Shekhawati – A Big Open Air Museum | Rajasthan – India

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A fresco rich wall with blue doors and windows in Nawalgarh

Shekhawati is literally one big open air museum. Add colour, food and bazaars to it and you have a holiday destination for all. Bonus comes in the form of great places to stay and, if you ask the right people, an opportunity to buy genuinely old artifacts and artistic items of household use. You could even buy an old haveli and own some historical real estate for yourself.

About Shekhawati

Shekhawati is a region comprising many towns and villages, and it is not always easy to keep track of all their names and respective attractions. The best way to navigate around is to stay at just one or two towns of your liking, and drive around during the day to other places. Shekhawati roughly spans the three districts of Churu, Jhunjhunu and Sikar.

Rao Shekha, belonging to the Kachhwaha clan of Rajputs, conquered a considerable territory in the 15th century that came to be called Shekhawati; his heirs were known as Shekhawats. Shekhawati lay entirely east of the Aravalli ridge, but the rulers extended their holdings both north and west in the 18th century. It was subsequently absorbed into the Jaipur state.

Marwari Riches

If you see the dry arid landscape of Shekhawati, and commerce limited to small time trading and subsistence agriculture, the once-opulent havelis or mansions seem out of place. They were all built by Marwaris, a rich business community, with roots in this region, who made their wealth in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Mumbai (formerly Bombay) initially, spreading their footprints in the rest of the country and internationally over time. This small region has given some of the most illustrious of business families in India known by famous surnames like Birla, Goenka, Ruia, Poddar, Bajaj, Dalmia, Kedia, Khaitan and Jhunjhunuwala. Those who did well came back to build havelis, baolis (stepwells), chhatris (cenotaphs), temples, dharamsalas (rest houses) and even educational institutions and hospitals. These were funded both out of a sense of public service and to show their stature amongst their community. Many of them continue to own these ancestral properties, most not caring if these go to seed and thus destroying irreplaceable artistic heritage.

Shekhawati’s ruling class, the Thakurs, came into wealth by charging levies on trading caravans; in return, they offered protection to businessmen from brigands. The route through Shekhawati was well suited to traders plying between the ports of the western Indian state of Gujarat and Delhi. Some of the important trading items included rice, cotton, wheat, sugar, opium, wool and textiles including Kashmiri shawls. On a smaller scale, business was conducted in silk, hemp, coffee, tin, camphor, spices and elephants’ teeth besides others. Revenues from this source came in easy, especially in the 18th and the early 19th centuries, as Shekhawati sensibly charged lower levies compared to the competing neighbouring states of Jaipur and Bikaner. But this easy source of revenue was mostly lost when Jaipur was persuaded by the British to lower their levies.

An image of Hindu God Shani, son of the Sun God Surya and his wife Chhaya. Shani plays an important role in astrological charts, and Saturday is called Shanivaar in Hindi. The temple in Ramgarh dedicated to Shani was built in 1840 by Gurudayal Gangabaksh Khemka but the murals may belong to a later date.
An image of Hindu God Shani, son of the Sun God Surya and his wife Chhaya. Shani plays an important role in astrological charts, and Saturday is called Shanivaar in Hindi. The temple in Ramgarh dedicated to Shani was built in 1840 by Gurudayal Gangabaksh Khemka but the murals may belong to a later date.
Metal plates looking like glass in the Shani temple in Ramgarh; notice the buildings reflected in the same.
Metal plates looking like glass in the Shani temple in Ramgarh; notice the buildings reflected in the same.
A wall painting depicting Hindu God Krishna playing the festival of colour, Holi, inside the Shani temple in Ramgarh. Many buildings have a series of artworks depicting a story from history or from epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana.
A wall painting depicting Hindu God Krishna playing the festival of colour, Holi, inside the Shani temple in Ramgarh. Many buildings have a series of artworks depicting a story from history or from epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana.
A statue of Hindu God Shiva in the Ganga temple in Ramgarh built by Ramchandra Shivdutt Poddar in 1845. It is a rare case of Shiva being depicted like this; He is usually shown in the form of a Shivalinga, a cylindrical pillar with a rounded top. The temple is well decorated with frescos on both its outer and inside walls.
A statue of Hindu God Shiva in the Ganga temple in Ramgarh built by Ramchandra Shivdutt Poddar in 1845. It is a rare case of Shiva being depicted like this; He is usually shown in the form of a Shivalinga, a cylindrical pillar with a rounded top. The temple is well decorated with frescos on both its outer and inside walls.
The full name of this over 200 years old temple and haveli in Nawalgarh is Jagatnath Dwarka Dhisji Mandir Gher ka Mandir (Mandir means temple). By this time, architecture had evolved to include cenotaphs or chhatris and arches.
The full name of this over 200 years old temple and haveli in Nawalgarh is Jagatnath Dwarka Dhisji Mandir Gher ka Mandir (Mandir means temple). By this time, architecture had evolved to include cenotaphs or chhatris and arches.

