Shekhawati

Not far from the capital city of Jaipur is an open-air art gallery that draws travelers from all over the world. Spread across a large region that takes its name from the local Rajput ruler, Rao Shekhawat, this delectable slice of Rajasthan is known for its fabulous painted havelis (traditional mansions), stepwells, temples, forts, palaces and castles that bring this bleak, semi-desert region to life.

Definitely world-class and obviously painted with a lot of love and care, elaborate and colourful murals and frescoes on large mansions depict scenes from battles, folk heroes and mythology and other themes that dominated the times. Later, when the colonial influence crept in, cars, steam locomotives, telephones and foreigners in Western wear began to appear on walls, courtyards and chambers. Why, the mirror work on the Deora and Singhania Havelis in Fatehpur boast Japanese tiles with images of Mount Fuji!

The region is home to wealthy merchants and traders from the Marwari community, who prospered from trade that flourished on this caravan route and later due to the growing economy in colonial times. Some of India’s biggest industrial houses have their roots in Shekhawati, which should give visitors an idea of just how affluent this region once was. The grand and opulent havelis here were the ultimate symbol of the merchants’ wealth and, thankfully, good taste!

Talk to the locals, shopkeepers and other residents who love sharing tidbits and tales of yore. Discovering the stories of Shekhawati and untangling the skeins that still tenuously tie the locals to their rich and famous relatives who have long since migrated to greener pastures can be very entertaining.

Shekhawati is a large region and figuring out exactly where to go can be very confusing. Here are some pointers that will help you plan your tour. The following should top your list: Nawalgarh (hundreds of gorgeous havelis boasting some of the finest frescoes); Mandawa (a small market town with a fort and beautifully maintained castle. Great panoramic view from the terrace of the palace); Fatehpur (Deora Haveli bought and restored by a French artist called Nadine Le Prince. It’s also a cultural centre and art museum) and Mahansar (a small town with a pretty fort and Sone ki Dukan or Golden Shop with gold-painted murals). Don’t try and do it all; it’s impossible. Located 150 km from Jaipur.