For most of us, Rajasthan is as ‘mainstream’ as it gets. It’s the state that you visit with your parents because it’s a safe bet: you have the typical touristy things to do, regular places to visit, famous markets to shop at, etc. And it is clear that we aren’t the only ones who are feeling that way. The good folks at Rajasthan Tourism must have sensed the exhaustion with the state as a tourist destination, which is why its latest advertisement campaign doesn’t feature the usual suspects but rather focuses on unique experiences and lesser-known gems And trust us when we say that Rajasthan has quite a few hidden gems. From the haunted village of Kuldhara in Jaisalmer to the Jaisamand Lake near Udaipur, Rajasthan has a lot more up its sleeve than you may like to believe.

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One such gem is the Shekhawati region. Located in northeast Rajasthan, the region that is spread across some 100 km, the region comprises the districts of Jhunjhunu, Nagaur, Sika and Churu. Even though the Shekhawati region is located in the very popular triangle of Delhi-Jaipur-Bikaner, it is often passed up for more popular destinations. And it is easy to see why most people would skip Shekhawati altogether. For one, it is not on most tourist maps. Also, temperatures in the region can be very harsh and extreme. Summers are especially hot with temperatures going as high as 50 degrees C. But unlike other parts of Rajasthan that are dotted with majestic forts and spectacular views, most places in the Shekhawati region are typical of Indian small towns — chaotic and forgettable.

But what makes the Shekhawati region stand out is not its ethos or its forts (which have little or no character especially when compared to some of the bigger ones in the state and most of them are converted into hotels) but rather its numerous havelis (or mansions). Known for their elaborate and intricate frescos, these havelis are spread across the region giving Shekhawati its well-deserved moniker of being the world’s largest open-air art gallery! The havelis of Shekhawati are either from the turn of the 19th century or date back to the more recent past of the 20th century.

But before we take you on a tour of the region’s spectacular havelis, here is a short lesson in history:

The region we know as Shekhawati has a special place in Hindu mythology. During the Mahabharata period, the northern part of Rajasthan that included Bikaner and Nagaur was called Jangladesh while the eastern part was known as the Matsya kingdom. Shekhawati was part of the Matsya kingdom that extended to the now extinct river Saraswati. The kingdom found itself in the center of the feud between the Pandavas and the Kauravas when the exiled cousins took refuge here in the final year of their exile when they were supposed to live incognito. It was when they were discovered that the kingdom was attacked by the mighty Kauravas who flushed out the five brothers who came out in support of the king who had unknowingly given them refuge. It was this battle that eventually led to the full-fledged 18-day war that tore into the very heart of the empire.

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The present-day Shekhawati was established along an old caravan trade route by the Shekhawat Rajputs; these brave men ruled the region right up until India won its independence. It began with the rule of Rao Shekha of Dhundhar who established his kingdom with Amarsar as its capital. The kingdom expanded under the rule of his descendants. And while the Shekhawati chieftains retained a nominal loyalty to the Kachwaha Rajput’s capital state of Jaipur, they ran their kingdoms more or less autonomously. For their support, Jaipur Princely State honored them with the hereditary title of Tazimi Sardars.

As decades passed, the region attracted merchants from the neighbouring Marwari community who set up their homes here. While the shrewd Marwari merchants traveled far and wide, they ensured they sent their vast fortunes back home not unlike the immigrant workers of Kerala do so in modern times. And just as the landscape of Kerala is dotted with grand mansions, more often than not, constructed in no small part thanks to the tax-free income of its immigrant worker populace, Shekhawati too saw a similar trend.

Except that the prosperous businessmen didn’t just commission mansions, they also ordered artists to decorate these grand havelis as well as the step-wells and temples. The frescos inside and outside these grand homes came to be a sign of opulence. The larger your home and the more the frescos you have on your walls, the richer and more powerful you are. These havelis were largely constructed by people from the kumhar (or potter) community. Not only did the kumhars build these grand havelis, they also painted and decorated them with frescos that make Shekhawati such a unique place to visit. Most of these artists came from Jaipur where they were involved in the construction of the various palaces and promptly used their techniques and skills to build the grand havelis in seemingly the middle of nowhere. The big city artists influenced their local counterparts and the result was quite fascinating, to say the least.

