The semi-arid region of Shekhawati is a highlight of travel in Rajasthan. Located in the northeast part of the state, in the roughly triangular area between Delhi, Jaipur and Bikaner, it is famous for its ‘painted towns’. Often referred to as an “open air art gallery” it contains some thirty towns, many containing treasure troves of splendidly painted havelis (mansions), johras (water tanks), temples and chhatris (cenotaphs) to be explored.
Most of the buildings of the Shekhawati region were constructed between the 18th and early 20th centuries by wealthy Marwari merchants; an influential business community, they prospered due to the caravan routes that crossed the area to reach the ports of Gujarat. From 1820 onwards, many left and migrated to the ports of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, which were gaining importance as main trade centres. However, they continued to erect and decorate stunning buildings in their homeland as evidence of their success.
Today these dazzling havelis with their exquisite murals, frescoes and carvings display the valuable cultural and historical heritage of Shekhawati. Their subject matters vary tremendously, depicting the whole gamut of social and religious life. They can include an array of scenes from epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, Indra Dev on an elephant and Lord Shiva on his Nandi bull – to soldiers being shot by cannons, a reflection of the horrors of the Mutiny of 1857. In fact, many of the havelis – replete with patterns and paintings, ranging from traditional Rajasthani women and religious motifs to Europeans wearing stylish hats and other Victorian finery – use unique themes blending the East with the West.
Though these handsome houses, water tanks, temples and chattris, have aged considerably – some are mere shadows of their former selves – they retain their charm and remain timeless.
No tour to Rajasthan is complete without a visit to the Shekhawati region. The Best of Rajasthan, Rajasthan in Depth, Rajasthan: Sustaining Tradition and Rajasthan and Gujarat feature visits to some of the most colourful towns in the area, such as Ramgarh, Bikaner, Mandawa, Nawalgarh and Khimsar.