Small town with a colourful character

Architectural gems

Traditional tales: A frescoed ‘haveli’ in Nawalgarh. photo by author

This modest settlement in Shekhawati, lying in north-eastern Rajasthan (2.5 hrs from Jaipur), is akin to an open-air museum of art. It sits plum in the line-up of destinations in the semi-arid zone of the Thar desert and a lot has been penned about Shekhawati’s havelis — that it can be considered touristy, and definitely in tune with the contemporary. Surprisingly, none of it holds true. The first impressions on stepping into Nawalgarh — the big brother of the fresco circuit — are akin to those experienced in any Indian small town, where seemingly after the rural-urban handshake, the focus on development has gone awry, ensuing in commercialisation and chaos becoming best friends.

But, casting aside those initial moments and after scratching the surface a bit, the real heart of Nawalgarh is revealed. This town has delightfully retained its bucolic character — small lanes, sand-blown clusters of dwellings, friendly populace and shy women. Though global exposure has not affected the pace of life, despite heritage hotels and the like, what it’s ably done is instill a sense of pride in Shekhawati’s residents for its legacy , which was once crumbling and is now being lovingly restored and preserved.  

The chronicle of Shekhawati’s havelis was set in motion somewhere in the beginning of the 19th century. According to a legend, traders used routes running through princely dominions across the desert region to transfer consignments from sea ports to central India. For this, they paid a levy and the influential Jaipur province roped in major business. In a bid to divert profits, neighbouring Shekhawati decided to reduce tax. The Marwari trader readily changed his route and caravans packed with assorted ware began transiting through Shekhawati, which prospered immensely. Over time, merchants were offered land by the Rajputs to build havelis or mansions in order to develop the economy of the province. The Marwari gladly agreed, and thus began the story of Shekhawati. We know it today for its collection of havelis which have a compelling visual narrative.

Frescoes are a part of tradition in Rajasthan. At Shekhawati, artists took it to a whole new level. All walls of the havelis act as a canvas and frescoes depict a diversity of themes based on religion, myths, great epics, an assortment of folk tales — the most arresting being the love-legend of Dhola Maru — and local customs. What holds special interest are the off-beat portrayals — a family dressed in Western wear sitting in a Ford car, freedom fighters, an English lady, an aeroplane taking-off, etc, reflecting the social milieu of those times coupled with the influences the Marwari brought home from his travels. 

In Nawalgarh, we saw different techniques of fresco on some of its outstanding havelis like Bhakton ki Haveli, Koolwal Haveli, Uattara Haveli, Aath Haveli which, as opposed to its name, aath or eight, is a complex structure of four havelis — Seksaria Haveli, Saraogi Haveli, Morarka Haveli and Poddar Haveli (now a museum), to pick a few.

Shekhawati’s fresco painters belonged to the kumhar or potter community. They were called chitera (painters) or chejaras (masons) as they were involved in both — painting and construction. Local material was used for readying the walls and vegetable dyes for dressing them up. Usually, the wall base was painted with a mixture in which sheep milk was used. Colours too were made from natural resources like roots, leaves, rocks and flowers such as kesula (turmeric yellow colour), kariya (soft pink), rohira (saffron), khinpe (dark green), etc.

We then visited villages like Laxmangarh, Mukundgarh, Mandawa, Fatehpur and Dunlod, located within a 50-kim radius of Shekhawati. These villages also flaunt notable architectural gems, including some incredible baolis or stepwells. While visiting this village, visitors must treat themselves to touristy pleasures such as camel rides, rural games and scrumptious local cuisine. 

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