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The motifs on the havelis show the various influences of the artists and their art. While the early frescos were clearly influenced by the Mughal art form with their geometric designs, the later ones sought inspiration from the Rajput royal courts. As with most art, mythology and religion also provided a constant source of influence and inspiration with Krishna being a particularly popular motif in the frescos. With the increased influence of the British and other western powers, frescos began to feature European women and men. Similarly, the arrival of modern inventions is also reflected in some of the latter-day frescos as the motifs of telephones, trains and even hot air balloons make their way into the canvas. It also isn’t unusual to find a few frescos of Jesus! The range of themes in the frescos on the Shekhawati havelis is quite broad. In some of them, the everyday meets the fantastic as Krishna and Radha take a ride in a flying car. And in some others the imagination of the artist fills the gap that his limited worldview cannot; thus you have frescos depicting Europeans taking a ride in a hot air balloon that is being blown into!

The art of fresco paintings was alive for as many as three centuries before the families began moving out of the region to newer centers of businesses. Several Marwari merchants moved to Kolkata and Mumbai; some moved to New Delhi. As a result, most of their havelis were abandoned and locked up. Today almost every single haveli in the Shekhawati region is neglected and mostly occupied by just one person: the caretaker. In some other instances, the families of the caretakers have made it their home and have only contributed to the damage of the once-opulent mansions.

How to reach Shekhawati

Shekhawati is a geographical and cultural region. Since it covers some 100 km, you will need to set up base and travel to and from it. While Jhunjhunu is definitely the biggest town in the region, it is better to camp at Mandawa, which is more centrally located.

Mandawa is best approached from Jaipur. Alternatively, you can also approach it from New Delhi or even Bikaner. The closest airport to Mandawa is at Jaipur and is about 170 km away. The easiest way to reach Mandawa from Jaipur is by road. It can take anywhere between four and five hours to reach Mandawa, depending on the time of the day you’re traveling. Unless you really want to backpack, the best way to get around this region is by a private car. Most operators will be happy to pick you up from and drop you back to Jaipur. Buses also ply between Mandawa and Jaipur and Bikaner respectively, and it takes about four hours.

If you are traveling from New Delhi, take a train that leaves from Delhi Sarai Rohilla railway station and travel to Bikaner or Jodhpur and get off at Churu. You will need to take a cab or a bus from Churu to reach Mandawa, which is about 43 km away (but takes more than an hour to reach)

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Best time to visit Shekhawati

The weather in the region can be very harsh and so visiting during summers is completely out of the question. If you don’t mind the equally harsh winters, you can visit it any time between October and March. By February, the weather is comfortably pleasant and by March you can feel the impending summer. The annual Shekhawati Festival, which is held in February in Nawalgarh, showcases the best of local talent and gives you another reason to visit the region. Just make sure you have sufficient sweaters and jackets!

Mandawa

For the most part, the Shekhawati region isn’t very tourist-friendly (though it is slowly but surely getting there). Of these, though, Mandawa is the one town that is best set up for tourism. There are several places to stay, restaurants to eat at and it is more (for the want of a better word) touristy as compared with the other towns in the Shekhawati region. Between Nawalgarh and Mandawa, we preferred to set up our base in the latter. Mandawa has several havelis, some grander than the others and some others in various states of disrepair. You can spend an entire day visiting almost all of these havelis but chances are you will get bored as the story behind every haveli is practically the same and most havelis are in such a state of disrepute it burns your heart to just look at them. There are some havelis that are better-known than the others.

Best havelis to visit in Mandawa

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Binsidhar Newatia Haveli dates back to the 1920s and houses the State Bank of Bikaner and Jaipur. The motifs of European women being driven in a car and Wright Brothers in an aircraft are some of the prominent motifs on one of the external walls of this haveli.

Murmuria Haveli was constructed in the ’30s and the frescos depict a train at a railway crossing as well as Jawaharlal Nehru in the unlikeliest of the situation: on a horseback, somewhat dramatically waving the Indian tricolor!

