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SHEKHAVATI is a region in mainly Jhunjhunu district of northeastern Rajasthan that was inhabited by Shekhavat Rajputs, a clan related to the ruling clan of Amber and Jaipur, the Kachhwaha Rajputs. This area derives its name from Maharao Shekha (1433 to 1488). The region was traditionally known for its rich Marwari traders who transported exotic goods like fine silks, pashmina cashmere wool, saffron, opium, bricks of tea etc. on the silk route.
Mandawa is a bustling town that was established by Shekhawat Rajputs in 1755 when Thakur Nawal Singh son of Thakur Sardul Singh built the castle in the middle of the town. The castle has multihued painted arched gateway adorned with Lord Krishna and his cows. There is a lot to view in the Mandawa Castle itself that is also the best place to stay in Shekhavati region. Following Havelis (aristocratic mansions) are interesting for their murals and frescos: Hanuman Prasad Goenka Haveli, Goenka Double Haveli, Murmuria Haveli, Jhunjhunwala Haveli, Mohanlal Saraf Havei, Gulab Rai Ladia Haveli, Bansidhar Newatia Haveli, Laxminarayan Ladia Haveli and Chowkhani Double Haveli. Just across the road from Goenka Double Haveli is the Thakurji Temple that also has beautiful mural paintings depicting scenes from British East India Company Period and 1857 during the First War of Indian Independence.
Nawalgahr was founded by Nawal Singhji Bahadur in 1737. It is famous for some of the best-preserved havelis and finest frescoes. The two well preserved and recently restored Havelis are the Anandilal Poddar Haveli and Murarka Haveli. Roop Niwas Palace has been converted in to a hotel and also has interesting murals and frescos.
Dundlod is a small village in Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan quite close to Nawalgarh. Its majestic fort, now converted in to a heritage hotel was constructed in 1750 by Thakur Keshari Singh, the 5th. & youngest son of Thakur Sardul Singh. Major additions and renovations were done in 19th. century by Thakur Sheo Singh. Other tourist attractions of Dundlod are Chhatri of Ram Dutt Goenka, Jagathia Haveli, Satyanarayan Temple, and Tuganram Goenka Haveli.
Mahasar, founded in 1768, is noted for its Sone Chandi ki Haveli that dates from1846. It is 26 kilometers or 16 miles from Dundlod. The haveli has three domed ceilings painted with the colorful paintings depicting the scenes from the great Ramayana and the life of Lord Krishna. The central dome is painted with the incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Gold leaf work is the unique features of its intricate paintings.
Badalgarh: Kaimkhani nawabs ruled this region. Badalgarh Fort, built by Nawab Fazl Khan in late 17th. century looks impressive from its exterior. It is a unique fort because it was built as a stable for horses and camels. For transportation as well as for battles these animals were very important and the nawab wanted to have a secure place to house them. Consequently there are no grand palaces inside the fort. The panoramic view from Badalgarh fort is very impressive. In the town there are three Makbaras (mausoleums) of the Kaimkhani Nawabs of Jhunjhunu - of Nawab Samas Khan (reign: 1605 to 1627), Nawab Bhawan Khan and Nawab Rohella Khan.
Sardul Singh ki Chattrie was originally a memorial of the Shekhawat Rajput warrior but the entire complex is now used as a school. Unfortunately the murals inside these chattries are no more because they were whitewashed when the place was converted into a school. Only some remnants of the paintings in the interior can still be seen. Sardul Singh's eldest son was Zorawar Singh who built the Zorawargarh in 1741. His fort is mostly in ruins now. The buildings that survived are now used as government offices and a town jail for criminals.
Mertaniji ki Baor is the oldest and finest of Jhunjhunu's step wells. Sardul Singh's widow built it 1783. Step wells are real architectural feats in the desert state of Rajasthan and their construction was considered a great act of generosity and benevolence. They served as community centers, where people gathered to help themselves to the most precious commodity – water. The Mertani Baori is a beautiful structure with flights of steps descending through arches.
Khetri Mahal is the finest architectural heritage of Jhunjhunu. Also known as the Wind Palace, it was built in 1770 by Bhopal Singh, founder of Khetri town and grandson of Sardul Singh. Because of marble pillars supporting the roofs there is maximum cross-ventilation making it very pleasant in summers. A ramp ascends through the Mahal from the entrance right up to the terrace, so that the Rajputs could ride up on their horses. Inside are lovely halls with graceful arches and pillars. The Khetri Mahal was so beautiful a monument that Sawai Pratap Singh of Jaipur got inspired by it and built the grand Hawa Mahal in 1799.
