A painting of Jesus in a household loaded with paintings of Hindu religious texts, Rajasthan’s typical royal processions and folk tales? Yes, I was in a town, nay, region that beats the imagination. Surprises awaited us at every turn as we explored the painted havelis of Shekhawati in Rajasthan. Mandawa and its neighbouring town, Nawalgarh, has more than 200 houses that are part of this open-air art gallery.

It was past midnight when we reached the sleepy little town of Mandawa, about five hours’ drive from Delhi . With a clueless driver and equally clueless passengers, getting there was quite a struggle. But thanks to the GPS, we somehow made our way to the hotel.

The following day, we started on our journey to Nawalgarh, a few kilometres from Mandawa, after a hearty breakfast of puri sabji. Nawalgarh was a dusty old town, probably looking almost the same as it did a hundred years ago. The first haveli we went to was the Koolwal Haveli. At this point of time I had no idea what to expect – it was a 140 year old abandoned structure entirely covered in frescoes. The front porch was huge and was covered with family portraits of the past five generations of the family. I was gaping at these portraits when I noticed something quite peculiar – the portraits of all the women of the family had their faces scratched off. My enquiries were in vain, nobody was ready to explain. The haveli was a double-storied structure with two courtyards on the ground floor. The outer courtyard, I was told, was only accessible to the men of the family. It was here that they would conduct their business; the women were only allowed to watch the activities from the second floor, through tiny ornate windows or jharokhas. The second courtyard was for women; it was surrounded by a kitchen, store rooms and a tiny room which was only used for storing water. The walls of the house were covered with beautiful frescoes and murals which depicted mythological scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. They were so detailed that it took us almost an hour to go through them all.

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Next, we visited the Morarka Haveli. Built in 1900, the façade of this haveli has some fine decorative mirror-work. A massive, beautifully carved wooden gate opens into the front courtyard. It is the only haveli in Shekhawati that has paintings of Jesus Christ; the other frescoes and paintings in this haveli depict scenes of royal processions, folk heroes and Dhola Maru.

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The next stop was the Poddar Haveli Museum built in 1902. This haveli is one of the best specimens of Shekhawati’s art and architecture. The intricately carved doorway is a stunning example of the expertise of the artists of that era. The theme of the frescoes, almost 750 in number, is dominated by Indian mythology and local festivals such as Gangaur, Teej, etc. But if you look carefully enough, you will get to know a lot about the then contemporary society, people, their beliefs and more importantly the status of women.

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On our way back to Mandawa, we enjoyed the dramatic landscape of the desert, now basking under a winter sun. Trees with barren branches, little patches of green where somebody has dared to grow a crop or two kept us company. And, not to forget the colourful tuk tuks. We joked that the tuk tuks here were female counterpart of the normal auto rickshaws you see in the big cities. Much slimmer and heavily accessorised, playing Rajasthani music on full volume, they could easily be the female version of the regular autorickshaws we see in Delhi.

On reaching the main square of Mandawa, we decided to take a walk through the bazaar to the fort. To our dismay, the fort now operates as a hotel. Visitors can take a look inside for a charge of â?¹200. We decided to give it a miss and return to the old market instead. Wandering through the market, we came across quite a few curio and art shops selling local handicraft, especially carved wooden chests of all sizes. Miniature paintings too seemed to do well in this area. We met a local miniature artist, Shyam Singh, who took us to his shop cum studio. He uses old parchment and papers from antique books as the canvas for his miniatures. He even showed us the brush he uses to make these paintings – it was a teeny weeny brush with two or three hairs from a horse’s tail. The theme of his paintings were a mix of royal and mythological with a hint of romance. A painting can cost anywhere between â?¹500 and â?¹5000 or even more, depending upon the size.

Our next stop was the Chokhani Haveli. In spite of knowing that all the havelis in the area were pretty much similar to each other, we decided to visit it because it was still inhabited. We wanted to get a feel of how people actually lived in these mini-art galleries. On entering the haveli, we came across a group of women huddled around a tiny fire, drinking tea. Thinking of them as friendly village women, Puneet, our photographer decided to take a few shots – but we were mistaken! The grandma, a grumpy old woman started yelling at us, and demanded money because we took her picture. We stepped aside, took a quick round of the haveli and left – the lady wouldn’t stop nagging!

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We then wandered through the bazaar, buzzing with afternoon activities. Men taking their donkey carts loaded with goods, school children returning home with their mothers, vendors, guides, buses – I was taking it all in when we came upon this huge antique looking doorway in the middle of the bazaar. We couldn’t find out more about this gate but it sure will leave you impressed with its size. The sun was setting and it was time to bid farewell to this treasure trove of a town.

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The information

Getting there
By road: 258kms from Delhi via Narnaul road

Where to stay
Luxury- Hotel Castle Mandawa (earlier Mandawa Fort), www.mandawahotels.com
Mid-range- Hotel Sara Vilas, www.khatrihotel.com/saravilas
Budget- Hotel Shekhawati, Ward No: 7, Mukundgarh Road, Mandawa, Phone no: 01592 223 036

Where to eat
Monica Rooftop Hotel, Mandawa Market
Bungli Restaurant, Goenka Chowk, Mandawa

Things to do
>Visit the other popular havelis in the area such as the Hanuman Prasad Goenka Haveli, Goenka Double Haveli, Jhunjhunwala Haveli, Murmuria Haveli, Gulab Rai Ladia Haveli and Mohan Lal Saraf Haveli.
>Walk through the bazaar and visit the numerous art houses and curio shops.
> Visit Dundlod, around 30 km from Mandawa, well known for its fort and havelis. Apart from the Dundlod fort and palace, you can see the Jagathia Haveli, Satyanarayan Temple and Tuganram Goenka Haveli.



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