Lakshminarayan Ladia Haveli is probably the most picturesque one. The frescos here depict stories from Hindu mythology and if you are really interested in art, this is one haveli that will keep you occupied for a long time.

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Then there is the Mohan Lal Saraf Haveli that features some intricate mirror-and-mosaic work as well as some stunning portraits and paintings and the Jhunjhunwala Haveli (pictured above), which has a room that has been painted in pure gold.

The biggest building in Mandawa is the Mandawa Fort. This fort, which is now a hotel, is known as much for its architecture as for its collection of paintings. It has also served as a set for the 2007 hit film Jab We Met and more recently, PK.

The Thakurji Temple, Tanu Manu Saraf Haveli, Akhramka Haveli, Harlalka Well and Goenka Chattri are among the other attractions in Mandawa.

Nawalgarh

If you are not keen on staying at Mandawa, then Nawalgarh is your next best option. Two of the grandest havelis in Nawalgarh are Podar Haveli and Morarka Haveli, both of which have been converted into museums. Founded by Thakur Nawal Singh Bahadur in 1737, Nawalgarh was home to several Marwari business families. Before the rampant development, the town’s marketplace and the layout of the havelis reveal that it may have been a well-planned one. Located at the heart of the Shekhawati region, Nawalgarh is relatively less-touristy than Mandawa but remains a charming little town.

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Best havelis to visit in Nawalgarh

The Podar Haveli is one of the few well-maintained havelis in the region, though artists will be quick to point out that it has been merely re-painted and not restored in the purest sense. In any case, the haveli’s museum offers a good insight into the culture of the region.

Morarka Haveli‘s museum also has some well-preserved original paintings as also scenes from Ramayana. Don’t miss the somewhat incongruous but quite beautiful image of Jesus on the top storey of the haveli.

The highlight of the frescos in Bhagton ki Choti Haveli is a steamship and a locomotive alongside a motif of gopis performing the raas leela and another one with women dancing during Holi. Hira Lal Sarawgi Haveli has some rather hilarious pictures including that of a stiff English couple on the one hand and (presumably) Menaka trying to seduce Vishwamitra.

Then there is the Khedwal Bhavan which is inhabited and features some beautiful mirror work as well as some fine blue tilework. One wall features the festivities of Teej while another one has a long locomotive crossing a bridge. An outside wall features the love story of Dhola Maru in two frames: one which has soldiers chasing the lovers mounted on a camel and the second has Maru firing arrows at them even as Dhola takes charge of the camel.

Jhunjhunu

This was the old capital of the region and continues to remain the largest town here. Even though the town has several havelis, Jhunjhunu’s most prominent ones are the Modi Havelis. Jhunjhunu also has a Rani Sati temple dedicated (somewhat infamously) to a widow who in 1595 committed the act of Sati after her husband, a merchant passed away.

Best havelis to visit in Jhunjhunu

Perhaps the best-known havelis of Jhunjhunu are the Modi Havelis (pictured below). The havelis face each other and have some of the best woodcarvings as well as frescos in the city. One of the havelis feature a picture of a woman in a beautiful blue sari listening to a gramophone record, another one has a group of soldiers racing a train on their horses. Legends of Krishna appear prominently on the walls of the havelis as do portraits of mustachioed men with some delightfully funny expressions.

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Kaniram Narsinghdas Tibrewala Haveli remains closed most of the time but there are several frescos on the outside walls that offer an insight into the artist’s vivid imagination including one that depicts two trains: a passenger train and a goods train.

Mohanlal Ishwardas Modi Haveli also has a train that runs across the front facade as also scenes from the legend of Krishna. These themes contrast the scenes from what looks like a courtroom and feature judges, monarchs and Indian maharajas.

Fatehpur

In 1451, Fatehpur was established as a capital for the nawabs. Before the Shekhawati Rajputs took over the entire region, Fatehpur was the stronghold of the Muslim princes. Even though most of the towns in the Shekhawati region are in a state of disrepair, Fatehpur is even more dilapidated than the rest. Even though the region doesn’t receive a lot of rain, Fatehpur’s streets are flooded easily. These floods cause even more damage to the already damaged frescoes.

