Stunning havelis, beautiful frescos… there is a reason why the Shekhawati region is called India’s open art gallery.
Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region is often overlooked for the more popular destinations in India’s desert state. Indeed, while Rajasthan is a favorite among foreign tourists, this region is usually passed up for the traditional favourites such as Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Bikaner. The Shekhawati region is located in the Delhi-Jaipur-Bikaner triangle and is truly a hidden gem in a state that has been the face of Indian tourism for the longest time ever.
Unlike the other major tourist hubs, Shekhawati is not a city or a town but rather a region. It includes several small towns such as Nawalgargh, Mandawa and Jhunjhunu. The region itself is spread across some 100 km but Nawalgargh and Mandawa are its two most important centers, though it would be a bright idea to camp out at Mandawa, which is more centrally located.
What makes the Shekhawati region so unique are its havelis or mansions. These havelis, some of which date back to the 18th century, have intricately painted frescoes all over them – from inside as well as outside! As a result the entire region has several brightly painted havelis that are literally works of art.
In the pages to follow, we take you through some of the most exquisite havelis we visited during our recent visit to Shekhawati.
The Shekhawati region falls along an ancient trade route. Ruled by the Shekhawat Rajputs, this was once a prosperous region with some 50 forts and palaces across 100 villages.
As time passed, several Marwari traders also migrated to the region and struck roots. Almost all these migrants were rich businessmen.
These men of money began commissioning havelis and employed artists to paint intricate frescos on them.
The frescos were a sign of opulence and it was only a matter of time before frescoed havelis mushroomed all over the region.
These frescos reflect the sensibility of the age and several of them have gods and goddesses painted all over.
But art always imitates life and thus modern motifs began making their way into these intricate works of art. This is an artist’s impression of the railway train.
The art of haveli painting thrived for good three hundred years before families began moving out of the region to newer trade hubs such as Calcutta (present-day Kolkata) and Bombay (present-day Mumbai).
The havelis were thus abandoned.
This – one of the twin havelis in Nawalgarh, commissioned by a trader for his two sons – is one of the many havelis that lie locked up for most part except when the caretaker opens them for curious visitors for a small baksheesh.
Today, most of these havelis are in various stage of disrepair with the hand of time slowly but surely wiping away the precious frescos. In most major havelis, the only resident is the caretaker.
Haveli Nadine le Prince is a happy exception. Purchased by Nadine le Prince, a French artist, this haveli is in being restored one fresco at a time. Unlike most other ‘restoration’ jobs that usually involve painting over the centuries old frescos, Nadine le Prince and her team of artists goes about restoring these priceless works of art in a systematic and scientific manner. The haveli also doubles up as a hotel.
The havelis attract a steady trickle of travellers but the tourism avalanche is yet to hit this region. For most part, Shekhawati remains a hidden gem of a superstar tourism state.