Visiting Havelis in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan is like going to an area that is covered with extraordinary street art. Mandawa and Nawalgarh are simply towns that offer open-air art galleries and museums dripping in jaw dropping frescoes. Havelis are the beautifully carved homes of rich merchants, highly decorated by artists during the 19th century. Today, some are thankfully turned into hotels or museums, which has allowed them to be restored, a few used as banks, schools or government buildings but hundreds of others simply abandoned.
Mandawa was the first stop of a photography road trip around Rajasthan with the aim of discovering some lesser visited havelis as well as some better known ones. I came several times in the late 90’s for various magazines and photographed some of the Maharajas and their palaces but not the havelis.
We set off early from Delhi hiring a car and driver from a company called Metropole. It took almost 6 hours to get there as the roads were poor and traffic heavy at times. The Shekhawati region is at the edge of the Thar Desert, so the surrounding landscape was semi arid, dotted with khejri trees, the odd herd of goats and a few irrigated fields of mustard.
Although the Hotel Mandawa Haveli was Trip Advisor’s first choice, I chose the smaller Chobda Haveli, which I highly recommend, not for it’s colourful frescoes but for a delightful quiet and charming place to stay. We walked all round Mandawa, some Haveli’s could be visited and others not. Beware! you will be asked for money the minute you enter a doorway. I don’t mind paying a few rupees to go inside a Haveli, although it’s a shame that more cannot be restored as what you do see is just gorgeous and the restored ones are stunning.
All Havelis are roughly set up the same way, as you walk into the first courtyard there is a large room where that the visitors would be received, the private quarters opposite with bedrooms upstairs. A usually beautifully carved ornate wooden door in the centre takes you to a second courtyard, which would lead to the female quarters with mashrabiya windows as the women of the upper classes practiced purdah. Depending on the period of the Haveli and the opulence of the owner the frescoes vary considerably. The early ones were influenced by the Mughal era with geometric designs, some offer religious figures and show Hindu mythology. , There are also elephants and camels and the latter ones even depict trains and cars referring to the British influence.
The second day we drove to Nawalgarh and spent the day there before returning to Mandawa. I think I liked it even more, there were even less tourists and the whole town was full of havelis. We visited several well known ones, one is a museum, but what I enjoyed the most was visiting the schools. Two of them were housed in beautiful if somewhat decaying old havelis.
In one of the schools, the children were sitting on the floor of what was once a courtyard but now covered over. In the other, just the rooms of the haveli had been turned into classrooms where sadly little of the artwork remained except for the exterior of the building. We bought a huge bag of sweets to thank the children for their time although they were very willing models!
Lets talk photography for a moment as whoever you are you will take pictures, lots of them, everyone does! There’s so much to take pictures of – the frescoes, the buildings, the people, the daily life, the local market, the cows wondering around, a real street photographers dream. To do a good job you really need everything from a very wide angle to as long a lens as you can carry. There are some magic moments that may require a long lens or the spell will be broken. I brought a Canon and a Fuji and I don’t regret it, particularly as the Fuji XT2 let me down badly in the heat and dust of India…
There are wonderful havelis all over Rajasthan but nowhere else really offers the atmosphere of the Shekhawati. It is a total immersion into an idea of what life must have been like in these small towns and the importance of art to the people of the region. As you walk through the towns at the beautiful sometimes crumbling but intricately carved buildings and look at the extraordinary frescoes, it is like a glimpse into the past that allows you to conjure up images of what life must have been like.
The best way to visit Rajasthan is to stay in a Haveli, which is not necessarily very expensive, and try and book a heritage room which is like sleeping in a museum. Rajasthan is full of palaces and havelis turned into hotels of all classes and to me, one of the reasons to go there. If they are privately owned in particular, the owner will be happy that you take an interest in his home.
I loved the Shekhawati but we still have a lot to see and I am looking forward to our 3 day visit to Jaisalmer but first we are going to stop en route at Bikaner and visit the fort and it’s havelis. I would also recommend visiting Fatehpur which we only drove through, but having planned an ambitious itinerary there is no time.
Below are some useful links: