Exploring Shekhawati Havelis- The Open Art Gallery of Rajasthan
Read on as Sindhu Murthy explores the opulent Havelis of Shekhawati region in Rajasthan
It was almost quarter past ten in the night when we reached Mandawa after a long drive from Nagaur in the state of Rajasthan in India. Most of the town had already slept and there were very few lights in the streets. We had received at least 10 calls from our host to know the time of our arrival at the haveli. Luckily, we had pre-booked our stay at one of the haveli-hotels in Mandawa. We could only imagine the plight we would be in had we walked into a sleeping town without a hotel booking.
As we walked out of our room in Mandawa Haveli the next morning, we realized we were literally living in an art gallery. Every inch of the wall of the hotel was covered with fresco paintings. The wooden doors had some of the most intricate carvings on them. The period furniture in the room and the verandah upped the ante of the interiors.
Walking around the first floor of the haveli, we saw many artifacts from the past centuries. The amount of art put on display was overwhelming. Not just one, every other building in the vicinity appeared the same. It looked as if every single wall in the town was covered with frescos. (painting done on wet or fresh plaster). No amount of prior reading had prepared us for this artistic assault on senses.
As we ventured out exploring the bylanes of Manawa, we could see diverse motifs in the frescos on the walls. While the early frescos were influenced by the Mughal art form, the later ones sought inspiration from the Rajputs. Mythology did not lag behind in finding its way into the motifs, Krishna being the most popular character in the artistic rendition. Some of the motifs also depicted the British influence on the business people as we could see some trains, hot air balloons, cars and even aircraft. It was quite evident that the modern vehicles were the product of the artist’s imaginations based on the ideas given by their owners. Some buildings even had the faces of British men and women painted on the walls and lintels.
A little bit of history of Shekhawati:
The present day Shekhawati was previously located along the old caravan trade route connecting China and Middle-east going through the ports of Gujarat and fertile planes of river Ganges. It remained under the rule of the Shekhawat Rajputs till India got its independence. For a major period, the towns such as Mandawa, Nawalgarh, Dundlod, Churu, Sikar and Junjhunu remained the business hub for the merchants. The expansion of the British port cities of Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Bombay(now Mumbai) in the 19th century forced the merchants to move to these cities in search of better opportunities. The merchants who left their families back at home sent back a lot of fortune to construct and decorate lavish homes. As decades passed, the region attracted merchants from the neighboring Marwari community who set up their homes here. The Marwaris not just commissioned the construction of huge Havelis, but also had artists decorate these Havelis with frescos and carvings. The art soon became the symbol of opulence.
However, the crazy quest for building opulent Havelis faded out eventually as the merchant families moved to newer centers of business. A lot of merchants moved to Mumbai and Kolkata, and a few moved base to Delhi leaving the Havelis to decay gradually. While some of them appointed locals as caretakers, many of the Havelis were abandoned with no care.
Since we had only one day to explore the Havelis in Shekhawati, which we soon realized would not be sufficient, we decided to visit only a few places in Mandawa, Dundlod and Nawalgarh. So, here is our account on the few havelis and forts we explored in Shekhawati.
Fort of Mandawa:
Unlike the mighty forts of Rajasthan, the fort of Mandawa does not have high walls, is small in size and protects a small palace within its walls. While one part of the palace is renovated and restored into a luxury hotel called Castle Mandawa, the other part is left unattended. The stark contrast between the two portions of the palace was quite evident as we walked in through the main arch of the fort. While it is possible to take a walking tour of the restored part of the palace, we chose to explore the ramshackle ruins of the other half. A caretaker of the fort showed us around the maze-like structures opening some of the locked rooms for us to see. Since not many people visit this part of the palace, many rooms are locked to make sure what is left of the palace is not destroyed further. The palace has all the portions typical to any palace in Rajasthan but smaller in area. Some of the frescos in the sheesh mahal and durbar hall of the palace were quite intact. From the roof of the palace, we could see almost the entire area of Mandawa filled with old Havelis.
Seth Arjun Das Goenka Haveli at Dundlod:
After exploring the fort and bylanes in Mandawa, we moved on to Dundlod to visit the haveli of Seth Arjun Das Goenka. The Goenka haveli was in a better shape compared to the other Havelis in Dundlod. The main door opened into a huge courtyard with heavy vessels put on display. As we explored the different rooms of the haveli, we could realize that the Goenkas were into textile business. There were samples and catalogs of textile trade kept in some of the rooms. What caught our attention was a skirt made of about 25 mt of layered cloth. Some rooms had old gramophones, spin wheels, and old fans.
Dr. Ramnath Podar Haveli:
Dr.Ramnath Podar Haveli in Nawalgarh is by far the most artistic and popular haveli in the Shekhawati. Built in 1902 AD, this haveli has been completely restored or redone in many parts to recreate its past glory. It is very well maintained and feels as if a family still resides in it. To promote tourism in Shekhawati region, the Podar haveli has been modeled into a Heritage Museum representing various aspects of Rajasthani tradition and culture. The Haveli has multiple rooms which have been converted into multiple galleries for wedding customs, modes of transport, turbans, costumes, tribes, paintings, marble art, wooden carvings, jewelry, handicrafts, stone art, forts, and instruments. The main door of the haveli is considered as one of the best in design in India.
Accommodation at Shekhawati:
Shekhawati is a geographical region covering a semi-desert region in north Rajasthan and it is situated entirely in the triangle between Delhi-Bikaner-Jaipur. It is good to stay in one town and travel to discover the other location. While Jhunjhunu is the biggest town in the region, it is better to stay at Mandawa, which is more centrally located.
How to reach Shekhawati:
Shekhawati is easily reachable from Delhi, Jaipur, and Bikaner as It is well connected by highways. The nearest airport to Shekhawati region is at Jaipur. Below is the driving distance from major cities close to Mandawa which is centrally located in Shekhawati.
Delhi: 230 Km
Bikaner: 190 Km
Jaipur: 170 Km
Jodhpur: 350 Km
That was all about our short stint at the Shekhawati, The Open Art Gallery of India. Hope you liked the visual tour of the Havelis. Have you explored any other Havelis in this region? We would love to know about the places we have missed. Do let us know by dropping a comment below!