Sunday, April 4, 2010

Road trip through Shekhawati

As I travelled through Shekhawati my mind often went back to French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery acclaimed for The Little Prince. I had read his quote some place and it said, “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.” Indian dunes cloak the spectacular and it’s the bareness of terrain that puts the accent on such findings.

Just as smooth seas do not make skilful sailors, it’s aridness that has made Rajasthan a synonym for vibrancy. Adversity is known to bring out survival skills in man and an exemplar are people of the desert state. They have, in fact, not only overcome the deficiency of lifestyle and landscape but embellished it with a brilliance that shines through in everything they nurtured, whether food, craft, textile or architecture.

From among the many communities in Rajasthan, it’s the czars of commerce, the Marwaris, who have contributed in large measure, to both business and culture, the latter in many ways being a spin-off of an abundant livelihood.

It’s the Marwari then who studded the Rajput land of Shekhawati with its most noteworthy feature, the frescoed havelis. The birth story of the havelis, or mansions, goes such. Marwari trading routes, from the Arabian Sea ports to interior India, ran across princely provinces of Rajputana which imposed a levy for the passage of goods. Being centrally placed, the powerful Jaipur province would get bulk business much to the envy of others. In a bid to direct profits away from them, neighbouring Shekhawati decided to reduce tax. The Marwari trader willingly changed his route and caravans packed with precious stones, silk, spices etc began passing through Shekhawati which prospered immensely. Over time traders were offered land by the Rajputs to build mansions and further develop the economy of the province. The Marwari readily agreed, and the dime-a-dozen frescoed structures we see today are the outcome of a win-win deal struck a few centuries back, beginning around AD 1800.

Most havelis lie in a shambles now with owners having taken flight to areas where business interests were pampered better. These structures, as well as plenty other overshadowed architectural remainders, stand mute testimony to acumen and bustling times, as I found out during a circular road trip.


It was a day-long excursion of about 100 km and I began my journey from Nawalgarh, the only town I had heard about, primarily due to the annual noises about the Shekhawati Festival held here every February. Being close to Jaipur (142 km), Nawalgarh had developed as a commercial hub, the reason it boasts of havelis largely belonging to the who’s who of the current business world. Amidst the heat, dust and dirt of town are many celebrated mansions, some of these being: Morarka Haveli that’s in its original form and has been turned into a museum; Ramnath A Poddar Haveli Museum which has been completely restored (its walls have a staggering collection of 750 frescoes in decorative, descriptive and portraiture style) and established into a brilliant exposition of Rajasthani culture; Bhakton ki Haveli that has a dominant mustard-golden hue and some of the finest frescoes; and Aath Haveli which contradictory to its name Aath or eight is a complex of four havelis. Apart from these are Seksaria Haveli, Koolwal Haveli, Uattara Haveli and Saraogi Haveli to pick a few.

The blueprint of each haveli is similar with there being a collection of rooms around an outer courtyard meant for the men, which lead to the inner square where the ladies resided. Some defining features of the havelis—apart from the frescoes that are based on religious themes, folktales and customs—are lattice jharokhas (windows), massive wooden doors with brass fittings and a number of pillars. Typically, the men’s section had a durbar hall while the women had the kitchen set-up. I found the ‘acoustic pardah’ an interesting element of design, which, tad unfairly though, allowed conversation from the men’s arena be audible to the women but never sneaked out what the ladies spoke!

As I was to notice during the trip, temples in this region had an almost palace-like appearance, replete with jharokhas and chhatries or canopies. Nawalgarh had one such remarkable structure in the about 200-year-old Gher ka Mandir opposite the Morarka Haveli.


On a wet morning I set out to map some towns around. The vehicle had barely stepped out of Nawalgarh that it arrived at a rain-washed Mukundgarh (14 km). As its name suggests there is a garh or fort here, however, in line with the spirit of enterprise it’s been converted into the ubiquitous heritage hotel and is largely out of public bound. Some well-known tourist spots here are the Ganeriwal Haveli and the Saraf Haveli.


Mandawa (23 km) turned out to be a classic backpacker’s town. This was the only place we got a chance to lighten wallets and let the eyes darts from juttis (shoes), faux-antiques to pre-stitched Rajput sarees to the usual bric-a-brac. All that was missing was a German Bakery to complete the happy hobo picture. Mandawa has developed at the foot of its fort (now a hotel) and has a lively market quad. The entrance to town was through the Sonthalia Gate, a whimsical haveli that had a public gateway as its appendage and was crowned by a lifesize idol of a stern Lord Krishna flanked by sterner-looking cows. I roamed the streets and paused at its painted mansions among which stood out Goenka Haveli. And as I walked along I came upon a structural feature which for me was the highlight of this tour: four-spire wells. I was to spot these at a lot of places ahead. According to a school of thought, with water being scarce wells became places of public gathering and the areas around them were beautified. For me, they broke the monotony of seeing frescoed havelis beside being architectural gems.


The drive onwards was through a scrubby sandy terrain studded with lopped khejri trees which seemed like randomly placed lampposts. Khejri’s small leaves are nutritious feed for the camel and I saw these being sold by the quintal (100 kg) at many spots en route. Fatehpur (22 km) was an unhurried town. It had a baoli (step-well), spire-wells and a few significant havelis. I found the Neotia Haveli quite exceptional for its well-preserved frescoes and at the same time I was amused by the quirkiness of its pink coloured iron grilles with the central image of Queen Victoria! This was representative of the Marwari trader being well-travelled and carrying influences of the big world back home.

Not so absurdly, given our fetish for all things foreign, a popular spot here is the haveli purchased by a French woman artist who has renovated it and turned it into a ‘museum cafe’. She charges a ticket for exhibiting nothing too different but the population happily pays to see ‘Indian exotica’ as interpreted by a Westerner.

On the return I took a detour to the popular Salasar temple and drove through Laxmangarh, another spot with a lot of sightseeing potential. As my tour showed, Shekhawati teems with unusual sights and it’s not merely large towns but a nondescript village that can throw up a stunner.

Getting there:

Air/Road: Jaipur is the nearest airport, 142 km away.

Rail: Closest railhead is Sikar (28 km from Nawalgarh).


Koolwal Kothi: Mid-budget heritage accommodation

Roop Vilas Palace Hotel: Luxury suites as well as tents

Kurja Resort: Budgeted semi-traditional stay 01572-220461

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