Architecture of Haveli

The best way to appreciate the art and architecture of a haveli is to visit one in person, older the better ! I have visited havelis all over India, including ones in Calcutta. They represent a mixture of styles, mainly depending on when and where they were built.

A haveli is typically a place of residence and a place of worship all rolled into one. Sometimes, the residents are descendants of Shri Vallabhacharyaji.

As its very name indicates, a haveli is a palatial house or mansion of some exuberance. Typically, it was in the middle of the city / town where everyone could access it. Though a place of worship, for security reason, the heart of the haveli was not directly visible from the entrance of the haveli.

Historically, temples were made in such a way, so that the deity in inner sanctum can be viewed from the outer most gate at a glance. This allowed the Lord to keep an eye on his people and the people to pay their respects even when passing by the temple.

By the time Shri Vallabh's descendants began to build their temples, the society had changed totally. The vicious and often callous attacks by muslims on Hindu temples had laid many to waste. Any sign of Murti puja was frowned upon by the muslim rulers. Apart from ideological objection, they were greedy for the wealth of the temples. Seeing deities decked out in gold and gems often made them lust for the jewels and they often used their religious scriptures to justify their greed, desecrating our deities and places of worship.

Wisely, Vallabhkul decided to avoid direct confrontation with them and built their havelis in such a way, so as to conceal the wealth therein - making sure the main entrance was plain, or as normal as can be and did not allow a causal passer by any glimpse of what lay beyond. No one could look into the nij mandir, or the jagmohan / doltibari from the outside. This kept the deity and the devotees out of view from outsiders.

This basic structural difference between temples and havelis has been explained in various sophisticated, philosophical ways by various people at various times. They have often skirted around the security or political issues and have claimed this is a point of religious ideology. Here are some of them -

1) Haveli is suppose to represent the house of Nadababa, and hence is a house first and foremost. You would not have your inner rooms open to public view, and nor would Nandababa, hence, the inner rooms are shielded from the outer gate by a series of courtyards and halls preceding to it.

2) Krushna is a small child and hence should not be exposed to the vulgar gaze. Only those trusted by Yashodaji may come and play with her child. This is also done to avoid "najar" - the "evil eye" from unscrupulous people.

3) Just as a child would be kept indoors, as far away from the busy street as possible - least he runs out without his mother's permission, the deity is kept in the inner most part of the haveli, to keep him safe.

4) Just as feeling and emotions are private, the inner sanctum in a haveli is private.

I am sure if you ask a Pushti Margiya mukhiyaji, or a Bawashri / Betiji, they will give plenty of other explanations for this.

Typically, havelies were built in the same manner as houses in the locality. So the ones in Gujarat are often built with plenty of wood carving, the ones in Rajasthan have a lot of stone, stucco and painted murals.  Havelis usually consist of several courtyards, halls and rooms.  Usually, they are multi storied.  The Nij mandir is usually on the ground floor for easy of access.   Families who live there usually occupy the upper stories to keep their privacy.   Depending on how much room is available, there will be a garden, well, and a cowshed.If there is room, a goshala is also incorporated into the plan of the haveli itself.   In some, I have seen the cows being kept in the first courtyard, nearest to the public enterance.  This is a convenient place, as the cows are near the street, easy for the cowheards to lead then in and out when going to pasture, and they provide a touch of the "auspicious" right near the entrance.  This is typical of some houses of the time and may have been modelled on that.  More palatial havelis did not have goshala on the premise, they often kept their cows out of town in bigger enclosures.In Calcutta, space is a major constraint. 2 havelis I visited there had the nij mandir on the first floor. The ground floor was kept for offices / administration purposes.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, iron grills were introduced to cover over courtyards and further secure windows and open halls. This made the havelis darker, less airy. New, imported paints were introduced, to brighten up their appearance over the years. Sadly, being thick oil paints, these have masked out the intricate wooden carving around the haveli. The stucco walls have also generally gone this way and the bright, white washed walls are covered up in various shades of paints. Now, you would have to peel back many layers of paint to get to the original now !

Later still, some of the courtyards were covered over completely. The main reason given was to shield the devotees from the fierce sun in the summer and downpours in the monsoon. What they forgot is, this is what gave the haveli its character, plenty of fresh air, sunshine and brightness.  By covering all openings, some havelies have become dark and drab.

Lately, there has been a craze to cover everything in sight with marble tiles ! All the painted murals, white stucco walls and sometimes even the carved pillars of stone and wood have been modernised with "marble" ! This, in my view, is not the typical architecture of havelis, it often ruins the appearance of the place and even if repainted, the new murals of marble lack the artistry of the bygone age.  But, I suppose this is in keeping with the tradition of using contemporary materials to build havelis.

Baithakjis are a different place of worship - they are not typically built like a haveli. Originally, they were near a lake, river or a large water tank on the outskirts of the town. It was a place where Shri Vallabh / Gopinathji / Vitthalnathji / Rasikvallabhji gave discourses on scriptures, hence, it had to be open and spacious. The later structure that was built over the place had the guru gadi as its principle object of worship and not a murti. Objects associated with the guru, his sandals, books, clothes etc were worshiped.

It was often smaller than a typical haveli and had direct view of the river / lake from the inner sanctum. It was often a simple structure and had few, if any, ostentatious objects in its architecture.

Now, however, a baithakji can be renovated to be as elaborate as money will allow - and ofcourse, it will be smothered in marble.

I would recommend that you visit havelis in person to get an idea of general layout, styles used, etc. I personally love the haveli is Nathadwara, Kakaroli and some in Vraj.

The Nathadwara's main haveli is going through some major modernisation and may soon be non-typical. Visit it before its too late ! There are 2 others there - Vitthalnathji's and Madan Mohanji's at Nathadwara that are still beautiful and may, God willing, escape the developers.  Read more about the changes in the Pushti > 2000 section.

Kakaroli has a fantastic haveli with painted murals in the Bundi style covering most walls in the public area. It is fantastic !

In Vraj, 16 years ago, there were havelis that were beautiful and traditional. Heaven knows what they are like now (vaishnavs are welcome to send in travel logs of what they have seen recently) - but, if you look around, there may still be some that are typical.

Bhagwat Shah

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