Part of the Shekhawati region, the smalls towns of Mandawa, Fatehpur etc. present a person willing to stray off the beaten path with the largest open air display of frescoed havelis
India is known for its forts and palaces and any visitoris most likely to go through the Golden Triangle circuit of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, whether or not they see any other city.
While Jaipur’s Amer Fort is an architectural delight and its Hawa Mahal a photo-worthy monument, what most people don’t realise is that just a 3.5-4 hours drive away from the pink city is a unique land of painted havelis or mansions.
Doorway of Chokhani Haveli in Mandawa
Part of the Shekhawati region, the smalls towns of Mandawa, Fatehpur etc. present a person willing to stray off the beaten path with the largest open air display of frescoed havelis.
While the havelis are imposing, their frescoes are an interesting mix of traditional motifs, portraits of maharajas and haveli owners, scenes from scriptures and quirky, modern elements.
So, you will find Krishna in a raasleela with gopikasor Lord Ganesh with his consorts comfortably sharing space with Europeans having wine, a train pulling into a station or even a hot air balloon rising into the sky.
Black and white pic of train at Ramnath Podar Haveli in Nawalgarh
You might wonder what prompted such juxtapositions. Well, the Marwaris were either trying to educate the commons or showing off their knowledge of a wonderful world which existed beyond this region.
The Shekhawati region comprising Jhunjhunu, Sikar ,Churu and Nagaur districts was once the pride of Rajasthan. Named after the Rajput ruler Rao Shekha Ji, who was the Chieftain of Amarsar in Amber, Shekhawati’s area expanded under Sardul Singh and Sheo Singh in the 18th century.
Influenced by the grand architecture of Amer (Jaipur), the Shekhawati Rajputs too built their forts and palaces along the same lines and the first murals came into being.
In the beginning of the 19th century, camel caravans from the Middle East, China and the rest of India began passing through and converging in Shekhawati.
As trade along this route increased, people from the neighbouring region of Marwar moved to Ramgarh, Fatehpur,Mandawa, Jhunjhunu, Nawalgarh and other emerging commercial centres.
With trade in cotton, opium and spices flourishing, the Marwaris soon became wealthy and influential. Rather than building palaces, they built vast and opulent painted havelis reflecting their new found stature. Most of the Marwari havelis were built between 1830 and 1930.
Goenka Haveli in Fatehpur
It’s said behind every successful man, there is a woman. In the Shekhawati region, that proverb could very well be ‘Behind every beautiful haveli is a successful Marwari businessman’.
Podar, Goenka, Jhunjhunwala, Neotia, Khetan – these are the names of somehavelis or mansions that still stand in the lanes of Shekhawati serving as a memory of illustrious owners who left for greener business pastures like Calcutta (Kolkata) and Bombay (Mumbai).
Today, tourists flock to see this open air museum of frescoes and to feel the touch of royalty by staying in the few former forts, palaces and havelis that have turned into hotels. With the brilliant blue of lapis lazuli, golden from gold metal and other colours from natural dyes, the murals on the havelis hold you in their spell. They seem to celebrate a glorious time in Indian history.
Jhunjhunwala Haveli at Mandawa
However, there are crumbling havelis too. Deserted and left to decay due to lack of funds or abused by current caretakers who seem apathetic to their history, they seem to be crying for help. Ramgarh, founded by the Poddar family and once one of the richest towns in India, seems to be in a particularly bad state with its many chhatris (cenotaphs), baoris (stepwells) and havelis covered in the grey and black mold of neglect.
One wishes that Mahaveer Prasad Goenka Haveli in Fatehpur and Ramnath Podar Haveli in Nawalgarh were the norm rather than exceptions.
The Goenka Haveli has been beautifully restored and part of the family is now staying in it. The Ramnath Podar Haveli houses an interesting, albeit small, museum showcasing traditional Rajasthani clothing, paintings and other mementoes of a bygone era.
Pagdis at Podar Haveli and Museum
On visiting the Shekhawati region, you might feel a tinge of sadness at seeing a rich legacy gradually being laid waste by forces of time, poverty and apathy but as an Indian, you will also be proud of what our forefathers built and achieved. So, don’t waste any more time. Pack your bags. October to March is the best time to visit.