Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, is renowned for its narrow lanes lined with ornate sandstone havelis (Hindi हवेली) with intricate latticed facades and carved jharokhas (balconies). Havelis are the beautifully carved medieval mansions built by royal priests and wealthy merchants (Rajputs, Thakurs, Marwaries, Muslim and Kotharies) in the past. The word haveli is derived from Persian meaning “an enclosed place”. The Rajasthani havelis share similar features with other mansions originating from Islamic architecture such as the traditional mansions in Morocco called Riads. Many of them contain a courtyard often with a fountain in the centre, similar to the mansions of wealthy Chinese merchants in S.E. Asia.
Patwon Ki Haveli is the most magnificent of all the Jaisalmer Havelis. It is a five-storeyed complex made up of five separate houses built in yellow sandstone. The first was constructed in 1805 by Guman Chand Patwa, a wealthy Jain brocade and jewellery merchant who owned over 300 trading centres between Afghanistan and China. This is also the largest and most grandiose of the five havelis. The remaining havelis were built by his sons, taking fifty years in all to complete. Altogether, this halveli consists of six apartments with nearly sixty delicately carved balconies with a different design on every window and arch. It has extensive corridors and inner chambers, supported by exquisitely carved pillars. Today, one can visit the first section as a restored museum.
The other haveli worth visiting is Nathmal Ki Haveli, built in 1885 by Diwan Mohata Nathmal, the then Prime Minister of Jaisalmer. It was designed by two Muslim brothers who constructed one half of the building each from the same plan. As a result, each wing turned out totally different from one another and consequently, a detailed carved facade was built to hide the dissimilarity. The main chamber is carved out of rock and the entire frontage of the first floor is carved out of one large boulder. The haveli’s inner chambers are decorated with superb miniature paintings. The fine stone carved balconies on this haveli are particularly extraordinary.