Shekhawati region of Rajasthan is best known as the world’s largest open-air museum for its colorful, vivid and vibrant paintings. Most of the towns in this region are full of painted Havelis, all of them about 100 years old. As you walk through the streets, your eyes find it difficult to stay at one mural.
Inside the Havelis, the paintings are even more profuse. Themes range from ancient stories from scriptures to modern tales of the times when these Shekhawati Havelis were built. Colorful murals, each asking for your attention is an assault on your senses.
Let me walk you through the Anatomy of a Shekhawati Haveli.
What is a Shekhawati Haveli?
Well, Shekhawati Haveli is a Haveli located in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan. This is a rather greener part of Rajasthan, and in good old days served as gardens for Rao Shekha, getting the name Shekhawati literally meaning the gardens of the Shekha. Different cities in this region were established by his sons.
Havelis are like huge mansions, with open courtyards and clearly demarcated public and private areas of business families that primarily inhabited them.
When were Shekhawati Havelis Built?
Though you will find some Havelis built in the 19th CE, most of them were built in the early 20th CE.
Who Built these Opulent Havelis?
Businessmen of the Vaishya or Agrawal community primarily built these Havelis. When the cities were set up, they needed financial muscles to keep them going. So, businessmen from the neighborhood were invited to the city. These business families came and settled on the outskirts of the city, where they were given lands. They started trading in opium and spices. Remember this region is not too far from the ancient silk route.
After a few years, most of these families moved from here to Calcutta, following the opportunity to create more wealth. More money was put into getting bigger Havelis made and painted. There was a competition to build the biggest and most opulent Havelis.
If you ask around, you would realize that most of the business families in India, especially the ones with their establishments in Kolkata have roots here.
Do read – Opulent Havelis of Bikaner
Where are these Havelis Built?
Painted Havelis of Shekhawati can be found in Nawalgarh, Mandawa, Churu, Jhunjhunu, Bissau, Mahansar, Ramgarh, Fatehpur.
Almost in every town, you would find Havelis in a cluster just outside the city gates, wherever there are gates, or outside the main bazaar area. The reason being most of these families came together to the region and got the land close to each other.
The architecture of a Shekhawati Haveli
A haveli has many influences and many innovations in its architecture. Most of these are situated in narrow lanes, close to each other. They probably did not have to budget for car parking inside or outside the Haveli. The outer walls are painted with larger paintings usually depicting the times of the British. Carriages, Trains, English lifestyles are common themes.
In some Havelis, Trains have been painted even before the first train arrived in India. The Seths were trying to educate the people in their village about the new mode of transportation. In one Haveli in Mandawa, I also saw an airplane painted.
Most Havelis have two floors, but I did see a few with a single floor and one with three floors. The roof is a great place to see the city. Almost every other Haveli and prominent building like temples or forts or wells can be seen from the rooftops.
Ganesh always sits on top of the main door, which has many recessed frames. The door surface is made of brass or copper with pointed designs so that it is difficult to push it open. The main doors leading inside the Haveli are generously opulent.
First Courtyard or Chowk
The main door usually leads to the first open courtyard or Chowk as it is called. This is the public area that is equivalent to an office area in modern parlance. This is where you have a Baithak usually, bang opposite the main door so that the head of the family and business can see who is coming and going. In some Havelis, it can be on the left or right side of the entrance door.
Walls all around Baithak are painted. Scenes come from Indian scriptures. The story of Krishna is very common as he is a popular deity in the region. Remember this region is not too far from Braj Bhumi – the land of Krishna.
The center of the courtyard is open to the sky and is usually unpaved. A Tulsi plant or sometimes a large tree can be seen here.
Baithak is a large pillared hall with a single or double story, an equivalent of a conference room. The floor has white mattresses, bolsters, and cushions thrown around. A handheld fan hangs over, that was operated by a deaf and dumb person so that nothing goes out of the room through him. Around the main area of the Baithak are safe rooms, where the Tijori or the cash would be kept. You can still see the metal safes in these rooms.
