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Intricately painted walls of the courtyard of a Haveli in Mandawa

Rajasthan is one of the most popular tourist destinations in India. Known for its picturesque forts and palaces, Rajasthan wears a cloak of temples, baolis, water bodies, and Havelis . The Shekhawati region, in North-Eastern Rajasthan which lies on the Delhi-Jaipur-Bikaner route, attracts visitors for the intricately ornate Havelis of rich merchants who settled here aeons ago. The beautiful frescoes on the walls are mesmerizing to the extent that the region has rightfully earned the name- the largest open-air art gallery in India!

The Havelis of Shekhawati, once the residence of the Marwaris, showcases the opulent lifestyle of the community. While the towns of Rajasthan were dominated by large palaces and forts, the Marwaris flourished in this region and built their Havelis with large wooden gates, projected balconies, and inward-facing courtyards. The wealthy travelling merchants paid heed to the architecture of these Havelis with special emphasis on embellishing the outer walls. The majority of these Havelis belong to the second half of the nineteenth century and the architectural style and painting details were greatly influenced by Mughal ornamentation and Rajputana courts. These paintings narrate stories for the viewers. To some, they speak of the pure love of Radha-Krishna while to others they speak of the British influence and English babus and Dames. Interestingly, scientific discoveries and technological advancements are also depicted. For instance, a Haveli in Churu depicts Bikaner railway station on one side and Jodhpur on the other. In another, one finds vivid descriptions of Radha-Krishna fleeing the mundane in a flying car. Jesus is also seen in similar forms at places.

Radha-Krishna depicted on the outer walls of Havelis

Radha-Krishna depicted on the outer walls of Havelis

You can find a lot of open-air galleries when you move through the streets of Mandawa, Nawalgarh, Jhunjhunu, and Fatehgarh in the Shekhawati region. Each of these towns has enchanting clusters of Havelis , exquisite in their own way. For example, the Jhunjhunwala Haveli (Mandawa) transports you to the story of King Midas whose touch transformed everything to gold. This Haveli has a room with its interior painted in gold and has descriptive ornate illustrations. Similarly, the murals painted on the façade of the Mohanlal Saraogi Haveli (Nawalgarh) depict vintage cars and automobiles driven by the chauffeurs of the British babus. Likewise, Mohanlal Saraf Haveli (Mandawa) reminds you of the palatial rooms of Rajput forts and palaces with its intricate coloured glass and mosaic tile work. A few of the Havelis , like the Haveli of Gulab Rai Ladia, have a tasteful display of erotic paintings. These paintings are, however, very discreetly positioned so as to go unnoticed by the eyes of the casual visitor.

What is unusual and attractive about these painted Havelis are the subjects chosen and the colours used by the local artists. The themes are as varied as the culture of Rajasthan. It has an amalgamation of religious subjects- Avatars of Vishnu, Buddha and his poses, depictions from epics like The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, as well as decorative geometric designs used in Mughal architecture. Everyday mundane lives and chores have been aesthetically transformed into something magical. There are also depictions of folk tales from Indian mythology and nuances from British rule.

Illustration of British men

Depiction of Ram and Lakshman from the Ramayana

Unfortunately, the majority of these Havelis lie abandoned in the streets of Shekhawati, as their owners have moved to the mainland cities to run their businesses. A ray of hope for the revival of these Havelis is visible now. Through the ‘The Shekhawati Project’ initiative, the structures and the fresco paintings on the walls are being conserved and restored, so that India’s largest open-air art gallery can be preserved for generations to come.