Forsterganj was established by Major Henry Forster, an officer of the British East India Company who raided the Shekhavati region in 1830 because its rulers did not pay taxes to the British rulers. He later built a mosque and a temple in the part of the town named after him, Forsterganj. This lies in the east of Jhunjhunu and was the headquarters of the Shekhawati Brigade of British East India Company. Forster's Jama Masjid is painted in white and green, and is a pretty fresh looking structure. There are other reminders of the British Major who later became very popular in town, like the stone tablet installed by the Major himself.
Hazrat Kamruddin Shah's Dargah is a shrine dedicated to a Muslim saint (born 1784) at the foot of Kana Pahar hill. It was built in mid-19th. century. A ramp leads to the imposing gateway. One can see the entire surrounding countryside from its rooftop. There is also a mosque and a madrasa (Islamic religious school). Remnants of murals are still visible in the surrounding courtyard. A pyramid like structure in the complex is a memorial erected for Major Foster's son who died in 1841.
Bidri Chand Well in the north-west of the town has four minarets. The well houses a small temple dedicated to Hindu god Hanuman (the monkey-headed devotee of Ram, the incarnation of Vishnu).
Ajit Sagar is an artificial lake located near a hill in a picturesque surrounding. It was constructed in 1902. On the hilltop is a Hindu temple which has panoramic view of the entire surrounding area.
Other places of interest in Jhunjunu
- Tibrewala's six havelis including Narsingh Das Tibrewala's Haveli & Sriram Jaitram Tibrewala Haveli & Kishan Chand Tibrewala Haveli*
- Seth Ishwardas Mohandas Modi Haveli
- Kethan Haveli
- Balabux Tulshan Haveli
- Mausoleums of Nawab Samas Khan and Nawab Rohila Khan
- Bihariji Temple
- Laxmi Nath Temple
- Rani Sati Temple
Kishan Chand Tibrewala Haveli: Seth Kishan Chand Tibrewala was a patriarch of a wealthy Marwari business caste family who is renowned for his sense of fashionable attire. He also had a taste for magnificent architecture. This is visible in his Haveli that boasts of an Italianate verandah among many other interesting features. The murals in his haveli depict him in his daily chores as well as the scenes of the neighboring countryside. Some of the motifs in the murals show peacocks in the sangar trees, 15 cows in the courtyard, Seth Tibrewala walking to meet his Munim (the accountant). The name of this family Tibrewala is derived from the scrub forest furring the dunes. These dense scrubs are called Tibbas in local dialect. In the inner-courtyard, the four daughters-in-law are busy churning butter and pickling amlas under the stern eye of Hukmi Devi, the matriarch who rules the domestic empire with an iron hand. The haveli is a self-contained community, and for the women of the house, virtually the only world they know. To them, outdoors is the terrace where they spread the chillis to dry under the desert sun, or where they lie with their husbands under a silver moon in their breezy, roofless, rooftop bedrooms called chandni. Of late though, they have a new and altogether unexpected peephole onto the outside world. Sethji has commissioned an artist to repaint the fading frescoes in the three courtyards. The tame themes of Radha-Krishna and Ramayana were not very interesting for him. His is a revolutionary, visionary world of steam engines as tall as buildings, each carriage bearing an incarnation of Vishnu, motor-cars with wings and a positively sacrilegious one of Ramji smoking a pipe while Sitaji beside him sports a bowler hat! Hukmi is scandalized but Sethji is adamant. He's never seen a motorcar himself but his eldest son in Calcutta has. And, as if all this were not exciting enough, in the upper bedchambers the irrepressible artist has painted tableaux of explicit and illicit love, much to the delight of the husbands.
Piramal Haveli: Staying at the restored Piramal Haveli run by Neemrana Hotels at Bagar in Shekhavati district, it is easy to conjure up this vision of an imaginary 19th century household. This is the dust-drenched, fresco-filled region of Shekhavati in the north-west corner of Rajasthan. Villages and townships here have hundreds upon hundreds of ornate mansions covered inside and outside with exotic wall-paintings; their bright cobalt blues, ochres and greens, an affirmation of life in a dry, desiccated landscape. When the princely states were dissolved after Independence, the intricate trade network that made Shekhavati prosperous, unravelled. Within a few decades the merchant families left their painted palaces and moved to port cities on the east and west coast. Their legacies abandoned, crumbling and mostly forgotten, until historians Aman Nath and Francis Wacziarg first documented them some 15 years ago. Today, the frescoes of Shekhavati attract tourists from all over the world but the havelis are still crumbling. Some buckling at the plinth because of bad drainage, some cannibalized for their woodwork and others whose murals have been whitewashed over. Many of the mansions belong to the country's best known business families like the Dalmias, Birlas, Poddars, Goenkas, Singhanias, Khaitans, Kedias and Jhunjhunwalas among many others.
