Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Shekhawati – The Painted Wonderland

Rajasthan’s landscape dominated by the imposing palaces and indomitable forts pulls in tourists trying to soak in the stories of valour and sacrifice of Rajput warrior clans among the golden sand dunes. But Rajasthan has its surprises too. On the fringes of Thar Desert, three districts in the north that form the region of Shekhawati are home to magnificent havelis adorned with beautiful frescoes. As with most offbeat destinations, Shekhawati will leave the traveller in awe of sheer variety and scale of India’s built heritage. 

This is what Shekhawati is all about - entire facades of havelis covered with rich frescoes

Shekhawati has largely remained under the radar of the tourists but things are slowly changing. Bollywood, always on the lookout for exotic locations, has already found Shekhawati. In Aamir Khan starrer ‘PK’, Sanjay Dutt’s character hailed from the town of Mandawa, while in ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’, the Salman Khan’s blockbuster, Mandawa served as the make believe Pakistan. If Bollywood could discover Mandawa, we can too! There had been occasional chatter on the social media about the abandoned havelis and the embellished walls that further added to the mystery.

Shekhawati is sprawled across three districts of Jhunjhunu, Churu and Sikar, and therefore a little planning is needed before coming. Research revealed that there are number of towns that have the painted havelis and which are conveniently located in a grid like layout easily accessible from each other. Logistics wise, the town of Mandawa seemed to have everything that Shekhawati had to offer – central location, lots of havelis, hotels and of course, the Khans had graced the town with their presence!

The restored Mandawa Haveli is now a heritage hotel - Mandawa, Shekhawati

On a long weekend, we finally leave for the fresco wonderland. From Delhi, we moved through Gurgaon, before passing through the towns of Rewari and Narnaul in Haryana. Jhujhunu, about 230 kms southwest of Delhi is the first major city in Shekhawati region but does not have much to offer besides a huge stepwell or baoli. A short drive of 30 kms from Jhunjhunu brings us to our destination of Mandawa. Winding through the market street, we arrive at the soaring gateway of Mandawa fortress. Here, nearby is the restored mansion, originally built in 1890, and now converted into a heritage hotel called Mandawa Haveli, and which will be our abode in Shekhawati. The walls covered with restored paintings provide a rich preview of what we can expect here.

So while the ground floors have been converted into shops, it is the projecting upper floors that provide a glimpse of what the town used to be in the past - main street of Mandawa

The ground floors are the most damaged parts with the paintings mostly lost or whitewashed over - Shekhawati in Rajasthan

It is time to take a walk in the town of Mandawa. The chaotic main street filled with vehicles and shoppers is just like any other town in India. But here men sport colourful pagdis and women dazzle in neon coloured odhnis. Yes this is how the people of this arid scrubby land bring colour to their lives. It is in the second glance that you notice the havelis lining up the sides of the street. The shops operate out of the ground floors. Higher up, the projecting floors can be seen with series of windows, alcoves and jharokhas. And on the walls, vying for attention along with the advertisement boards and messages are a riot of frescoes.

One of the most impressive havelis. It is a living haveli and do notice the turret like corners - in Mandawa, Shekhawati
An inner lane with havelis stacked together
Related Link on this blog

Shekhawati, The Frescoland
As we make our way deeper into the lanes, havelis of all shapes and sizes are packed together wall to wall. The Marwari trading community awash in money made during the early 19th century as caravan trade routes shifted to Shekhawati, busied themselves in this construction binge. This was like keeping with the Joneses or in this case keeping up with the Poddars and Goenkas and Singhanias. It is in these quiet lanes that the true scale of frescoes is revealed. The walls are dripping with paintings - all colours seem to have been used – red, blue, maroon, and even silver and gold.

Plane, Bicycle, Horses and the almost pristine panels under the eaves - in Mandawa town of Shekhawati

The main gates inside the compound walls have received the major attention. The imposing gates and their arched undersides are profusely painted indicating the influence and affluence of their owners. High above the ground, protected by vagaries of weather and vandals, it is the paintings under the eaves or brackets that hold the projecting upper floors are the most vivid. The painters seem to have gone ballistic under the instructions of the haveli owners. Most frescoes carry scenes from epics. Lord Krishna plays Raas Leela with gopis while Lord Shiva rides Nandi. Then there are portraits of rulers with flowing beards as they twirl their moustaches along with portraits of family elders.  The facades are mostly adorned with elephants and horses. Murmuria Haveli has canvasses influenced by Venice along with Raja Ravi Verma’s replica painting.

The jewel box of Kedar Mal Ladia Haveli in Mandawa

But Kedar Mal Ladia Haveli is the mother of all havelis. Situated on a corner just beyond the bus stand, we buy tickets for something we have been promised will blow us away. The haveli seems to be a living one with occupants. Though it is the gateways, façade and courtyards that are mostly painted but here the owner has decided to go whole hog in a sheer one-upmanship. The ordinary doors on the right of the courtyard are opened to reveal a jewel box. The walls, the roofs and everything in between is painted in gold as images and patterns gleam in the lighted room. We can only stare trying to keep our jaws from dropping to the floor.

While the outer and courtyard walls are for everyone for see, it is our guess that the contents of this room were probably reserved for special guests. This room right here reflects the desire of the rich to display their wealth but because Marwaris are generally not ostentatious the decorations were confined to a small room!

And then there are the outlandish depictions. Merchants who probably had sailed to Europe came back with stories of trains, telephones and Europeans out on a ride on bicycles, cars and horse carriages. The paintings depict their experiences and what they saw in foreign countries. This was social media of a century ago. We post photos on facebook standing in front of Eiffel Tower; the walls of foreign returned Marwaris carried images of telephones, fancy bicycles, trains and Europeans wearing fancy hats.