The top floor has small window openings for the women of the house to listen to business discussions. The head of the family would often discuss the details with his wife or other women in the family about business. Remember, all these businesses used to be family businesses.
Do read – How to See Ajanta Paintings?
The walls here are painted with deities of all kinds. Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity is always prominent here, as are many of her avatars. At the Poddar Haveli in Nawalgarh, I saw the 9 forms of Devi as they are celebrated during Navaratri painted on the upper story. It almost feels that the business was done in the presence of the Gods.
Most big Havelis have second Chowk or the second courtyard which is more or less a replica of the first one, except that it is a private area, restricted for outsiders. Most guides will tell you that it is zenana, meant only for women. I do not agree with this. The distinction is between the family area and the business area. Since men did the business dealings, women primarily stayed in the private area. Men too used the private area when business was done.
Outer walls of this chowk are also painted, all over.
What is interesting is that almost all Havelis have a mud floor in the courtyard. This means any rainwater would be directed to the ground. A Tulsi plant is also seen in most Havelis.
Kitchens are rather small in these huge houses, and you see more than one kitchen in most Havelis. There are rooms to store drinking water.
Multiple kitchens mean many nuclear families sharing the big Haveli with their separate kitchens. This would happen as the descendants of the original builders multiply and probably do not get along to have a single kitchen.
Living rooms are huge with small cupboards. I wondered where did they keep their stuff. The staff at Piramal Haveli told me that people did not really own too much of the personal stuff like we do today. They also used trunks to store things and sometimes some rooms acted as stores leaving space in the living rooms.
Inside the walls of the rooms are usually plain. Some Havelis that have been converted into hotels have got them painted recently, but originally, they were plain.
So, the walls outside and in rooms where guests or businessmen were entertained are painted, the private areas are simple.
Do read – Mithila’s Madhubani Paintings
The Piramal Haveli that I lived in was built in 1924 and it had attached toilets with each room. However, in the olden Havelis, the storerooms have been converted into bathrooms or a wall has been erected to make way for the bathrooms for the modern living. I could not gather where the toilets were, but they were probably outside the main Haveli.
A few Havelis have rooms painted in gold. Very little of the gold remains, but the bright colors make the room a very lively place. This is usually the Baithak or business section of the house, probably meant to impress potential clients.
Double Haveli is nothing but two identical conjoined Havelis or twin Havelis. These were usually built by fathers with two sons. If the sons get along, open the door in the middle and it is a single Haveli. If they don’t get along, close the door and live your own way with no interference from anyone.
I saw two double Havelis in Mandawa – a Chokhani Double Haveli and a Poddar Double Haveli. In Bagad, I saw a Rungta double Haveli.
One Haveli in Mahansar has a Ballroom with European paintings. This is however not attached to the main living area. It stays as an independent room meant to entertain foreigners only, or westernized Indians may be.
How well-maintained are these Havelis?
Most of the Havelis are not inhabited by the families who own them. In fact, I did a rough back of the envelope calculations and found that these Havelis in Shekhawati were inhabited for 20-40 years on average. Most families moved out after India’s independence i.e. in 1947. Some of them have caretakers, but most are lying abandoned.
A few Havelis have been restored and converted into museums like Poddar Haveli in Nawalgarh, Nadine Le Prince Haveli in Fatehgarh. Many Havelis in Mandawa are managed by caretakers who would show you the Haveli for a fee. Some families are living in a small part of the big Haveli and earning income by showing the rest of the Haveli to tourists.
The best-preserved are the ones that have been converted into hotels.
Themes of Paintings in Shekhawati Haveli
There are 3-4 major themes in the painted Havelis of Shekhawati.
Lakshmi – Lakshmi is the prime deity of business families. You see her prominently in and around the Baithak that is where business was conducted. As Gajalakshmi you find her on top of the doors, indicating that doors are open for Lakshmi to come.