The fresco trail runs through Chomu, Sikar, Danta, Ramgarh, Nawalgarh, Parasrampara, Dundlod, Mukundgarh, Lachmangarh, Fatehpur, Mandawa and Churu. From Churu, due east is Bissau, Mahansar, Jhunjhunu, Bagar, Chirawa and Khetri. The themes of the murals range from the devotional, to the royal, to erotic, to Company School, the term given to quirky 18th century works of British idiom. Shekhavati traders would return from the port cities of Bombay and Calcutta to regale their slack-jawed country-cousins with tales of wondrous inventions and sophisticated society. Their stories found innocent and clumsy representation in the frescoes. Ram and Sita in a Rolls Royce chauffeured by Hanuman or Jesus smoking a cigar.
Apart from the murals, the alleyways of Shekhavati are fascinating and disorienting. The wonderfully wound turbans are starting to disappear and synthetics are fast replacing cotton cloth, but veiled women still swirl past in bright ghaghras (traditional Rajasthani women's skirt) trimmed with gold. Bold-laced Lohar women with their disconcertingly deep décolletage, heavy silver anklets and saucy swagger, are an inexplicable contradiction in an overwhelmingly male-dominated society.
On the flat roofs of the neelgaron-ka-khurra (the dyers Quarter), Muslim families work together tie-dyeing, hanging up the fabric to dry in a vast variety of colors, even as a youth wearing a Mets T-shirt and baseball cap darts out with a mobile-phone camera to steal a snapshot of a female foreign tourist. If the frescoes on its walls are a quirky social documentary of their time, then life in present day Shekhavati is a mirror of that artless contrariness.
Shekhavati's greatest gift is that it reminds us of a time, not long ago, when the domestic spaces of even ordinary, everyday people, were a place of artistic expression and beauty. Womenfolk regularly turned their homes into a giant canvas alive with folk art, or painted their prayers into colorful rangolis (decorative floor designs).
Here was a generation that surrounded itself with painted visions of foreign lands, erotic fantasies, gods and fairy-folk at work and play, the miracles of technology, and a hundred dreams and aspirations. Naive and childish perhaps, but immeasurably preferable to the death of imagination.
Best time to visit is between October and March. India Traveller's qualified guides and knowledgeable drivers know the way to all these interesting sites in the vast eastern Rajasthan region of Shekhavati. Some havelis have an entrance fee and some havelis can be seen only from the outside because they are actually residences occupied by local families.
Hotels in the Shekhavati region:
Heritage Castle Mandawa - 80 rooms
Desert Resort, Mandawa - 60 rooms
Jai Niwas Resort, Mandawa - 8 independent cottages
Sara Vilas Hotel, Mandawa - 60 vilas and 4 suites
Tulip Inn, Mandawa - 74 rooms
Vivana Haveli - 23 rooms (about 6 miles outside Mandawa in a heritage building)
Piramal Haveli, Bagar - 8 rooms
Surajgarh Fort Hotel, Jhunjhunu - 9 suites and 12 rooms
Heritage Dundlod Fort Hotel, Jhunjhunu (18th. century) - 45 rooms
Grand Haveli Resort, Nawalgarh - 19 rooms, 5 duplex and 4 suites
Heritage Mukundgarh Fort Hotel - 45 rooms
Heritage Roop Vilas Palace Hotel - 14 suites, 12 rooms and 3 luxury tents in Nawalgarh
Heritage Roop Niwas Kothi Hotel - 1 suite, 10 deluxe and 15 standard rooms in Nawalgarh
Heritage Alsisar Mahal, Alsisar - 51 rooms
Chomu Palace (300 years old) - 58 deluxe rooms & suites
Samode Palace, Samode (early 19th. century) - 4 royal suites, 20 deluxe suites and 19 luxury rooms
Samode Bagh, Samode (250 years old) - 44 rooms
Distances in kilometers and miles:
Delhi to Mandawa - 240 kilometers or 149 miles
Jaipur to Mandawa - 168 kilometers or 104 miles
Bikaner to Mandawa - 190 kilometers or 118 miles
Delhi to Samode - 234 kilometers or 145 miles
Jaipur to Samode - 56 kilometers or 35 miles
Samode to Nawalgarh - 120 kilometers or 75 miles
Nawalgarh to Mandawa - 33 kilometers or 21 miles
Jaipur to Nawalgarh - 115 kilometers or 72 miles
Delhi to Nawalgarh - 210 kilometers or131 miles
Dundlod to Jaipur (via Sikar) - 160 kilometers or 99 miles
Dundlod to Bikaner (via Laxmangarh) - 230 kilometers or 143 miles
Dundlod to Delhi - 213 kilometers or 132 miles