Shekhawati in Rajasthan

ShekhawatiIn late 14th century, the childless Mokal Singh, ruler of a small principality called Barwara, was advised to meet a fakir by the name of Sheikh Burhan and seek his blessings Mokal Singh and within time he became a father. Mokal Singh did not forget the holy man – he named his son Shekha in honour of the fakir.

Shekha ascended the throne at the young age of 12 and began a reign that lasted for 43 years. Shekhawati means Garden of Shekha and is not a single village or town. It is a large area in north eastern Rajasthan which lies between Bikaner, Jaipur and Delhi and comprises the Sikar and Jhunjhunu districts.

Shekhawati today is known more for its exquisite frescoes that adorn the walls and ceilings of the buildings here. It is an open air art gallery. No other region, anywhere in the world, has such a large concentration of frescoes. This is all the more interesting as the landscape here is totally bare – flat and colourless.

Until the 1820s, most of the frescoes were financed by Rajputs and the themes were largely religious, folk heroes, historical events and personages were recorded in great detail, as were battle scenes. In fact, these paintings are more of historical records depicting the events that took place at that period. The arrival of the phirangi or foreigner, is noted as is his style of dressing, his made of transport and his modern weapons.

Towards the end of the 19th century, historical events were responsible for a change in the patronage. The Rajputs were not as powerful as they had been and the Marwaris, the business community, found itself in a position of strength.

haveli-in-shekhawatiBy the beginning of the 19th century, the East India Company had made its presence felt in Shekhawati. They began to levy heavy taxes and the local merchants realized that they would have ot move out if they wanted to be successful. For the hardworking and enterprising Marwari, this was a blessing in disguise. The British presence had also increased the volume of trade and even though they had been forced to move hundreds of miles away from their region, they were quick to spread their branches all over the country and get involved in the gorwing business. They made good and returned wealthier and more successful than before. They may have been miles away from their homeland but their roots were very much in the villages of Shekhawati as most of them had left their families behind. While they lived austerely in their adopted cities they sent back huge sums of money of their hometown. Most of it was spent on the welfare of their community – wells, reservoirs, schools, dharamshalas and gaushalas were financed. For their families, they built large havelies and had the most intricate frescoes painted in them.

The desire to show off their enhanced wealth led to these elaborate frescoes. Very soon it became customary to have a painted haveli and the artists were kept busy moving from the one village to the next. The earlier paintings have been done by a sophisticated team of muralists but as the building boom gathered momentum, these painters were not able to cope with the demand. At this stage, several other local masons and unskilled painters began to get involved in the paintings. They picked up the skills and some of them became very talented.

What is quite unusual here is the range of themes to be found on the walls. Mythological frescoes are interspersed with those influenced by Western paintings. Cars, trains, aeroplanes, ships and telephones, foreigners in hats, suits and gowns have been painted just as painstakingly as gods, local heroes, scenes from Lord Krishna’s life.

Some of the important havelis are :

Sikar : The temples of Gopinath, Raghunath and Madan Mohan and the unusual blue and white Biyanni havelies are worth a visit.

Other areas close to Sikar are Harsh Nath temple and Jeen Mata temple.

Nawalgarh : Some of the country’s leading merchant families come form this littlie town. This is also where some of the finest frescoes in Shekhakwati are to be found – Roop Niwas, Saat Haveli, two old forts and a palace hotel should be visited.

Dundlod : A fort and palace and the Goenka havelies have some fine frescoes.

Lachhmangarh : One of the best forts in this region is to be found here as also the imposing Ganeriwala haveli.

Mandawa : There are many havelies in Manadawa notably the Ghokhani, Saraf and Ladia havelies.

Fatehpur : A very good place to see the combination of Indian and Western style frescoes. The Devra, Singhania and Goenka havelies can be also the Jalan and Bharatiya havelies. Some other major towns worth visiting for their frescoes are Ramgarh, Pilani, Khetri, Bissau, Churu and Mahansar.