sinh Dass-Ghan Shayam Dass’ haveli --- Photo by the writer
View of Lal Sinh Dass-Ghan Shayam Dass’ haveli

Unfortunately, none of his successors cared enough to maintain this heritage property of the joint family which is now in complete ruins. It is being used for storing cow dung cakes and fodder by the neighbours. The other havelis which were artistically constructed and decorated with bhittichitraas, i.e. wall paintings belong to Lala Pat Ram Dass Mittal, Durga Dass-Bhoroo Mal Mittal, Sedhu Mal-Mukandi Lal-Richh Pal, Ganeshi Mal-Bahadur Lal Garg, Deen Dayal Mittal, Gumani Mal-Roodh Mal Goyal, Laalman-Sita Ram Mittal and Lal Sinh Dass-Ghan Shayam Dass. The havelis of Lala Deen Dayal, Laalman-Sita Ram and Sinh Dass-Ghan Shayam Dass still contain a large number of beautifully preserved bhittichitraas based on a variety of themes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and local history. Since all the masons and painters, locally known as Chejaraas and Chiteyraas respectively, were summoned from Shekhawati region of the erstwhile Jaipur State of Rajpootana, it was imperative that they left an impression of their native places by painting the images of Shekhawati Sirdaars and events from the native feudal life. In the vault of the main entrance of the haveli of Lala Sinh Dass are paintings depicting Shekhawati Sirdaars, while in the vault of the haveli which belongs to Laal Man, the expert painters have depicted scenes from the Ramayana and did some excellent work on the gods of the Hindu pantheon. In fact, the colour pigments in the wall paintings of the later haveli vault have been remarkably preserved for more than 90 years now and look fresh.

The wall paintings in the haveli of Lala Deen Dayal exist mostly on the balcony walls and on the front wall under the projected terrace, i.e. todas. Another remarkable feature in this haveli was cast iron sections of the railing juxtaposed in the structure of the balcony. These cast iron sections contain figures of a dancing lady besides an image of Goddess Durga. Unfortunately, many other wall paintings in this haveli, have been covered with white wash and hard to resurrect. Through conversation with the present descendants of these havelis, I gathered an impression that most of them are neither aware of the artistic splendour on the walls nor their academic significance. Although most of them recognise their cultural significance but none is aware about the necessity of their conservation or documentation by scholars.

The age of most of these havelis and the existing treasure of art in the form of bhittichitraas is between 90 to 175 years. The weathering and aging have, no doubt, left their impact on the form and strength of the havelis, but due to lack of moisture and pollution in the region these were in fairly good shape and appeared inviting to an observer. The Mahajans of the village were understandably mature in terms of cultural practices.

The village estate of Nangal-Sirohi was founded and owned primarily by Ahirs of Khosyan gotra whose ancestors came from the neighbouring Daroli village. By smriti (oral tradition), Chaudhary Mangat Ram, alias Mangtoo, told me that about 400 years ago there was a person in Daroli village whose name was Dropaal. He exercised considerable influence over his clan. Sirohi was then owned by Gujjars who were notorious in the sense that they hardly ever paid revenue to the Mughal Nazim at Narnaul. Whenever the revenue officers descended upon them to collect revenue perforce, they fled into the nearby forests. When the trouble continued to persist, the Mughal authority at Delhi empowered Dropaal to occupy the estate vacated by the Gujjars on one such occasion. Dropaal authorised his son Bhagwaan Singh not only to occupy the territory of the vacated estate but also settle there and pay taxes to the Nazim. Bhagwaan Singh persuaded his uncle Har Bhaj to also settle with him. They decided to retain the old name Sirohi but preferred prefixing ‘Nangal’ with it so as to be called Nangal-Sirohi thereafter.

Upon this mutual settlement, the uncle and the nephew duo decided to give the name Ooplo Baas to the old settlement which was on a higher ground and Nichlo Baas to the new settlement situated on the lower ground. Thus both these families occupied virgin territory which measured 1040 hectares or 4500 pucca bighas of land. Chaudhary Mangtoo Ram, who is the fifteenth descendent after Bhagwaan Singh, is also the first among eight Lambardars of the village. He told me that Sukhanand, the sixth descendent of Bhagwaan Singh, was an influential person who attained recognition as the Chaudhary of the Kanaud Chaurasi i.e., the president of a group of 84 villages around Kanaud. His son, Anoop, and grandson, Arjun, continued to enjoy the same status. During the lifetime of Arjun, the first ever settlement of the land was completed in 1832 under Nawaj Ali, the Nazim of Narnaul, under the Maharaja of Patiala. The ownership rights of the cultivable land were also granted during this settlement.

Nangal-Sirohi is inhabited mostly by Ahirs whose principle occupation is to cultivate land and rear cattle. There are still about 500 families of Ahirs living in the village followed by 80 families of Brahmins, 20 families of Kumhaars i.e., potters, 10 families of weavers, 10 families of barbers, 35 families of masons and carpenters, and, lastly, 10 families of Jogis. About 65 years ago, Hari Chand, the only folk singer among Jogis, died. Magtoo remembered him fondly and regretted that none of his family members followed this rich tradition. He used to sing ballads.

The old serai’s outer front wall is appreciably decorated with columns of mounted cavalry. All the soldiers have spears and guns in their hands, wear heavy Rajpootana-style turbans around their heads and have large moustaches and long noses. Their steeds look thoroughbred. This spacious serai was built by Lala Deen Dayal in Vikrami Samvat 1959, just 100 years ago, for the benefit of caravans.