Living in Art – Life in Shekhawati

Sometimes you need a getaway from your mundane life – a quick de-tox from the pace of life in a metropolitan city. I feel the need for a detox every month. Since I’m yet to strike on a happy working formula that allows me to just up and go every month, I try to take off as often as I can. The plans for the next holiday – destination, days needed and who to go with – usually get jotted down in my little notebook on the return journey from the current one! The biggest advantage of living in Delhi is perhaps the ease of packing a backpack, checking the fuel in your car and heading out to the mountains, hills, plains, jungles or even the desert.

For long, I’d heard of the Shekhawati region, in the heart of the Marwar in Rajasthan. Marwari businessmen, known for their business acumen and enterprise, settled across the world still maintain their ancestral homes spread across this region. It was these ancestral homes that I wanted to see. Reading up a bit about the painted homes of Shekhawati could be an added incentive for your roadtrip!

N and I set out for Bagar near Jhunjhunu, about 4 hours away from Delhi. The region of the painted havelis is called Mandawa and Jhunjhunu, is perhaps the most famous town here – famous for the only Sati temple across India. ( For those who don’t know about the Sati system – the short of it is dutiful wives were expected to commit suicide by jumping into the funeral pyres of their dead husbands. PS: the husbands never committed sati, they just married another one! If the short description makes you want to know more, here’s more. )

The Piramal Haveli in Bagar

We love staying at Neemrana properties and have been to a few – that they are a fair bit off the beaten path is an added incentive. There are several hotels in Mandawa – big and small. Most of them painted havelis – renovated and refurbished to attract tourists. The Piramal Haveli in Bagar in Shekhawati is about 13kms shy of Jhunjhunu – a lovely painted haveli built in the 1920s by a Marwari businessman, who had made his fortune in Mumbai. On the scale of 1/10 of judging painted havelis, the Piramal haveli would rate a 6. The old frescos have been lovingly preserved, a new coat of paint has been carefully done without disturbing the original artwork. The newer hotels in Mandawa have a similar style of art, but if you are a connoisseur of the old, try out the grander Mandawa fort.

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The Fateh Sagar reservoir – once the symbol of ingenuity in water conservation, now mouldy and in disuse

We couldn’t thank technology enough. Had it not been for the GPS on our phones, we’d have struggled to figure out which diversion in the state highway leads to Bagar, just another dusty town on the road to the bigger towns of Mandawa and Jhunjhunu. Most of the institutions in this town, the dispensary, schools etc was courtesy charitable trusts set up by the Marwaris. There’s an abandoned old reservoir, the only other ‘place of interest’ in the strict sense of exploration – the brainchild of the rulers of an arid region where water was dependent on seasonal rains and its conservation a practical necessity. Things have changed, now with water running through pipes and taps in every home, the old water reservoir has green and mouldy water. The beautifully carved steps leading to the water are littered with empty liquor bottles- any guesses who are the nightly visitors who frequent it? Another bit of history -a much needed lesson in clever water conservation goes down the drain! Literally.

The quaintness of the town is perhaps its biggest charm. True to its Marwari heritage, at the Piramal haveli, don’t expect to be served non-vegetarian fare! But if you like some good old-fashioned Marwari cusine, then the cooks at the Piramal haveli won’t disappoint you. (The Mandawa fort, on the other hand, where we had our lunch one day does serve non-vegetarian food and also offers a good selection of alcohol!) Your most frequent companions at the haveli are the peacocks that wander about as if they own the land. N and I spent an evening, with a hot cup of chai on the terrace of the haveli trying to spot peacocks by following the sound of their incessant chatter – I remember spotting seven across three trees! And as I walked down the stairs, there it was – a beautiful peacock feather – perhaps left behind for me as a memento of my little expedition to spot them!

The havelis have been leased out to families, who act as caretakers for the rich Marwari owners

The havelis have been leased out to families, who act as caretakers for the rich Marwari owners

Mandawa is about an hour away. Walking around the town, in and out of painted homes, can give you a feeling of being an intruder. The owners of several of these painted havelis live in far away cities like Mumbai or Kolkata. The tenants, who live in some have perhaps become immune to the painted legacy around them. While some owners, realising the potential of converting their old homes into hotels have begun investing in refurbishing them, several others are in a sad state of disrepair – a glorious past slowly rotting away. All across Mandawa, you can see friezes – a steam engine here, planes elsewhere – in fact, at the Piramal haveli, there is a painting in the main courtyard of gods flying in a plane – an interesting commentary of how the artists of Mandawa tried to merge their traditional styles with modern ideas. I’m told by artists I spoke to there that they are the most skilled and highly in demand for the growing interest in mural-painted walls. The gold work, a symbol of the rich Marwari household has been replaced by easily available gold paint, but the finesse of work still survives – the families that painted Mandawa into a living museum still ply the trade!

The land is changing, cars and internet (intermittently available in Bagar, better in Mandawa) are changing the preferences and ways of life everywhere. Some painted havelis have survived better than the others, but if you ever do head out to explore Rajasthan, a day or two in the Mandawa region could be a lesson in art and architecture favoured by the rich Marwaris of Rajasthan.

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Quick Reckoner

Places to see in Shekhawati – Piramal Haveli in Bagar, Mandawa Fort ( also a hotel), Sati Temple in Jhunjhunu, the painted havelis of Mandawa

Distance from Delhi – 4-4.5hrs

Budget – Hotels available to suit every budget

What to do there – Eat, drink and spend some time vegetating, while not exploring the painted havelis!

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One thought on “Living in Art – Life in Shekhawati

  1. Along with the author, the journey to the commercially unexplored regions of Rajasthan has just begun. While it is interesting to see the wealth of Indian art and architecture of the olden days, it also saddens me to see that such beautiful havelis in parts of Rajasthan lie in sheer neglect for want of State protection, and possibly, funding. What is worse, even a treasure like the Fateh Sagar reservoir which sustained life in the olden days is also lying in utter neglect by the State authorities who ought to do their utmost to protect such priceless heritage. Be that as it may, it is hoped that such blogs would not only enlighten the uninitiated, they will serve a purpose to draw the State’s attention to what needs to be done to preserve our heritage.

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