Since a lot has already been written about the painted frescoes in ‘The largest open air art gallery in the world’, I will skip the introductions to Shekhawati and let my pictures do the talking.
Havelis are huge mansions built by wealthy marwari merchants around 100-150 years ago.
Did you know? : More than seventy-five percent of India’s business families hail from Shekhawati and almost ninety-five percent of Marwari business families have their roots here.
Discovery of Shekhawati
As with other ‘offbeat’ destinations, Shekhawati seems to have been discovered by the French, going by the plethora of signboards proudly mentioning ‘listed in Inde du nord Routard’, which I later found out was a famous travel guide from France.
It may also be due to the fact that a French artist, Nadine Le Prince purchased a Haveli in Fatehpur some years ago and effectively made everyone known that the art of restoration could make this a viable business proposition. Her story is a beacon of shining light for Shekhawati.
Current state of Tourism
Typical tourists hoping for a quick glance of this region choose to visit Nawalgarh and Mandawa, being the most famous towns of them all. Although I won’t dispute the fact that it is a convenient idea for time bound travellers to skim through for a sample of the riches on offer; in reality Shekhawati is being bundled like an add-on for tourists on the road trip from Bikaner to Delhi. They are booked in expensive heritage accommodation of which a lion’s share is kept by the travel operator.
What you should see
I have been around Shekhawati several times and yet can’t say to have explored the region in its entirety. It is not only the painted frescoes that must be seen, but also the step wells, cenotaphs and huge forts that have a different style of architecture. It is a vast area comprising the districts of Sikar, Jhunjhunu and parts of Churu. Some of the lesser visited towns with marvellous Havelis include Dundlod, Fatehpur, Ramgarh, Mahansar, Bissau, Jhunjhunu, Sikar, Mukundgarh, Bagar, Alsisar.
The decline of heritage
There has recently been a court order from the Government of Rajasthan to preserve these structures. I had heard stories of shopping malls replacing Havelis. On one of my trips to Nawalgarh, I actually saw one Haveli being razed to the ground. The administration in India makes sure we will be lamenting about the lack of conservation in ten years time.
There are various culinary delights in Shekhawati. Mukundgarh is famous for its ‘milk pedha’, Rajgarh for its ‘rajbhog’, Nawalgarh for its ‘Ghewar’, Jhunjhunu for its ‘laddoo’, Chirawa for its ‘pedha’ and Mahansar for its quirky varieties of flavoured alcohol.
When to go
This part of Rajasthan can get really cold in the winters, especially when the sun decides to disappear behind the clouds and fog takes over. Contrary to what tourists might think, there are basic guesthouses to stay in these little towns and are an excellent way to gather local information and walk to the recommended Havelis with awesome frescoes. Summers are too hot to even think about visiting Shekhawati.
It was a pleasant surprise for me when I was told that Nawalgarh was home to three Havelis of ‘Mansingka’ family. I was given a royal welcome and invited for a sumptuous lunch there.
Accessibility from Jaipur & Delhi
Shekhawati can be accessed by both road and train from Jaipur and Delhi. It is hardly two-three hours drive away from Jaipur and around four hours from Delhi. If you are really lucky, a traditional performance called ‘Dhap’ can be witnessed in which men dressed as women dance in a private gathering.
The rise and fall of Tourist numbers
Five years ago, foreign tourists were making a beeline to visit this unknown part of rural Rajasthan. The story has changed since. Rich marwari merchants have been pouring money into Shekhawati making it a rapidly growing area. Tourism in a real sense has dwindled. Touts abound near the famous haveli-turned-museums waiting to pounce on rich Europeans and can become a nuisance. The share of domestic tourists is rising and is mostly of the weekend variety. They are hardly interested in the history and frescoes and seem be simply crossing an item off their bucket list.
Come soon before the Havelis disappear
If you have time to spare and are keen to let your eyes feast on this architectural grandeur, come to Shekhawati and learn the secrets of the famed merchant community of the marwaris and listen to first-hand stories of how they made their fortune even when the British had started dominating the trade.
I have been asked by my readers on twitter and instagram to write an article on Shekhawati for quite some time now.
I had replied then ‘I have no words to write about home!’