While I was growing up, my father would often regale us with tales of bandits and ghosts. He would set the stage with his narration, sound effects et all, usually based on a moonlit night at a place not frequented by many.
The narrator in the story would often be a watchman, old and wrinkled, bent over a stick, the tapping sound of which would echo in the deserted lanes. I could almost see his white whiskers, hear his husky voice, feel his irritability for being asked to do anything but sit hunched over a cold cup of tea.
My father may not have known it then, but his stories seemed to be set in a town deep inside Rajasthan, one that I would chance upon three decades later. For, it is only possible to chance upon Churu, it rarely will find itself marked as a conscious destination.
Overshadowed and lost in a state that boasts of forts and palaces at every turn, Churu is the town that fell off the tourist map. Scratch that, it never really featured on one. But one visit will have you wondering why it is so.
No kings and queens lived here. Churu was a bustling merchant town in the late 19th century. The rich Marwari “seths” who lived here built 50-100 room havelis that would give Sanjay Leela Bhansali a complex. Like the filmmaker, the merchants too believed in all things grand and beautiful. They had money (tons of it) and they spent it on their homes, their cars and their wives. Business (of spices, textiles and opium) was good and as they got richer, the merchants started moving out, first to Delhi and thereafter onward to Europe. Their expansive havelis were locked up and reduced to haunted houses, frequented only by pigeons through broken glass panes.
The only people you will now find in these deserted havelis are old watchmen, much like those in my father’s tales. With only two or three operational rooms, lest the seth decides to drop in to tie up loose ends, it is a shame that these havelis lie forgotten and ignored.
A walk through the dusty lanes of Churu is nothing short of an eerie ghost-town walk. It’s a town, not quite yet dead, yet with no sign of life.
Known only for its soaring summer temperatures, this is a photographer’s dream. European influences in architecture and design peek from every corner here, telling tales of the owners’ travels and lifestyle. A fresco there, a venetian arch here, paintings of women having high tea or even the one outside Banthia haveli (1930 AD) of Lord Jesus smoking a cigar. The merchants were cheeky, considering that India was still under British rule in those days.
If the spider webs and layers of dust have you fooled, step into the grand Jain temple to get a glimpse of the opulence that marked this town in its heyday. The temple is maintained by the Kothari family, mostly based abroad, and is stark in its contrast to the forgotten town.
Everything is shiny and bright here, gilded with gold and taken care of lovingly—perhaps as a reminder to God that they haven’t forgotten their roots, just gone away for a little while. Also known as the gateway to the Thar Desert, Churu is where concrete ebbs into golden grains of sand. A bumpy 30-minute drive takes you towards the sand dunes, where the only thing missing is a bonfire and a belly dancer entertaining you while you smoke a hukkah (oh wait, this ain’t Dubai. Make that a folk dancer).
If you want to be jolted back to reality, a trip to the local bazaar should do just that. The town is also renowned in its neighbourhood for its skilled craftsmen who keep the dying art of making lac bangles alive. These bangles are painstakingly handcrafted and customized to your requirement. A rarity in today’s world stocked with mass-produced Chinese goods, bespoke keepsakes like these are not only a treasure to take back home, but also a treat to watch as they take shape.
Churu may seem like another world, disconnected from the Rajasthan that we know. But in fact, it is only four hours away by train, bringing back the question of why it still lies in shadows. There are no heritage hotels but one, no guided photography walks, no puppet shows in the evening.
But that is perhaps what sets this town apart. When you are done trying to relate to the unreal world of kings and queens, step back in history and come visit a town that man built and thrived in.
It may spark your imagination. If not, it’ll always be a good setting for ghost stories you’ll tell your children for years to come, like my father did.
Harnoor Channi-Tiwary is a marketing specialist who wandered into the world of writing and never left. She has been writing about food and travel for more than a decade. She blogs at TheThoughtExpress, tweets as @HCdines and now lives in Singapore with her husband and six-year-old daughter (whose first word reportedly was ‘yummy’ and not ‘mummy’).
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