Shekhawati: World's largest Open-air Art Gallery
January 1, 1970
by Sonal Parakh
Shekhawati is one of the most beautiful regions of the arid state of Rajasthan, predominantly resided by the Shekhawat clan, an offshoot of the Kachwaha dynasty of Jaipur. The region comprises of many districts like sikar, jhunjhunu, laxmangarh etc. Since the day I have visited a few pats of this region, I cannot help but wonder how it has remained absent from the travel map of the country for so long. It undoubtedly is a hidden gem of the state of forts and palaces, Rajasthan.
It is very easily accessible, being only a few hours’ drive from the capital city, Jaipur. The inconspicuousness of Shekhawati can be easily assumed by the fact that I got to visit it for the first time after almost 10 years of staying in Jaipur. This is in spite of studying a course like architecture from a top university in Jaipur that gave us an opportunity to travel to at least 20 different cities in 8 different states as a part of our curriculum. This is when me and my family are extremely enthusiastic about travelling and have travelled across the length and breadth of the country. Yet, we managed to skip Shekhawati for so long, probably because it was sitting right under our nose.
So, what really is the big deal? Why am I so upset about Shekhawati having such a muted presence? Well, hear me out.
A merchant’s paradise
The region boasts of some of the most lavish mansions belonging to the wealthiest businessmen of the country. With a history dating back to the 15th century when it was founded by a Rajput cheiftan, Rao Jodha; Shekhawati towns have witnessed times of unparalleled wealth, fortune, prosperity and opulence. By the 19th century, it had become a thriving hub for trade and business. Reduced taxes, better opportunities and accessibility to nearby commercial centers like Jaipur and Bikaner turned Shekhawati into a trade magnet for many merchants belonging to the Marwari and Bania trade communities of Rajasthan who moved here from nearby towns and villages and hit a jackpot by a booming trade in opium, cotton and spices. As wealth and affluence multi-folded, it started reflecting in their homes that slowly turned into palatial mansions that are known as ‘havelis’.
Slowly, railways and sea routes became more popular means of trade and Shekhawati started losing its significance as a trade center. The changing winds and shifting sands compelled the ambitious merchants to move to the port towns of Bombay and Calcutta. Their success in trade led to an era of richly painted and frescoed havelis that served as most unique exhibits of wealth and fortune that he world has ever seen. There was competitiveness amongst the traders that brilliantly worked in favor of Shekhawati, as every merchant wanted his haveli to be unique, most ornate and the best amongst the rest.
The Painted Havelis
It indeed is the largest open air art gallery in the world. No, these havelis do not serve as exhibition spaces for art; they themselves are priceless pieces of art. Each and every square inch of these havelis has been treated as a canvas to pour out culture, tradition, lifestyle and folklore. These mansions are beautifully painted on the exterior as well as interior; on the horizontal as well as vertical surfaces creating a magical kaleidoscope of vivid colours, intricate patterns, and untold stories- tales of travel, love, friendship, conquest and power. These paintings have served as great repositories of history and culture as they reveal a lot about the life and struggles of that time. Their subjects vary from fairs and festivals, lifestyle, folklore, mythology, culture, modes of transport, travel discoveries from distant lands, and independence struggle to rivers, mountains, flora and fauna.
Most towns have a few architectural masterpieces adorning the city that become the center of attraction. But, Shekhawati is different. Here, art has no destination. It is just like the air, omnipresent. Meaning thereby, it is not exclusive to the most lavish haveli belonging to the wealthiest in the town. On the contrary, each and every home here is a painted haveli. Of course, they differ in the subjects depicted, complexity and richness. Some are more elaborate than others. But the bottom-line is that every household has an imprint of decorative art. If you took a stroll in the lanes of any of these towns, you would find yourself struggling to find surfaces devoid of these paintings. Thus resulting into something that is no less than a miracle in itself- impeccably frescoed towns spread over an area of 13784 sq. km.
Anyone who has ever visited a town like Barcelona or has seen the frescoes in Italy and Vatican City would compellingly be reminiscent of those when in Shekhawati. I am not exaggerating when comparing this small region in Rajasthan that no one has heard of to these highly acclaimed destinations that top the list of any traveler. The bright colours, bold motifs and highly sculptured Gaudi styled buildings in Barcelona, the brilliant French and Italian frescoes and the lanes of Shekhawati will all overwhelm you in a very similar and fascinating way by the sheer immensity of the scale, grandeur, vividness, intricacy and detailing.
