‘Fresco’ – I was introduced to this word when I came across Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ in some magazine. It means a painting done on wet or fresh plaster. If you haven’t seen a fresco yet, head over to the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan and discover the Indian version in Shekhawati havelis (mansions) of Fatehpur, Nawalgarh, Jhunjhunu and Mandawa towns.
With architecture, themes and motifs reflecting cultural sensibilities as well as aspirations of their Bania (trader) owners, Shekhawati havelis were designed to impress. The traders might have been as wealthy as Rajput kings of their time on account of a flourishing trade in opium, cotton and spices, but they didn’t dare build palaces and forts as enormous as those of royalty.
So, they built havelis or mansions drawing inspiration from them, which were smaller, but grand nevertheless. In the words of Ilay Cooper, author of ‘The Painted Towns of Shekhawati’, “the haveli was to the bania what the fort was to the Rajput – his home, his status, his headquarters and his defence.”
If you were a common villager at the time (1830-1930) these were built, you might have looked in wonder at things you had never seen before – an aeroplane painted on the outer walls or the Belgian glasswork on the doors of a Shekhawati haveli. If you were a guest not so easily impressed, paintings of Lord Krishna and his gopikas in shiny gold and lapis lazuli blue on the parlour ceiling might have done the trick.
So much more interesting than the bland uniformity of modern flats, these havelis sport a mix of Mughal and Rajasthani styles of architecture in their ornate doors, paintings and other elements like motifs and arches. The British presence can be felt in paintings of soldiers carrying muskets and ladies walking with umbrellas or enjoying a drink.
Structurally, Shekhawati havelis share almost a common layout. Usually built above road level, they might feature a basement. They have at least two floors – a ground and first floor. The first floor or a higher floor juts out of the base, creating a ‘chajja’ or a balcony. The terrace could be adjoining rooms on the first floor or could be above these as a separate floor.
If the haveli is elevated, steps or a ramp lead up to the main doorway. The elaborately painted, vaulted stone/wooden doorway houses huge doors made of metal and carved wood. In the lintel or in a niche above the doors, is a painting or carving of Lord Ganesh, the God Hindus pray to first on any auspicious occasion.
Smaller doors are set in the bigger door panels for daily comings and goings of residents. They open into a passage that houses elevated, arched seating spaces on either side where guards or musicians welcoming guests would be seated. At the far end of the passage, a wall blocking a view of the interior has a small open/perforated window where visitors would present themselves for identification.
If it was a male guest, he would be ushered through the courtyard on the ground floor into a ‘baithak’ or public reception room.
In a few Shekhawati havelis, on either side of the baithak, high above the floor level are rooms for women. With low ceilings and arched openings, these rooms allowed the womenfolk to watch proceedings without being seen.
If the guest was a relative, he might be given entry to other, private rooms that the family lived in. The havelis have one, two or in rare cases, multiple courtyards. There are stairways, on two or three sides of the courtyard, which lead to rooms above on the first floor (second floor in U.S. parlance). A walkway called firnee forms the passage outside these rooms, linking them together.
In those with two courtyards, the semi-private forecourt was designated the ‘Mardana’ or men’s courtyard. The second, inner court was the ‘Zenana’ or women’s courtyard. Generally, rooms in the inner courtyard also housed the kitchen and store rooms for grains, water etc.
I was told that in havelis with one courtyard, the younger generation stayed on the first floor while the older generation lived on the ground floor. I wonder how the gender segregation would have worked in that case.
In bigger havelis, cattle were housed in a space called ‘Nohra’. Besides, a ‘naal’ or narrow compound along the side of the house leads to the garage for horse or camel drawn carriages used by women.
Today most Shekhawati havelis are empty, their owners long having left to pursue commercial interests in cities like Calcutta or Mumbai. Belongings also transported with the owners or taken away by the Indian government, there is nothing left for the haveli’s caretakers to guard.
