The famed havelis across this region in north-eastern Rajasthan are not just bewitchingly beautiful, but also symbolic of a changing India.
At the confluence of architecture, art, and culture, stand the traditional homesteads of the rich Marwari merchants of the Shekhawati region. Once the territory of the feudal ruler known as Rao Shekhaji, the region is made up of many small towns and villages in the modern-day districts of Jhunjhunu, Sikar, Churu, and parts of Nagaur and Jaipur.
The story goes that soon after 12-year-old Shekha ascended the throne of Barwada in 1445, ruling over 24 villages, he made an alliance with Panni Pathans, which led to his subsequent supremacy over the military of Amer and ‘Rao’ being added to his name in that honour. Down the generations, his descendants, the Shekhawats, expanded the territory to include all of Jhunjhunu district.
Perhaps the most Instagrammed town in Shekhawati today, Mandawa was once just a small trading stop on the ancient caravan routes that connected China and the Middle East. It gained importance when Thakur Nawal Singh built a fort in 1755 to protect the outpost and keep a check on marauding bandits. Traders from the surrounding areas moved in and the community flourished. These prosperous families – such as the Chokhanis, Dhandhanias, Goenkas, Harlalkas, Ladias, Sarafs, Sonthalias, and many others – built lavish mansions and called in artists to create frescos on the plastered walls and embellished them with the finest Belgian glass, crystal chandeliers, and French furniture.
When the British incentivised traders to relocate to Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai the businessmen moved to more lucrative locations. While some kept their havelis, coming back for important celebrations, many abandoned them or left them to the mercies of caretakers. Despite this dereliction and disuse, these havelis caught the imagination of international art and culture aficionados, and soon, places such as Mandawa, Nawalgarh, Ramgarh, Fatehgarh, Lachmangarh, and Mukundgarh started to attract tourists from across the world for their famed frescoes.
What’s so special about these havelis?
The sheer number of stunning structures in such proximity (the entire region of Shekhawati is less than 14,000 sq kms and some say there are about 2,000 such magnificent mansions here) makes them a must-visit. What’s also really remarkable is, that apart from religious and mythological themes and folk love stories that were the traditional motifs painted in frescoes, many of these havelis also gave glimpses of what the affluent merchants considered part of their daily lives (or perhaps aspired to) – from telephones to gramophones, from bowler hats to horse-drawn carriages and bicycles to trains and even airplanes! As the owners travelled abroad, their vision expanded to encompass technological advances and different landscapes. This translated into the glorious mix of global imagery that we can still see today.
From something as exciting as a hot-air balloon ride to something as significant as a trade treaty, it was all recorded for posterity. In some instances, you can even find an almost-surreal meld of the mythological and the modern, with Lakshman chauffeuring Lord Ram and Sita in a stylish convertible, like in the Neemrana Group’s Piramal Haveli in Baggar or more European-inspired frescoes and wall erotica at The Gulab Haveli, which once belonged to a diamond merchant named Gulab Rai Ladia.
What went into making these frescoes
Apart from the imagination and innovation, the intricacy of detail and vibrancy of hues in the murals are stunning. Initially, the pigments used were natural, and hence vermillion, indigo, ochre, and lampblack, as well as dyes made of everything, from flowers to cow urine. From the late 19th century, German paints came into fashion and English brands soon followed.
Architects who have studied the construction have found that the basic walls are made of stone fragments, brick, and irregular lumps of hardpan known as dhandhala bhata. “Dhandhala was a source for coarse lime used in making local mortar,” says Dhara Thakkar, who has published a design thesis titled ‘Celebrating the fresco paintings of Shekhawati’ in May 2021. The process apparently includes plastering the wall with a centimetre-thick coarse layer called chuna or lipai. Then, while the wall is still damp, a two mm layer of a finer version of the mortar is applied by beating it on, which helps in better adhesion and prevents future cracking. This is perforated and slashed to improve bonding with the next layer.
After that, it’s left to dry for a week or two and then splashed with water for a couple of hours before another layer of plaster is applied. After this come the pigments – mostly red, yellow, and green. A Secco technique is used for the interiors of the haveli, painted on dry plaster. While the Alagila technique of mural-making is applied to the exterior walls on wet plaster. A tracing of the intended mural is placed on the wet wall. A sketch is made using the tracing as a guideline and later, small dots are made on this outline using a needle. Charcoal is rubbed on the tracing before peeling it off, leaving an impression, which is then painted over with colours to create the final ornate design. In many cases, a grid is created around doors and windows to give definition to each section of the fresco.
Putting Mandawa on the world map
Castle Mandawa, dating back to 1755, and part of the Mandawa Group of Hotels, is owned by the royal family, descendants of the original Shekha Rao and Thakur Nawal Singh. Thanks to the efforts of this family, Mandawa has been on the inbound tourism circuit since they first started marketing it way back in 1975. While it has had many international visitors over the decades, Indian tourists were not as keen to visit such places. The locals observe that this has changed in the past 15 years or so, as interest has grown, and domestic tourists have started exploring more offbeat destinations.
“In recent years, thanks to its proximity to Jaipur (168 kms) and Delhi (260 kms), Mandawa has become a popular weekend getaway. It has helped that in 2020, the Government of Rajasthan designed a new policy with an emphasis on developing and promoting lesser-known spots in the state among domestic travellers,” says Virendra Shekhawat, co-founder of the Mandawa Art Village. He believes that Bollywood has played a vital role in boosting domestic tourism to this region too, with popular Hindi films such as Ghulami (1985), Paheli (2005), Jab We Met (2007), PK (2014), Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), Mirzya and Sultan (2016), being shot here.
Shekhawat is passionate about preserving Rajasthani culture, which is vanishing as more and more people move to the cities in search of work. Along with French artist Jessica D’Alessandero, he has set up the art village in Jeetas, four kms from Mandawa, where he blends appreciation for the traditional artwork with the infrastructure for modern creativity through wall painting, sculpture, photo exhibitions, functional art, etc. Since 2018, they have hosted more than 30 artists from across the globe, created more than 50 art installations, and empowered more than 600 local households. They have partnered with Rajasthan Tourism as well as Latin American embassies of Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru. The art village’s Morbagh Residency is also in the pipeline, which will allow the art-inclined long stays and immersive art experiences.
Shekhawat shares, “We are planning to set up a restoration school in about two years, which will give the existing local mural painters who currently work as daily wage earners the support they need to take on contracts of entire havelis. They will use the original, time-honoured techniques and materials so that the restoration is as authentic as possible.”
10 must-dos when you’re in Shekhawati
Stay: At the 18th-century fort turned into a luxury hotel, Castle Mandawa, right where the Shekhawati story started!
Muse: At museums such as the Seth Arjundas Goenka Haveli in Dundlod, which has20 rooms filled with artefacts showcasing merchant life from a 100 years ago, or the beautiful Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli in Nawalgarh.
Wish: At the 150-year-old Harlalka Well that is said to make wishes come true.
Experience: A heritage walk or a camel ride from your hotel that shows you the best havelis of that particular town in Shekhawati and their individual history.
Visit: The Shree Satta Dada Mandir in Ojatoo, a temple dedicated to one of the very rare male satis. Of course, we don’t condone sati in any form, but this one has a unique story, where a man sacrificed his life after the death of his brother.
Paint: To your art’s content at the Mandawa Art Village.
Read: The Painted Town of Shekhawati by Ilay Cooper and Abandoned India: The Mansions of Shekhawati by Kip Scott.
Spot: Blackbuck, desert foxes, and many migratory birds of prey at the Tal Chappar Sanctuary.
Eat: Apart from ker-sangri and daal-baati-choorma, which are the specialties of the region, try the special Chirawa pedas from Lalchand Pedawala, which are the best, according to businessman Rudresh Jhunjhunwalla, who did a taste test of all the popular ones on a recent trip to his family havelis in Chirawa and Nawalgarh. “They’re just the right balance of sweetness and softness, and feel unadulterated,” is his verdict.