Kesri Singh, the "thakur" of the erstwhile kingdom of Mandawa, looks like an old-fashioned Indian maharajah. Over six feet tall, with a barrel chest and imperious paunch, he wears the upturned bristly gray moustache that his father and grandfather sported in their own time to mark their nobility. That much is clear from the oil paintings that loom behind Singh on a hot early morning on the verandah of his 71-room hotel, the Castle Mandawa, in the northwestern Indian region of Rajasthan.
The hotelier's family is typical Rajasthani aristocracy, a fixture of the majestically violent landscape that has drawn tourists to this arid northwestern state of India for decades. But there is a difference, at least in this remote Shekhawati region of Rajasthan where Mandawa sits, a scorching five-and-half-hour drive through the desert from New Delhi. But rather than reminisce about the martial adventures of his forefathers, Kesri Singh is preoccupied these days with his former subjects, the "Marwari" merchants who were once moneylenders and traders in the dusty camel-filled town that sprawls around the ramparts of his castle. "We gave them military protection," he says wistfully of the Marwaris who served his forefathers. "We gave them the rule of law. We gave them everything."
These days, however, the Marwaris have it all. Lakshmi Mittal, one of the world's richest men, was born in 1950 in a village 20 minutes drive north of Mandawa. And travel a similar distance to the east, to the village of Pilani, and you will find yourself in the hometown of the Birlas, one of India's most legendary business families. The Birlas and the Mittals, as well as countless other Marwari clans, share a common history. From the 19th century onwards, when the ancient Silk Road that crisscrossed Mandawa began to be eclipsed by the steamship and the railway, the Marwaris fled the desert for the flourishing tropical port of Calcutta. There, many amassed fortunes, initially as speculators in opium, sugar and jute in the choked northern bazaars of the city. After World War I, some began to invest in heavy industry. The late patriarch G.D. Birla built some of India's biggest jute, sugar, cement, automobile and polyester factories. And Lakshmi Mittal amassed a global fortune in steel.
As the fortunes of the Marwaris grew, so did their cultural and social clout. Nowhere is this more evident than in Mandawa. Those who brave its blistering summer heat, these days, come as much for the seven-foot-thick turrets and spiked elephant gate of Kesri Singh's magnificent 18th-century castle as for the painted houses left behind by the Marwaris. Called "havelis," painting the walls and ceilings of their ancestral houses became a way for the strictly vegetarian Marwaris to show off a little. The ceiling of one such haveli, for example, shows the flute-playing Hindu god Krishna frolicking beside a billowing steam engine. A bit kitsch? Maybe, but even if the images can be trite, the hand-carved teak doors and almost accidental details of the havelis rarely disappoint. Before paints were mass produced, for example, Marwaris fermented their dyes from cow urine and plastered them onto walls while the mud was still wet. This deep mustard brown color, leached under the cauldron of the desert sun, is stunning.
Even Kesri Singh appears to realize that the key to prosperity lies outside his parched kingdom, making more frequent trips to Calcutta (now renamed Kolkata) to raise capital for his expanding operations. "He never used to go before," observes Arvind Sharma, one of Singh's former employees, now a rival hotelier in Mandawa. But how will the wealthy Marwaris of Kolkata treat the scion of their erstwhile liege? Will they remember the bad old days when their families clung to the walls of his castle, treated with scorn as grubby moneylenders? "No, no, we treat all maharajahs with great respect," says Rajesh Khaitan, a prominent Marwari lawyer and ex-politician, sipping coffee in the city's elite Bengal Club. "But speaking for myself, I may not give much money." Being a maharajah, alas, isn't what it used to be.