Locals hold the late Mrs. Indira Gandhi responsible for several truckloads of valuable items being seized from these havelis when she was Prime Minister of India. There is no way to verify such claims, but you can still hear pride, mingled with pain, in their voices when they boast of riches that once were.
Deficient of funds to maintain them, the current generation of owners are either letting the Shekhawati havelis go to waste, patching them up with ugly looking materials like cement or selling them off. Owners with means are now based in bigger cities and seem more interested in building a legacy of their own rather than preserving that of their ancestors.
For a detailed day wise itinerary that you can follow and to see more of the ambience in these small towns of Shekhawati, hop over to this post
Recent media reports say the Rajasthan government has banned the sale of havelis in certain towns and is planning to form a Shekhawati Heritage Development Council for the preservation and restoration of ancient havelis.
Having been to the region, I know that just the sheer number of havelis means that all of them cannot be saved. However, I do hope that those that are worth preserving do get a fair shot at standing the test of time for a few centuries more. As a traveller and as an Indian, I would be delighted if that happens.
In the mood for something different? Hop over to the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary by clicking here or read the story of a Maharaja who used Rolls Royces to ferry garbage in Alwar after he felt slighted at a showroom in London.
HOW TO GET TO SHEKHAWATI
BY AIR – The nearest airport is at Jaipur. It’s best to hire a vehicle from Jaipur and drive down National Highway 11. Takes 3.5-4 hours to reach Mandawa. This way you can also drive down to other towns in Shekhawati in comfort and see things at your own pace.
BY ROAD – It’s best to have a vehicle on hire. If not, State Road Transport and private buses ply from Delhi and Jaipur. Buses in Delhi can be taken from ISBT (Kashmiri Gate), Sarai Kale Khan or Dhaula Kuan. In Jaipur, the bus terminal at Sindhi Camp has buses to the districts of Churu, Jhunjhunu and Sikar.
For the adventurer – Once you get to any of the above three districts, you could hire an auto rickshaw to take you from one place to another. Else, you could clamber on to the top of a tempo/jeep/state transport or private bus as the locals do and feel the wind (and the dust) in your face!
BY TRAIN – There are no trains from Jaipur at this time. You could take a train from Delhi or Bikaner. Churu town in Shekhawati is between Delhi and Bikaner. There is only one train from Delhi to Sikar (Delhi Sikar Express) which runs on Wednesdays and Fridays and that passes Jhunjhunu, Dundlod, Nawalgarh and Sikar.
However, I would advise traveling by road over trains.
WHEN TO GO TO SHEKHAWATI
It’s best to visit from November to February. Rajasthan gets very hot during the summer months of April and May.
WHERE TO STAY IN SHEKHAWATI
NAWALGARH is the ideal town to stay for quick access to most other towns in the Shekhawati region. Roop Niwas Kothi is a good option. At the cheaper end is the Apani Dhani Eco Lodge, but you need to book this one well in advance.
MANDAWA town offers more stay options. Hotel Castle Mandawa, an upmarket choice, is set in the town’s fort and features a swimming pool too. We stayed at Radhika Haveli, which has restored paintings and traditional rooms coupled with modern amenities.
WHAT TO SEE IN SHEKHAWATI
Shekhawati includes the districts of Jhunjunu and Sikar in Rajasthan. However, from a geographical and administrative point of view, it also includes some parts of Churu and Nagaur districts.
Parasrampura has some of the most beautiful and oldest paintings in the region. Fatehpur has restored Shekhawati havelis and Nawalgarh is worth a visit for the Podar Museum. Mandawa has the Mandawa Fort while Churu, Sikar, Bissau, Jhunjhunu and Ramgarh towns have a whole lot to see from step wells (baoris), cenotaphs (chhatris), temples to forts and palaces apart from havelis.
For a brief description, click here
Buying a Rough Guide or Lonely Planet for Rajasthan state would be a good idea so you can mark out places you want to visit and plan accordingly.
Click here for a link to the Lonely Planet page on things to do in Shekhawati.