The Famed Painted Havelis of Shekhawati

Imagery on a wall inside one of the rooms in a haveli in Mandawa.
Imagery on a wall inside one of the rooms in a haveli in Mandawa.

Shekhawati’s golden period for new and opulent buildings started in the 1830s and continued well into the following century as the rich business community invested in both public and private projects in their homeland. While the ruling Rajput class focused on building fortifications and palaces to protect their kingdoms, the bania business community splurged on lavish havelis and temples – the investment in the latter by the seths or businessmen was primarily to leave behind something in their names.

The havelis were the seth’s castle, a status symbol and a line of defence. Most were designed with two courtyards – the private inner one called zenana for women and the outer semi-private one called mardana for men and guests. Massive, iron-reinforced gates secured the premises, with a small gate within these for daily comings and goings. Most were single storeyed, going further vertically up only when land became scarcer.

Over time, architecture moved from a defensive mindset to the palatial, with a focus on appearance. Between the 1830s and the 1920s, carved wooden elements became fashionable before going out of favour. These included wooden ceilings with polished plaques of metal giving the impression of glasswork, and ornate windows and doorways. Sadly, many of these have been ripped apart by those looking for a quick buck in the antiques market. The havelis began to boast artistic figurative work on its external walls, giving the region a look of an open-air art museum. Before this, such painting was limited mostly to the inner rooms. These frescos and murals were painted by skilled artists from Jaipur or by the masons themselves who learned the art without any formal training. The themes depicted popular stories and events and developments of the day.

Despite the neglect, it is these investments that have fuelled a tourism boom in the region. You can see a few and feel you have had enough. Or you can go on for days, or even weeks, going through the maze of streets and back lanes of the towns of Shekhawati observing and studying the painted havelis of Shekhawati before they disappear altogether.

Frescos depicting a train in Ramgarh.
Frescos depicting a train in Ramgarh.
The walls are crumbling in this building in Ramgarh but a part of the frescos have not yet lost their colour.
The walls are crumbling in this building in Ramgarh but a part of the frescos have not yet lost their colour.
A well in Ramgarh. Water being a scarce commodity in the desert state of Rajasthan, wells in Shekhawati tended to be elaborate structures on platforms with two or four pillars around the well-head, sometimes with pyramidical or domed chhatris (literally means umbrellas) at the corners. All these were usually painted but this was lost due to exposure to the elements.
A well in Ramgarh. Water being a scarce commodity in the desert state of Rajasthan, wells in Shekhawati tended to be elaborate structures on platforms with two or four pillars around the well-head, sometimes with pyramidical or domed chhatris (literally means umbrellas) at the corners. All these were usually painted but this was lost due to exposure to the elements.
A seth or a businessman from the bania Marwari community of Shekhawati.
A seth or a businessman from the bania Marwari community of Shekhawati.

Restoring the Art of Old

Inside the restored Morarka haveli in Nawalgarh.
Inside the restored Morarka haveli in Nawalgarh.

The Indian law has provisions to protect monuments, there are none for civil architecture resulting in the decline of havelis of Shekhawati. Only a handful are being preserved and restored by their respective owners or any trusts who may have taken over the management of these old buildings. Some of those in good shape are the ones converted into eateries, museums and hotels – like the Haveli Nadine Prince in Fatehpur bought and restored by French artist Nadine Le Prince. It serves as a gallery, museum and an exchange centre and residency for art students.

A haveli built in 1900 by Seth Jairam Das Morarka in Nawalgarh has been carefully repaired and restored to much of its original state under the careful supervision of Dr. Basandani Hotchand. The building’s walls and ceilings were largely damaged, full of cracks and holes. The walls had been turning black, and woodwork being eaten away by termites. It was painstaking and expensive work taking years; the process also involved training workers in the art of fresco painting where artists apply vegetable dyes over wet plaster. This technique enables artworks to last hundreds of years if taken care of.

By some estimates, only 10 percent of the original havelis are expected to be restored; others are slowly crumbling away.

Wooden birds carved atop a doorway in Morarka haveli.
Wooden birds carved atop a doorway in Morarka haveli.
A haveli being lived in - notice the frescos on the upper walls still retaining some colour, but the lower floor is being destroyed by cooking fire and other apathy.
A haveli being lived in – notice the frescos on the upper walls still retaining some colour, but the lower floor is being destroyed by cooking fire and other apathy.
A chakki on display in the museum at Morarka haveli in Nawalgarh. Traditionally, Indian households would have these hand operated stone mills to grind wheat into flour.
A chakki on display in the museum at Morarka haveli in Nawalgarh. Traditionally, Indian households would have these hand operated stone mills to grind wheat into flour.