Krishna – Stories of Krishna are everywhere in Shekhawati Havelis. You see scenes depicting his birth, his childhood antics, his killing of various asuras, his Leela with Radha and at places his Dwarka. I do not remember seeing the Mahabharata war scene but it is possible that I missed it. At Poddar Haveli, I saw Jayadeva’s Geet Govind painted in six life-size paintings.
Deities & their stories from Scriptures – Ganesh, Shiva and various forms of Devi are everywhere on walls. At one Haveli I even saw Agni Dev & Yamraj painted. There are scenes like Sagar Manthan. At a temple, I saw all the major Bhakti poets painted on the ceiling. At one Haveli built a little later, there was a mural of Bharat Mata.
Ramayana & Mahabharata Paintings – Some scenes from both the scriptures can be seen in many Havelis. I particularly remember the dice playing scene on a large wall at one of the Havelis. Ramayana scenes like Hanuman visiting Sita in Lanka are popular.
Festivals – Festivals like Holi, Gangaur, Teej or Diwali showcase the huge community participation in these festivals. Men and women playing music often accompany these scenes. Royal processions and royal courts can be seen on some panels.
There are lots of portraits in a very European manner painted all over. Some of them depict the people from different lands with different ways that they dress, different headgears. There are portraits of English men and women.
One Haveli in Mandawa has portraits of Nehru, Gandhi and other freedom fighters. The outer wall of a Haveli in Churu has Jesus Christ painted on it, another one has it inside.
A lot of portraits can be seen on ceilings and below the arches on the entrance doors, painted on round medallions surrounded by foliage or decorative motifs.
Officers of the British East India Company are painted seated on chairs as are some of the merchants. At places you see the British Army marching with guns on their shoulders.
Modes of Transportation as Paintings
Transportation must have played a key role in trade, taking people and merchandise from one place to another. No wonder, it finds a primary spot in all Havelis. You see people traveling on camels, elephants, and horses. A range of horse cart carriages is painted on the outer walls.
Trains almost like a fascination seen on so many Havelis. Maybe it was a hope that the covering distances would be easier or longer distances will become accessible. In one place, I even saw the construction of a railway station depicted.
Not so common transport options include ships and airplanes. Things like cars and cycles are missing. Newly constructed overhead bridges are painted, what a lovely way to document.
European Themed Paintings
Since this was a time when the British ruled India and interactions with Europe. A Haveli in Churu is completely painted in Italian style with scenes from Italy and France painted in subtler colors. Some influence is found in almost all Havelis. What is interesting is that the artists have chosen the colors according to the themes they were paintings. Indian scenes are always in vivid bright colors.
Some Havelis have a one-floor painting with Indian motifs and another one in a European manner.
Not very common, but you do scenes from the everyday life of people.
Flora and Fauna – There are walls full of floral designs, flowers in vases, that skillfully captures different varieties of flowers and vegetation found in the area. Peacocks and Parrots add their own colors to the paintings.
Composite Art – When images are made with a set of another
Windows & Doors – A lot of times replicas of windows are painted to create symmetry on the wall, some even paint people looking through them. Painted doors sometimes create the false illusion of a door on a wall. In some corners, I also saw the miniature version of the Haveli itself painted.
Belgian Glass – Colorful Belgian Glass can be found embedded in the main door of many Havelis, and sometimes at prominent places inside too.
Surrounding the intricately carved wooden doors of windows, jharokhas and main gates, these paintings are a riot of colors.
Some of the walls have remains of a Devi that is painted on the walls every Navaratri, to worship for the 9 nights. This is usually in Gerua or red oxide color.
Some outer walls have words written to identify the characters in the story depicted but most of them are illegible now, and guides really do not know the stories.
Where are the Best Havelis in Shekhawati?
If you have to see one Haveli, see Poddar Haveli in Nawalgarh.
If you want to see few Havelis, some double Havelis and an Italian theme based Haveli – Visit Mandawa
To see the golden painted room of a Haveli – Visit Mahansar
If you want to stay in a quiet well-maintained Haveli try Piramal Haveli in Bagad, near Jhunjhunu
If you want to see the beautiful water management system of this region, visit Churu.