It is extremely disheartening to see the plight of these Shekhawati havelis as compared to the west where art and architecture is kept at the supreme pedestal. Most of these havelis are now abandoned left at the mercy of a single caretaker and the owners visit them only once in a few years. Many of these are in a sad, dilapidated state, crumbling due to weathering and lack of maintenance. Since the owners rarely visit them and have practically no business left to do with Shekhawati, they are reluctant to invest resources in their proper upkeep. Many havelis have structural damages; most others have faded paint and flaking plaster. A glimpse of the vivid colours can be seen peeking sheepishly from the faded, washed out surfaces. We could also notice a lot of blackening in some areas of the mansions caused due to soot deposit owing to cooking in areas other than the kitchen. Many others are being demolished to give way to modern constructions, malls and commercial complexes; thus threatening the unifying character that builds up the cultural and aesthetic fabric of the region. Since, they are all privately owned, the government can also not do much to protect and preserve them. As the incredible Shekhawati havelis struggle for their long lost glory and grandeur, the State government has shown some concern by banning the sale and modification of havelis in two districts of Shekhawati.
What to visit in Shekhawati?
If this narration triggers the explorer in you and compels you to plan a visit, the easiest way to travel to Shekhawati would be by road from Delhi or Jaipur. Most suitable destinations from a tourist’s point of view; Nawalgarh, Dundlod, Mandawa and Fatehpur form a circuit with Jaipur and can be visited over a weekend. These towns are home to the few conserved havelis and also the tourist amenities here are little better than the rest of the Shekhawati towns. The havelis in all these towns are similar in terms of their architectural planning but are distinctly unique in their art and ornamentation.
Being set in an arid landscape, the havelis follow the principles of courtyard planning. There are small rooms arranged around open to sky courtyards leading from one to another. The courtyard helps maintain lower temperatures by creating air drafts and mutually shaded areas. Thus it remains the destination for the day time activities while rooms serve only as storage spaces and for sleeping. The number of courtyards varies with affluence. In case of havelis with multiple courtyards, the privacy level increases as we move towards the inner courtyards.
The region is thriving only on the tourism industry. Even though it boasts of an exceptional heritage, it struggles to fetch enough tourism due to absence to proper tourist amenities. But it offers an incredible experience of authentic cuisine, culture and crafts. There are a few havelis that have been conserved and converted into museums and cultural centres. Few of these which are worth visiting are listed below:
- Anandilal Podar haveli museum
- Kamal Morarka Haveli museum
- Uttara haveli
- Bhagaton ki Haveli
- Seth Arjundas Goenka Haveli Museum
- Dundlod Fort
- Hanuman Prasad Goenka’s Haveli
- Jhunjhunwala’s Haveli
- Ladia Haveli
- Murmuria’s Haveli
- Nadine Le Prince haveli
The Goenka haveli, Dundlod also has showcased the traditional haveli lifestyle by life- size sculptures and display of a huge variety of articles of daily use. The Nadine Le Prince cultural center in Fatehpur is a beautiful 1802 haveli that was purchased and painstakingly restored by a French artist Nadine le Prince. This one is a must visit stop on any Shekhawati itinerary as it is well maintained and also offer guided tours for a small entry fee. The tour is offered by young art enthusiasts who come from all around the world for their art internships. Their passion for art and love for India is both inspiring and mesmerizing. More information about the cultural center is available on their website and you can also read about the artist here.
Many other impressive havelis are now being run as heritage hotels, the grandest of those being in Mandawa. Mandawa is a lot more popular amongst the tourists for probably the same reason. As you drive into Mandawa, you suddenly see a lot more traffic and many more tourists walking around. Roaming around in the dwindling lanes of Mandawa on a dusty evening is a totally ethereal experience second to none. It has been a favorite shooting location for many bollywood as well as Hollywood movies.
I am hopeful for the times to get better for Shekhawati. With the advent of globalization and technology, more and more people are exploring such offbeat destinations. Before it is too late, plan a trip, make a visit, Shekhawati will not disappoint you.
You can find out more about shekhawati here.