The Chaukhani Johra just outside Mandawa town in Shekhawati

Besides havelis, the merchants also built elaborate memorials or chattris and as part of philanthropy also built johras or water tanks, wells, hospitals and schools and colleges. Just outside the town on the road to Nawalgarh, there is the delightful Chaukhani Johra with a well on the other side of the road.

Even as the walls are alive with the technicolour frescoes, the mansions seem to have fallen silent. A deep feeling of forlornness echoes in the lanes. Most of the gates are padlocked, their owners now in big cities leaving the havelis at the mercy of elements. The once prosperous town seems to be in a deep slumber. As the caravan trade routes dried up owing to internal strife and moved to coastal towns, the Marwari merchants also moved to Calcutta. For a while the construction boom continued but with passing years as the owners’ new generations settled in the cities, the havelis were soon abandoned. The rapidly disintegrating but still imposing doorways and the now fading paintings tell the stories of glory days and the present abandonment to anyone who would care to walk through these desolate lanes.

Along with the havelis, the merchants built sprawling Chattris or memorials - Shekhawati

The neglect of the abandoned havelis is apparent. While some havelis are in good shape, others are locked and unoccupied. Some have caretakers who will charge a ticket to show you around inside. But it is the havelis that are in different stages of ruin that troubles a heritage lover like you. Then there are some plots that are just a heap of rubble. It is uncertain whether time took its toll or the mansions are intentionally pulled down to erect modern houses with no sense of aesthetics that jangle the sensitivities. But then this is the fate of built heritage across our country, whether the usurped tombs in Delhi’s urban villages or something similar happening in Gujarat’s Sidhpur where the European styled mansions are slowing giving way to modern houses owing to pressures of growing population. It is sad that the pride of preserving a piece of heritage handed down from their forefathers does not resonate with the new generation who either, understandably do not have funds for its upkeep or choose to let it wither away. Amid these ruins, there are some promising signs as some havelis after conservation have been turned into museums and hotels. The candle of old glory days is again flickering.

A Magical Evening in Mandawa, Shekhawati

We are at one of the Chattris or Cenotaph complex on the outskirts of the town. It has been a wonderful day here in Shekhawati admiring the frescoes and the zeal and love for art of its builders. A peacock bounces around the roofs silhouetted against the setting sun. Like a peacock with unfurled feathers, it is hoped a resurrected Shekhawati too will continue to dazzle us in the coming years with its opulence and grandeur. 

(Photos shown are not necessarily the prettiest or in the prettiest setting but are shown juxtaposed with the modern reality so that the reader gets an idea about the current state of the havelis and their surroundings)

Getting There
Mandawa is about 260 kms southwest of New Delhi. Best route is via Gurgaon, Rewari and Narnaul. The road is pretty good and if you make an early start, Mandawa can be reached in about six hours with brief heritage stops in Rewari and Narnaul. If coming from Jaipur, Mandawa is about 170 kms away.

What to See
·        Shekhawati is sprawled across three districts, so some planning is needed. Google maps will come in handy to get a perspective of the area to be covered. However since the main towns are arranged in a smaller almost grid like area, getting around is not a big hassle. The base can be the conveniently located town of Mandawa that offers a choice of hotels.

·        Other towns of interest are Nawalgarh with some beautiful conserved havelis turned into museums, Fathepur, Ramgarh, and Mahansar with its fort and the dazzling ‘Sone ki Dukaan’, Churu and Bissau.

Travel Tips
·        A personal car will come handy to get around the major towns in Shekhawati, otherwise there are plenty of local and roadways buses to get you around.

·        Shekhawati towns are best explored on foot as you make your way around the lanes discovering gems. If you have time, strolling around and getting lost in the lanes is the best way to discover Shekhawati but make sure your car is parked in a public place like near the bus stand or a landmark so that you can easily find it on your way back.

·        Wear comfortable shoes and carry water and snacks.

·        Guides will approach you for taking you around in bigger towns like Mandawa and Nawalgarh – make sure you know what you are getting for your money.

·        Some havelis have caretakers who charge money for a tour inside, so decide accordingly. Of course, you don’t have to visit every haveli.

·        On the way to Jhunjhunu, and while travelling through Shekhawati, appreciate the beauty of the sparse arid land and don’t miss the Khejri trees with their trimmed gnarled branches that look like hands reaching out to sky. Khejri is also the state tree of Rajasthan and the tree where the Pandavas hid their weapons during their agyatavasa.

·        Read the definitive guide ‘The Painted Towns of Shekhawati’ by Ilay Cooper before visiting for better understanding of the region.

A version of the story appeared on

(This was one of the first Shekhawati blog I ever read and was totally sold)

(What a sparkling story – still surprised why I discovered Svetlana’s blog so late!)

(Neelima does a great job with her posts bringing people and heritage together, and of course she features on BBC Travel every month)

(Sudha’s blogs always hit the spot and sometimes the thought process is so uncannily similar – I even had a similar looking hand-crafted map of the Shekhawati as part of preparation! Also, reading her post I promptly ordered Ilay Cooper’s book online without losing a minute!)


  1. Beautiful yet Barren... Lovely yet Lost... Flamboyant yet Forlorn... The contrasts were heart-wrenching...

    1. Yes Gits,

      You have so beautifully summarized the Shekhawati havelis. I just hope that not all is lost and that the lovely and beautiful havelis regain their flamboyance.

      Thanks for reading!