In the early 18th Century, the Patwas were struggling to set up their trade and business in Jaisalmer. The priest of Jain temple advised them to leave the city and explore options elsewhere. The Patwas left Jaisalmer never to return. Legend has it that the Patwas became immensely rich as their business became successful. The business of Guman Chand Patwa, head of this family, expanded up to Afghanistan in the west and China in the north. Their business spanned across banking, finance, silver, brocade and opium trade.
The Patwas were invited by the rules of Jaisalmer to finance the state deficit. This brought the clan back to the city that they had decided never to return to. Ghumanmal Bafna , the head of the family decided to gift each of his five sons a separate and elaborate haveli against the advise of the priest. Haveli is the term used for a private mansion in India and Pakistan, usually one with historical and architectural significance. The word haveli is derived from the Persian word hawli, meaning "an enclosed place". They share similar features with other mansions derived from Islamic Architecture such as the traditional mansions in Morocco called Riads.
An intriguing asset to architectural history, the special quality of the haveli stems from the fact that it is not a single haveli, but a cluster of five havelis. The first of the five Havelis known as the Kothar's Patwa Haveli, named after the present owner, is most opulent and extrordinarily preserved. It gives a glimpse of the rich lifestyle of the erstwhile Patwas.
The haveli has rich artistic work in each corner like the gracefully carved pillars, façade or the balconies (jharokhas), expensive decorated items imported from various coutnries, murals and interiors that have derived inspiration from the Rajputi, Mughal as well as the Victorian architecture. Jaisalmer had different forms of architecture in different eras. The ancient times saw Rajputana architecture dominating the area while the medieval period saw a fusion of Rajputana and Islamic architecture. Most havelis were constructed during this era.
Patwa haveli exhibits an elaborate filigree work on stone. The dexterous fingers of the stone carvers have created masterpieces of art, better and minute than those found on the Taj Mahal. It also houses a museum, where various rooms used by the Patwas, along with their household items, have been kept intact to provide a glimpse of their lifestyle. Besides exhibiting the lifestyle of the Patwas, they also hint at their aesthetic taste.
Widely considered as the ‘Taj Mahal of Jailsalmer’, the haveli was mentioned in Lonely Planet (2009 edition) as the most magnificient of all the havelis.
"Most magnificent of all the havelis, its stone work like honey-coloured lace, Patwa-ki-Haveli towers over a narrow lane. It was build between 1800 and 1860 by five Jain brothers who were brocade and jewellery merchants. It's most impressive from the outside. The first of the five sections is opened as the privately owned Kothari's Patwa Haveli Museum, which richly evokes 19th-century life. Next door is the forlorn and empty (apart from pigeons and bats) government-owned haveli. "
The Patwonji ki Haveli is an interesting piece of architecture and is the most important among the havelis in Jaisalmer. It was the first haveli erected in Jaisalmer. The first among the cluster was constructed in 1805 by Guman Chand Patwa and is the biggest and the most ostentatious. He ordered the construction of separate stories for each of his five sons. These were completed in 50 years, indicating the sophistication and vastness of each structure. All five houses were constructed in the first 60 years of the 19th century.
The havelis are also known as the "mansion of brocade merchants". This name has been given probably because the family dealt in threads of gold and silver used in embroidering dresses. However, there are theories, which claim these traders made considerable amount of money in opium smuggling and money-lending. Keeping in mind the climate of Jaisalmer, the floors are made of mud and wood has been used for the roofs so that the havelis remain cool in summers and warm in winters. Each haveli has a diwankhana, guest room, kitchen, basement, staircase, safes etc.
The haveli has a Munim's chamber within it. Munims worked as accountants and secretaries to big businessmen. The Munim was the real interlocutor for the official business. He was not only the mediator and spokesman, but also a key personage who could both read and draft materials and who had a grasp over the realities of the trade. Besides, a Munim was also required to be discreet and virtuous.
The furnishing of the room was simple, the Munim would sit at one end of the room with his paraphernalia of typewriter, ink pen and ink stand, bahi khata (official business accounts), scrolls and scroll keepers to seal in confidential papers and record the proceedings of business meetings, make and receive payments and oversee the balance sheet of the business. At the other end would be a small seating area where the Patwa seated at the center entertained clients with hookah, food and drinks and engaged in business dealings. In one corner would be a safe to store cash and valuables and in the other a picture painting of Goddess Lakshmi worshipped by all who seek material wealth and fortune.
Visitors would be entertained in the drawing room, situated on the second floor. At present the drawing room attracts the viewers' attention with the huge elegant 'surahi' (wine/water container). The furniture - the superbly carved sofas, chairs, centre table and the side tables - are characteristic of 19th C rich houses and is marked by heavy forms and intricacy of design. The office table could be used to read, write or sign documents while engaged in socializing and entertainment.
A chess board is nearby if the party wanted to play a friendly game. Collectors' items of decorative and functional value play a great role in the image of the drawing room. Of particular note are the antique clock, old fashioned cameras and the real master piece is a large music box. Pictures on the wall enliven the mood of the room, and the mirrors enchance the light from candles during the evening. A bottle of scented water was kept handy to be sprinked in the room to refresh the air and create an ambience.
The courtyard had a kitchen in one corner with a large trough of water constructed in the adjoining room. This was filled through an opening in the outer wall of the room by a camel driver carrying casks filled with water. In the evening, family members would sit there on cots and gossip.
The dining room was usually used for private meals in a narrow circle; not infrequently friends and people of importance were invited. Traditionally men and women in Rajashtan ate separately, with women usually eating after men finished. Sitting area is sparsely furnished with gaddis (cushions) laid out for everyone to sit on the floor (and an occasional chair) with their thali (plate) in front of them. Food was then served from the large pots and bowls brought from teh kitchen by the women of the house, and when finished they would leave their thali in place to be collected later by the women or the servants and proceed to wash their hands. Also displayed in the room are large tiffin boxes perhaps carried by the men to their workplace, which are unusually interesting.
In terms of food choice, as in all other spects of living the geography and the availability of food ingredients has major influence on the Rajasthani cuisine. Lack of agricultural area means lack of green leafy vegetables, therefore lentils, pulses and legumes are the major food of choice. Scarcity of water means use of milk, curd and buttermilk in place of water in the gravy. Add to this a liberal dose of spices to add colour and taste and what you get is the essentials of any Rajasthani food preparation.
The havelis give us a peep into the rigid lifestyle of that society. Social norms and cooling dictated the architectural style of these mansions. Usually there were two courtyards — an outer one for the men and inner for women and children. The first floor balconies, overhanging the streets, had latticed windows enabling the women to view the outside world without being looked at. The front of the haveli has 60 latticed balconies so finely carved as if they have been created from wood than from stone. It has exquisitely carved pillars and extensive corridors and chambers.
The fortunes of the Patwas started dwindling and consequently they had to abandon the city again to seek new fortunes in distant lands. They left the havelis at the mercy of the care takers. Eventually the care takers became the owners and sold the havelis. The first of the havelies was purchased by Jeevanlal Ji Kothari, a native of Jaisalmer who like the Patwas had left the city to explore better opportunities.
Havelis are mysterious - there is much more to what is revealed to the naked eye! But if one really researches their history, relevance to the world of culture and the message that these empty mansions shout out, it is no wonder that many have trekked to India to see for themselves what they have to offer. It is a mesmerising experience one shall never forget!