The Shekhawati region of Rajasthan is known for its exquisitely painted havelis(mansions) built by merchants largely in the 19thand early 20thcenturies. This region of Rajasthan is a must visit for anyone interested in experiencing the colourful art and culture of a still relatively off-the-beaten track part of this much loved and visited state.
Discover the famous Frescoes
Step inside the carved wooden doors of the havelis to find dozens or even hundreds of rooms built around a series of courtyards for the large joint families that once lived here. Now often abandoned and slowly decaying with owners having moved to big cities like Mumbai and Kolkata, a lucky few havelis are still visited by proud and nostalgic owners from time to time.
Exploring the varied and unusual themes of the paintings of the havelis and monuments of Shekhawati is an absolute delight. From traditional stories of the ancient Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, the devotional tales of Radha and Krishna, elephants and horses en route to battle, and the local love story between Dhola and Maru, the frescoes also go on to depict a number of rather unexpected themes. Trains and scenes from railway stations are a common subject. Early gliders and aeroplanes are also portrayed, showcasing the latest technologies of the day well before anyone in the local area would have had a chance to see these for real! If you really hunt for it, you will even find the Hindu God Krishna driving a car!
The multi-cultural lives of the owners of the mansions are evident with European faces and costumes being represented alongside Indian ones. Colourful Belgian glass and frescoes of Venetian bridges highlight the riches of the well-travelled owners.
India’s independence struggle was clearly at the forefront of one owner’s mind who had Mahatma Gandhi and independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru painted on his mansion’s walls.
With so much to see, where does one start? For a first-time visitor to Shekhawati, the following towns and villages make a great start to experience much that the region offers:
- Step back in time on a stroll around the town of Mandawa– With painted havelis around every corner, a walk around the streets of this quaint town will not disappoint. Don’t miss the over 100 feet deep wells with Mosque-like minarets that were once the source of water for the townspeople.
- Be wowed by the painted Chhatris of Ramgarh– The word Chhatri means umbrella and refers to large dome-shaped memorials built on the site where a funeral takes place. As with the famous havelis of Shekhawati, these Chhatris too are frescoed with the most gorgeous scenes from mythology and quirky sights from real life. See if you can find the one of the woman secretly jumping down her balcony as a musician plays on in her garden!
- Be amazed by the gold leaf paintings in an old ‘shop’ in Mahansar– The quality of the paintings in this hidden gem match any of the best miniature paintings found at top museums.
Top Tip: Do go here in the morning for best light as there is no electricity in the building and it can get dark later in the day.
- Learn from the excellent guide at the Podar haveliin Nawalgarh– With an interesting story about every painting and artefact in this excellent haveli and museum, the engaging and informative guide will enthusiastically explain to you the rationale behind ancient Indian mythology and traditions.
Learn something new
- Understand the techniques for making frescoes– One technique is that of painting on wet plaster, with mineral and vegetable-based colours being used during the earliest era of the Shekhawati frescoes. Can you imagine the skill of the artists who would have had to work at great speed to quickly finish their masterpieces before the plaster dried! Another, less durable, technique involves painting on dry plaster.
- Watch ‘tie and die’ artists make colourful fabrics in their homes in Mandawa.
Live in a frescoed mansion
- Live like a Maharajaat the Castle Mandawa hotel– From enjoying a musician playing a local string instrument called the Ravanhatha at dinner time to savouring a cocktail at the lovely frescoed bar, this castle hotel makes a wonderful base to explore the area.
Top tip: Get a room in the oldest part of the fort instead of the newly added rooms for the complete royal experience.
- Experience rural art and architecture at the Desert Resort in Mandawa– With rooms and floors plastered with cow dung and mud that keeps them cool in the summer and warm in the winter, this resort feels like a traditional Rajasthani village. The resort keeps local traditions alive with all the rustic wall decorations being made by local women. There is even a puppeteer to keep both adults and children-alike entertained!
- Imagine life as a rich traderat the many havelis(mansions) converted into heritage hotels in the quaint town of Mandawa or go more rural and basic in nearby villages like Mahansar.
Indulge your sweet tooth
- Do try Lapsi, a dessert made with cracked-wheat and jaggery, that the local folk love to cook and eat in their homes.
- Buy fresh pedas, a dessert made with condensed milk. You will almost certainly find small mithai waalaahs hard at work condensing milk along the streets of the Shekhawati towns.
Take happy memories home
- Take photos at sunset, when the mansions of Shekhawati take on a pale golden hue. Sit on the roof terrace of one the mansions in Mandawa, to enjoy a cup of tea as the sun goes down over the lovely town.