A Time to Shop for Antiques, Havelis and More

Beautiful Charkhas, or spinning wheels, for sale in a haveli in Mandawa. The author picked these up for his personal collection; no, he will not sell them to you! Shops in the market will sell you clones but they are neither as aesthetic nor is the wood of the same high quality.
Beautiful Charkhas, or spinning wheels, for sale in a haveli in Mandawa. The author picked these up for his personal collection; no, he will not sell them to you! Shops in the market will sell you clones but they are neither as aesthetic nor is the wood of the same high quality.

Here is a little kept secret of Shekhawati: the havelis are a storehouse of stuff, some of it as old as the buildings themselves. These include furniture, garments, decorations, lanterns, family photos, picture frames, candle stands and more. You have to ask around to get a peek in; don’t be fooled by new stuff rubbed and polished to look like old. Negotiate right, and you could pick up bargains. They may not really fetch much in the antiques market, but they sure can add to the interiors of your home. Hurry, offer open till depleting stocks last!

Of course, with deeper pockets, you can buy the house itself. Yes, some are for sale; many are lying locked as ownership has got divided amongst many family members over generations and they cannot all agree on what to do with their assets.

While you are there, walk around the bazaars of Shekhawati. You may not end up shopping for much, except some cheap handicrafts and colourful glass bangles, but you sure get insights into the region’s people. At anytime, these markets are full of locals shopping for clothes, fruits, vegetables, groceries and other household goods. Don’t be surprised to see most Hindu women walking in public with their faces half covered with their bright sarees, even as their young daughters in tow wear jeans, T-shirts and jackets. If traders are not making a sale, they are usually poring over their accounts books. And many of their shops still retain old artistic elements, or have been painted over with bright colours including pink, yellow, blue silver and mauve. And there is food, lots of it, all being prepared fresh in street shops. Kachoris, samosas and jalebis are available hot and fresh from the wok, best drowned with a glass of chai – indulge if you have the stomach for it.

Old locks being sold in a haveli in Mandawa.
Old locks being sold in a haveli in Mandawa.

Open Those Locks

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Locks of all shapes, sizes and age can be seen in Shekhawati – traders ensure their premises are well secured. When I was taking these shots in the early hours of the morning before shops opened, I managed to attract a crowd around me. Some onlookers started conspiracy theories that I could probably make keys from photos of these locks. If it was that simple, crime would pay very easily!

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A good way to navigate Nawalgarh is on its colourful auto-rickshaws, especially ones operated by drivers who like to dress up like their favourite movie stars.

A good way to navigate Nawalgarh is on its colourful auto-rickshaws, especially ones operated by drivers who like to dress up like their favourite movie stars.

Travel Tips

Planning a trip to Shekhawati? Here are some travel tips:

* About: Shekhawati is spread across the districts of Sikar, Churu and Jhunjhunu and dotted with towns and villages. Some towns you can consider visiting are Mandawa, Ramgarh, Nawalgarh, Fatehpur, Surajgarh, Bissau, Mahansar, Churu, Ajitgarh, Bagar and Jhunjhunu.
* Getting there: Shekhawati is best accessed by road from Jaipur (170 kms / 106 miles) or Delhi (275 kms / 172 miles) away. These distances are given to Mandawa, central to many attractions with good places to stay.
* Getting around: It is best to have a car to go around the towns you plan to visit. Try to get hold of maps, but still be prepared to ask for directions to towns and buildings within these.
* Accommodation: You can choose from many options across all budgets. Try to stay in an old haveli converted into a hotel.
* Best time to go: November to February. October and March can be pleasant in the mornings and evenings. It can get extremely hot in the summers.
* Recommended reading: The Painted Towns of Shekhawati by Ilay Cooper.

A kite shop in the evening hours in Mandawa. The skies in Rajasthan come alive with kites every year on Makar Sakranti celebrated on January 14.
A kite shop in the evening hours in Mandawa. The skies in Rajasthan come alive with kites every year on Makar Sakranti celebrated on January 14.
A statue of Hindu God Ganesha placed next to a wall with tree roots growing around it in Mandawa.
A statue of Hindu God Ganesha placed next to a wall with tree roots growing around it in Mandawa.
A buffalo doing the rounds to extract oil from mustard seeds in Mandawa. Wonder why the animal was blind-folded? The owner was not exactly chat friendly to shed some light on the matter.
A buffalo doing the rounds to extract oil from mustard seeds in Mandawa. Wonder why the animal was blind-folded? The owner was not exactly chat friendly to shed some light on the matter.
A small trader in the bazaars of Nawalgarh.
A small trader in the bazaars of Nawalgarh.
Fresh ghevar, a sweet, ready to be served to customers.
Fresh ghevar, a sweet, ready to be served to customers.
Muslim women still wear the burqa while Hindu women cover their faces with their sarees in Shekhawati and many parts of Rajasthan.
Muslim women still wear the burqa while Hindu women cover their faces with their sarees in Shekhawati and many parts of Rajasthan.

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