European memsahibs in all their regalia, gods wearing wristwatches or shoes, the Wright brothers’ flight, Jesus with a cigar, angels going up in hot air balloons – Shekhawati shows you the ideas that engaged the imagination of its denizens right on its painted walls. In town after town, you can see havelis covered with murals: princes and gods, steam engines and cars, even a ship with ‘Made in Germany’ written upside down on the hull, because the artist who copied the letters from some imported can presumably was holding it the wrong way up!

Shekhawati’s towns were located on the corridor that trading caravans took between Delhi and the various ports of Gujarat. The trading entrepreneurs of this region amassed great fortunes by virtue of its strategic position. Gradually, most of the merchants became industrialists and migrated to Kolkata and Mumbai. Whoever made it good came back and built a haveli, a baoli, a mandir and a dharam shala. And they got their havelis painted, to proclaim their new wealth and status.

Shekhawati’s murals are not protected heritage but houses with multiple owners, which makes it difficult to sell or even restore them. In these neglected havelis, the murals are sadly and surely disappearing.

THING TO SEE AND DO

The village of Mandawa, with its cluster of hotels, is the most suitable base. The best of the painted towns are within a 50-km radius from here. Plus, this is as equipped as a town can get in these parts. Plan for a day per town, but you may cram in two sometimes.

Gireesh G.v
A haveli at Shekhawati
A haveli at Shekhawati

Driving is the most convenient way to explore the Shekhawati region. If you don’t have a car, hire a taxi from Jaipur and create your own itinerary. Taxis charge about 6 per km (250 km mini mum); night charge is 150-200. Rates vary according to routes taken. Hotels also offer haveli tours for approx 2,500 per day (car plus guide). It is a good idea to carry maps of at least the major towns –such as Mandawa, Nawalgarh and Churu. Else, it’s impossible to locate the havelis amid modern constructions. You might need to ask for directions a couple of times. A pair of binoculars are needed to see the paintings high up on the walls.

Mandawa

The murals of Gulab Rai Ladia Haveli are exceptional, especially in the variety of themes: scenes from the life of the owner with the fort in the background, a woman giving birth, mirror images of a tiger and a horse, a bird tending to her eggs, or a couple making love in a train compartment.

The Bansidhar Nevatia Haveli shows the Wright brothers’ maiden flight and a European making a telephone call – pre sum ably reproduced from magazines. The baithak of the Sneh Ram Ladia Haveli has a rather amusing group portrait of rulers.

At Murmuria Haveli, check out the artist’s amusing attempt to set Krishna shepherding cows in a typically English countryside. The Double Goenka Haveli has erotica painted on the outer left wall. Access to this wall is from inside the haveli.

Consider spending some tranquil moments atop one of the bastions of Castle Mandawa. The view from this vantage point, particularly during sun rise or sunset, is most therapeutic.

Rajesh Thakur
Castle Mandawa
Castle Mandawa

Castle Mandawa (Tel: 01592-223124; Tariff: 17,900-34,900 for 3D/ 2N) is the most famous hotel in these parts. Arrangements can be made for horse rides and safaris.

The Desert Resort (Tel: 223245; Tariff: 15,900-34,900 for 3D/ 2N), associated with Castle Mandawa, has a restaurant. Hotel Mandawa Haveli (Tel: 223088; Tariff: 2,500-5,500), located near the Son thaliya Gate, offers comfort at reasonable prices. Hotel Shekhawati (Tel: 223036; Tariff: 1,000-1,800) is on the Mukundgarh Road.

Churi Ajithgarh

(10 km of Mandawa)

En route to Nawalgarh, the twin towns of Churi and Ajithgarh were founded in the late 19th century. The Sheonarayan Haveli has portraits of Bengali women, a moustachioed Shiva posing with his entire family and Vishwamitra looking lustfully at a seductive Menaka. It is said that a room here, mostly kept locked, has one of the most explicit samples of erotica in Shekhawati.

Stay here at the Vivaana hotel (Cell: 09811276231, 098112-76800; Tariff: 7,000-12,000), housed in a beautifully restored 19th-century haveli.

Fatehpur (21 km of Mandawa)

About 15 km south of Ramgarh, Fatehpur is one of the oldest towns in Shekhawati, established in 1451 by the Muslim clan of Kayamkhanis. Fatehpur boasts some impressive baolis, wells and joharas (reservoirs). A painter, Nadine le Prince, bought the Nand Lal Devra Haveli, now known as Nadine le Prince Haveli, and has put in much money restoring it. The Singhania Haveli has four elephants cradling Lakshmi with their trunks and exquisitely painted dancing gopis. The Choudhary ki Haveli is said to be one of the most richly painted havelis here.

The only comfortable option in Fatehpur is RTDC Hotel Haveli (Tel: 01571-230293; Tariff: 900-1,300) on NH11. It has a restaurant.

Gireesh G.v
Opulent interiors of Poddar Haveli, Nawalgarh
Opulent interiors of Poddar Haveli, Nawalgarh

Nawalgarh (28 km of Mandawa)

One of the biggest and busiest towns of Shekhawati, Nawalagarh was founded in 1737 and has the Poddar Haveli, which has been turned into a museum. The haveli was only built around the 1920s and the murals have since been restored. Along with illustrations of a range of early 20th-century technologies such as the air balloon, you will find wedding costumes of Rajasthan exhibited in the museum.

The painted ceiling of a small room in the fort called Bala Qila stands out. This circular room is studded profusely with mirrors. The murals, lustrous and colourful, depict an artist’s impression of the cities and armies of Jaipur and Nawalgarh in the 1850s.

In Aath Haveli, among other works, you can see a long train with one passenger per compartment. Morarka Haveli (now a museum), Saraogi Haveli, Sheksaria Haveli and Chau charia Haveli are others.

Hotel Roop Niwas Kothi (Tel: 01594-224152; Tariff: 4,000-8,000), a heritage hotel, is a sprawling mansion inspired by Italian architecture. Another option is Apani Dhani (Tel: 222239; Tariff: 1,650-1,800), an eco lodge.

When to go November-early March. Winter nights can be very cold Location The villages of Shekhawati region are spread across the districts of Churu, Jhunjhunu and Sikar in northeastern Rajasthan Rail Nearest railhead for recommended base town Mandawa: Churu