Before I begin talking about “Splendors of Shekhawati”, fourth blog in my “Armchair Travel” series, I would like to thank you all for staying home, making the most of what is available at your disposal and sending positive vibes to the world to heal soon.” On some days, it really gets hard to imagine how COVID19 has changed our lives in couple of weeks and months. In India, by February end, we were all busy in traveling and had no inkling that the months of March and April would be all about sitting at home, in a lockdown. And looking at the increasing numbers, we don’t even know what the future holds for us. This is what life is, highly unpredictable, right! Let us archive the present, be hopeful for the future and keep reminiscing our old travel memories.
Splendors of Shekhawati
For anyone visiting Rajasthan for the first time, there are a multitude of things to do and many possibilities of being vowed by the magnanimous forts and larger than life palaces of the state. Before you count on the popular destinations -the capital & pink city of ‘Jaipur’, the mesmerizing blue city of ‘Jodhpur’, the yellow or golden city of ‘Jaisalmer’ and the lake city of ‘Udaipur’, let me detour you to one of its lesser explored and obscure regions, the Shekhawati. Located in the triangle between Delhi-Bikaner-Jaipur, this windswept region captures an exquisite art and splendour of Rajasthani heritage. The claim to fame of this region are the artistic houses of the wealthy merchants and the fresco paintings that were influenced by the art styles endorsed by Muslim rulers, Rajputs and Banias.
Every house, fort or mansion here, is a treat to the eyes of a photographer, architect or a history lover. Such is the appeal and splendour of the frescoes and murals, that even though the region is still gaining attention of the domestic travellers, it has left the international visitors, especially the French, fascinated and impressed. Thanks to its embellished walls and the huge collection of frescoes in the world, it is also called ‘the largest open-air art gallery in the world’.
Beyond its rich heritage and architecture, the people of Shekhawati have also been known for bravery in battlefield and have been felicitated with gallantry awards. Col. J.C. Brooke in his book, Political History of India, wrote that “For the recruitment of horse-army, there is no region in India at par with Shekhawati.”
Shekhawati and its neighborhood
Shekhawati is not just a town or city, but sprawled across three endearing and dusty districts of Jhunjhunu, Churu and Sikar, on the edges of the Thar desert in Rajasthan. After flying to Delhi or Jaipur, travellers must hire a taxi to explore places of interest, over a couple of days. Majorly, the views are made of flat landscape but the occasional hillocks of Aravalli’s and sunflower fields will keep you entertained till you reach the painted towns of Shekhawati.
To begin with, Nawalgarh and Mandawa in Jhunjhunu are the two towns which should be on top on your list to be enamoured with the awesome frescoes and the richness of this region. In total, there are 32 thikanas in Shekhawati. If you are born with an itchy feet and a traveller’s curiosity, you must indulge in slow travel across the havelis, stepwells, temples, cenotaphs, dilapidated arches and the ruins of the significant places like Dundlod, Lakshmangarh, Fatehpur, Bissau, Mahensar, Ramgarh, Jhunjhunu, Sikar, Mukundgarh, Bagar, Alsisar, Inderpura, Lohalgarh and Udaipurwati.
Fresco work was colloquially called “geela-aala padhati”, where “geela” means plaster and “aala” refers to painting.
History, Heritage and Havelis
Taking its name from the illustrious ruler, Rao Shekha, ‘Shekhavats’ in Sanskrit means ‘The Sons of Shekha’. Some of the seasoned businessmen families of India hail from this region. Between 18th to the early 20th century, some of these merchants made huge money from flourishing trades in opium, cotton and spices and began to flaunt their opulence in their havelis. They took a fondness for a fresco styled art work, which was influenced by 16th/17th Mughal works and came to be known as ‘Jaipur fresco’. Fresco work was colloquially called “geela-aala padhati”, where “geela” means plaster and “aala” refers to painting. The uniqueness of this artwork lies in the fact that the colours were painted while the plaster was still wet.
While most of these mansions boast of pompous façade, resplendent arches, carved wooden doors, public and private courtyards, lavish rooms, French windows, animal stables and other utilitarian spaces, it is the themes of the murals and the detailing of the frescoes that distinguishes them from another. You will be impressed to see a beautiful blend of traditional and modern motifs. For a long time, many of these houses have been under the impact of structural distress and lot of artwork has fallen prey to senseless vandalism too but it is never too late to save our heritage. In the last few years, some of the owners of these houses have invested in cleaning and conserving, by not touching upon the frescoes but only refurbishing the structures of the havelis.
Frescoes and Murals
Shekhawati had a major part in old trade routes hence the culture and art, came from places where these merchants lived. In addition to the Mughal works, the frescoes of Shekhawati also seem to be influenced from 17th-century ochre frescoes started by the Rajput kings of Jaipur. The artists who had the knowledge of this art, mediums and technique, claimed it to be one of the greenest methods of its times. The style of art involved a wholesome use of colours and pigments, which were made from minerals -red stone powder, saffron, yellow clay, lampblack and vegetables -red, green, yellow ochre.
Some of the painters were also sent to bigger cities to observe the objects of interest of the merchants, so that they could recreate them on the walls for the locals to see and appreciate. These havelis are some of the best examples where you will be amazed to see frescoes depicting incarnations of Vishnu, tales from the Ramayana & Mahabharata, Krishna’s life, lesser known folk tales of the region, historic events of India, everyday life of the locals, royal portraits, Queen Elizabeth, Jesus, steam engines and a hint of Victorian and British era too. Among these intricate, multicoloured frescoes, you must not miss noticing one of the most recurrent themes, Rajasthan’s most popular romantic couple, Dhola–Maru riding on a camel.
Places to Visit in Shekhawati
It would be better to pin down a couple of places to start with. One must do Jhunjhunu which has lots of painted havelis, an old palace and an important temple. Nawalgarh is the place for the finest and most varied frescoes. Some of the best havelis-cum-museums like Dr. Ramnath A. Podar Haveli Museum and Morarka Haveli Museum should be on your itinerary. Mandawa is more like a typical Rajasthani village. The Mandawa fort is unique for its fresco paintings that capture some moments of childhood as well as youth age of Lord Krishna.
Dundlod, often called the heart of Shekhawati region boasts of Dundlod fort, Jagathia haveli and Tuganram Goenka Haveli. Bissau was founded in 1746 by Keshri Singh and is known for its heritage buildings of the 18th century. The frescoes and havelis of Bissau are not as impressive as Nawalgarh or Fatehpur but is one of the best maintained regions of Shekhawati.
The other popular havelis like Sitaram Kedia ki Haveli, Saraf haveli, Jagannath Singhania Haveli and Nadine cultural centre are in Fatehpur in Sikar district. During my visit, I stayed in a not-so-popular but picturesque town called Udaipurwati. Also known as the Udaipur of Shekhawati, it is an old historic town nestled amongst the beauty of Aravalli hills with a river flowing through it. This place was of great importance in Shekhawat Rajput clan as it was the capital of Shekhawat ruler Raja Todarmal Ji. There are some old havelis and step well in a nearby village called Chapoli.
The other unmissable highlights of this region are Rani Sati temple (Jhunjhunu), Surya temple (Lohargal), Balaji Temple (Salasar), Satyanarayan Temple (Dundlod), The Khatu Shyamji temple, Kot dam (Udaipurwati) and Tal Chhappar Wildlife Sanctuary.
This story was also published in the March issue of SpiceRoute – Inflight magazine of SpiceJet.