Best havelis to visit in Fatehpur

Haveli Nadine Le Prince (pictured below) stands out amidst the shambles that is Fatehpur. Formerly known as Nand Lal Devra Haveli (constructed in 1802), this haveli was purchased by a French artist called Nadine Le Prince in 1999. The artist has painstakingly restored the frescoes and indeed the haveli itself. Nadine Le Prince divides her time between Fatehpur and Paris. Haveli Nadine Le Prince is unarguably the most well-preserved haveli in the entire region. Nadine Le Prince invites volunteers who spend months helping her with the restoration work and even work as guides. Haveli Nadine Le Prince charges for a guided tour but it is well worth the money and far more informative than ones conducted by local guides. Haveli Nadine Le Prince also has a cafe, a small gallery that displays the work of the artist and her son and even offers rooms to tourists.

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Not very far from Haveli Nadine Le Prince is the Jagannath Singhania Haveli (pictured below). This haveli is relatively new, as compared to Haveli Nadine Le Prince in that it dates back to 1855. The Jagannath Singhania Haveli is often locked and you’d be lucky if you find a caretaker here. However, the outside of the haveli is so ornate, it is impossible to take your eyes off it. The paintings on the facade range from the popular Radha Krishna to that of British soldiers wielding guns.

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Geori Shankar Haveli stands further south from Jagannath Singhania Haveli. Unlike the latter, the Geori Shankar Haveli is inhabited and the family will be happy to welcome you… for a small price, of course. The haveli features some spectacular mirror mosaics especially in the antechamber as well as painting with religious motifs on the outer courtyard.

The themes painted on the walls of the Vishnunath Keria Haveli depict a marriage of the old and the new. It is thus that you have Radha and Krishna flying around in a gondola-like contraption that looks in part like a car and on the other hand, there is a portrait of Queen Victoria and King George. Yet another fresco depicts Krishna playing a gramophone for Radha!

Mahavir Prasad Goenka Haveli is yet another haveli that features some of the best paintings in the entire region. The first floor rooms are especially magical and you would be forgiven for thinking you were stepping into a giant jewelry box, what with intricate mirror work all over it. More often than not this haveli is locked but you can enter the first courtyard to get a glimpse of what the rest of the haveli could look like.

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While Jhunjhunu, Mandawa, Nawalgarh and Fatehpur are the major towns in the Shekhawati region, there are others too that have similar havelis. Note that it is easy to lose interest in the havelis and their recurring motifs but if you are really interested in the art of the region, consider heading to the following places too:

Ramgarh was once one of Shekhawati’s wealthiest towns and boasts of some spectacular temples, which could serve as a welcome break from the haveli tours. Then there is Mahansar, established by the Poddar family. The family dealt in opium and pretty much ran the town. Mahansar’s fortunes rose and fell with that of the Poddar family. And so when the family fell into ruins after ships carrying opium sank, the town’s fortunes went down with the ships. However, Mahansar does boast of a fort which is now a heritage hotel and the Sone ki Dukan (or the Shop of Gold), which has tales from Hindu mythology being painted in gold.

Dundlod lies to the south of Mandawa and has a few havelis that boast of some fascinating murals. There is also a fort that stands at its heart and is now a charming heritage hotel.

And finally, there is Mukundgarh, a town that is known as much for its crafts as it is for its havelis and forts.

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To preserve the beauty of the mansions and promote Shekhawati as a tourist spot, selling havelis to someone who could harm its heritage look is not encouraged. Note that several of the havelis in the Shekhawati region are abandoned or locked up. While most of them do have caretakers, it isn’t always that you find these caretakers in the havelis. And even if they are, they expect baksheesh in order to show you around the haveli. Even the havelis that are inhabited usually charge a small fee or expect a ‘voluntary’ donation at the end of the trip.

All these havelis are privately owned and hence receive almost no patronage from the government. The families that do continue to inhabit these havelis don’t possess the wealth of their ancestors. Almost all of them keep day jobs or run small businesses and just about make ends meet. Add to that family squabbles and inheritance cases that tend to run for generations in Indian courts and you can see why the havelis are in such a state of disrepair. But even in their current state, it is easy to imagine just what these havelis may have been at the height of their opulence.

Photographs: Shutterstock, Abhishek Mande Bhot