CHENNAI: Haveli architecture is a unique vernacular architecture form that flourished in the 18th and 19th century in the pre-Partition western India, particularly in Rajasthan and Gujarat. Influenced by cross-cultural currents from cental Asia, Islamic Persian and Rajput architecture, the haveli architecture was a direct response to the regional climate, while being a mirror of local art and landscape. Haveli means a mansion, and the word was derived from Arabic — probably taken from the Persian word hawli, meaning an enclosed place. The term was first applied by the Vaishnava sect for their temples in Rajasthan and Gujarat. Later, the architectural form was adopted for individual mansions.
Standing as a symbol of power and prestige, haveli householders were the noblemen, landowners or successful merchants. They housed a complex social organisation formed from the householders’ family, servants, story tellers, lady companions and sometimes even slaves. Life in the haveli revolved around the instructions of the householder’s wife, who oversaw the kitchen activities, managed finances, and organised festivals and celebrations.
The heart of the haveli was a courtyard, the centre point from where all spaces originated. The courtyard provided the transition between the public and the private spaces of the haveli, while also functioning as a micro-climate modifier and providing ample light and ventilation to all the spaces wrapping it. Women and those serving the household performed everyday activities in the courtyard and the verandahs wrapping it, while on summer nights they would pull beds into the courtyard to sleep under the cool sky. Hindu havelis often had a corner dedicated to the family deity with the sacred tulsi plant adorning it. The design of the courtyard was symbolic of the family’s social status, lifestyle, wealth, art and cultural inclinations. The householders often invited reputed artists to paint scenes from religious scriptures, everyday life or their social beliefs on the courtyard walls. An example of this are the havelis in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan.
While most spaces in the havelis were flexible for use, they had a grand hall, usually close to the entrance, which would have a pronounced threshold with chabutras (platforms) on either side. This hall could have private jharokhas (balconies) or screened mezzanine galleries where women could witness activities and festivities in the mardana (men’s quarters). The zenana (women’s quarters) may have its own reception room. Larger havelis could have about four courtyards up to two or three storeys high, with separate courtyards for men, women and animals, especially horses or elephants, which were the preferred mode of transport for noblemen.
Jaisalmer in Rajasthan has one of the most ornate and exquisite havelis with facades carved from yellow sandstone. One of the largest and oldest havelis in Jaisalmer, Patwon Ji ki Haveli built by Guman Chand Patwa in 1805, is a cluster of five havelis in one.
After Independence, with the end of the royal court culture and the zamindari system, the havelis either exchanged hands or were abandoned as the families who owned them moved out in search of jobs or simply because the joint families owning them disintegrated. Since these havelis were mostly in bazaars or opening into tight alleys, some were converted into godowns and shops, and eventually became dilapidated. A few havelis in better areas have been restored for adaptive reuse. But these are isolated examples of preservation and not enough to preserve the origin and evolution of the haveli architecture.