STORY BOOK TOWNS: Shekhawati Region, Rajasthan, India

Culture is something that evolves out of the simple, enduring elements of everyday life; elements most truthfully expressed in the folk arts and crafts of a nation. ~ Thor Hansen

We just spent a lovely night at Castle Mandawa in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan and now it is time to see the 18th and 19th century frescoes of which this region is well known.

Havelis (5)

No better way to do this than by foot. Our guide, Ashoka meets us at the castle gate and we walk into town listening to him sharing his knowledge of the area.

He relates how Mandawa was a prosperous trading town in the 18th century and was strategically located on the ancient spice-trading route. Traders, merchants and wealthy business men began to settle here and eventually built large mansions (havelis). These rich business people commissioned artists to paint frescoes on their homes as a sign of opulence.

Havelis (19)

Painted havelis cropped up all over the desert landscape and today, it is considered one of the largest open art galleries because of the intricate painted frescoes.

Ashoka takes us to two havelis, one of which has residents, but we are welcome to visit and photograph. He explains that the havelis were constructed with two courtyards. Outer court termed ‘Mardana’ for male family members and the inner court termed ‘Zenana’ for females. In all the palaces Ron and I were in throughout India, there were always separate quarters for the men and women. This was no different.

Havelis (3) Havelis (4)

Haveli Fresco Painting photos

Havelis (18)

Many of the frescoes exposed to the elements have faded or eroded, but there is still a beauty of what was once there. A story book town, capturing the life and times of these people. Subjects range from scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to geometric and floral patterns.

Havelis (16) Haveli Fresco Painting photos Havelis (21) Haveli Fresco Painting photos

The next haveli has a caretaker as the owner lives elsewhere and keeps this one somewhat maintained. We were allowed in the outer courtyard, only. Ron was more interested in the pots and cooking ware in this one.

Haveli Fresco Painting photos Haveli Fresco Painting photos

Ashoka tells us that the painters were members of the potter caste who became masons. They had no formal training in the arts, but they had an understanding of how to prepare the walls using a mixture of limewater, sugar and yoghurt. “They understood chemical bonding,” he said.

Ron and I were amazed at the immensity of these projects and how they applied the paints to a wet plaster in this arid, desert like region without them immediately drying and cracking.

Next, he tells us that only vegetable or natural pigments were used: kajal (lamp black) for black, safeda (lime) for white, neel (indigo) for blue, harababhata (terra verte) for green, geru (red stone powder) for red, kesar (saffron) for orange and pevri (yellow clay) for yellow ochre.

At one time, according to Ashoka, yellow was derived from the urine of cows that were fed mango leaves. This was discontinued after the cows became sick.

The British merchants who traded in this area told stories of great inventions such as the railway train, air plane, automobile, telephone or gramophone and bicycle. These artists had never seen these marvels, but used their imagination to interpret them and incorporate them into the frescoes. Sometimes, the number of wheels on a car or on the train didn’t make any sense, or the steam from the locomotive was drifting the wrong way, all proof that these creators were working from their mind’s eye. Some frescoes even show British officers in sola topis (pith helmet).

Havelis (2) Havelis (1) Havelis (24) Havelis (17)

The large doors, we were told, had to be tall enough to accommodate camels who were bedded down in the men’s quarters. The small door is the people door.

Haveli Fresco Painting photos

Many of these havelis are closed, neglected and in disrepair. India’s burgeoning  tourism industry sees a need for revitalizing and preserving this heritage craft region. This is a six city region and well preserved havelis are scattered through out. One just needs a guide and some walking time. Well worth it.

After leaving Mandawa on our way to Samode, our driver Rajinder takes us into Dunlod to see a haveli. This one has a small admission fee and is more like a museum. The wife of the caretaker is sitting in front of her fan, watching TV,  and our milling around doesn’t prevent her from enjoying her favorite show.

Haveli Fresco Painting photos Havelis (25) Havelis (26)

Am glad we stopped here. The room exhibits were quite impressive with castings of life like people.

Indeed. An open air story book region. Lets hope more havelis are preserved. The Ministry of Tourism claims there may be as many as 5,000.


About travelerlynne

Traveler. Writer. Retired Educator.Traveling on and off the beaten path with my photographer husband. Volunteering locally as well as in Haiti and Tanzania, an enriching and humbling experience. A sun lover! Shelling, boating, fishing and watching sunsets. Growing mango, banana, key lime,and pineapple.Making smoothies and chutneys. Enjoying family and friends! Savoring each new day!
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17 Responses to STORY BOOK TOWNS: Shekhawati Region, Rajasthan, India

  1. Shame about the sun damage (though the paintings have fared better than my skin, in twice the time!), but the jewel tones of the sheltered work gives us an idea how flamboyant these marvellous buildings must have been. So glad you and Ron could capture them for us 🙂

  2. Yes, anything under the eaves and away from the desert sun has survived well. The process of how they worked on them still amazes me. 🙂

  3. I love that some of these are still in use! And that quote – quite on topic for today. Don’t they say it is the women who are the keepers of culture?

  4. I was surprised to see people living in the first haveli; more like renters than owners. I would agree with you about the women being keepers of the culture, but in this case, the painters and chemists and architects were all men as well as the traders and merchants.

  5. divrj says:

    I have heard a lot about Mandawa… couldn’t visit the place though. Rajasthan is a fairy tale in itself.. it lets us know about the grand lifestyle the rajputs had..!! amazing post 🙂

  6. restlessjo says:

    Innocent beauty, in a way, isn’t it, Lynne? The courtyard, only! I would be quite content to just pull up a chair. A fabulous experience! 🙂

  7. It was an interesting way to live and display art at the same time. The absence of plants and greenery gave it a cold look to me. But we thoroughly enjoyed it. 🙂

  8. Marko says:

    I warmly greet you and invite you to see my new photos.
    I wish you a successful week.

  9. Thank you Marko. I will

  10. Letizia says:

    What a lovely journey you’ve taken us on. I love hearing the details of these stories like the fact that the door had to be tall enough for a camel and the other one was shorter for people.

    • We even went to a restaurant with camel doors. It was in another town and was my first encounter with stepping over a high frame to get in through the people door. Always the unexpected. That’s the joy of travel. Thanks for your comment, Letizia.

  11. vbholmes says:

    Another wonderful treat, Lynne. I have never heard of havelis and their gorgeous frescoes. Ron’s photos and your text describing the area and the creative process of the craftsmen made it possible for us to share your aesthetic experience. Many thanks!

  12. Quite an educational and cultural experience for us and hopefully our readers, too. As always, VB, thank you for your supportive comments.

  13. Tahira says:

    Love the photos, Lynne. The “double” doors are great and so interesting. The photo above the doors – I can’t tell if that is a live pigeon sitting on the rod sticking out of the fresco or an ornament?

    But what I love the most is the traders trying to “explain” modern marvels to the local artists. I sometimes think about trying to explain Smartphones or the internet to my grandparents in the old country who lived in a time of being in awe of land-line telephones.

    • To me, that was the hi-lite of this walking tour and you hit on it, Tahira. Seeing those painted trains, planes, etc. just blew my mind, all inventions totally foreign to them. Thanks for zeroing in on that. The pigeon is real. You are the observant one. 🙂

  14. Madhu says:

    Beautiful post Lynne. And Ron’s photos are always a treat. I haven’t been to the Shekhawati region or seen these painted Havelis yet. Soon I hope 🙂

    • Interesting area, Madhu. Glad you like the photos. Am glad there is some preservation going on with the Havelis. Believe me when I say Ron and I haven’t seen every region in our own country and I know we won’t see it all. A big world out there. 🙂

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