Shekhawati & Its Havelis - An Open Art Gallery


There is a region in Rajasthan near the eastern fringe of the Thar desert called Shekhawati, distributed between two districts of Sikar and Churu. The region is sparsely populated by Indian standards, yet by some estimates, it indirectly accounts for 80% of the countries industry. Oh yes, this is the region of the Birlas, the Goenkas, the Dalmias, the Jhunjhunwalas, the Poddars, the Devras, the Sarafs and many other illustrious names that make up bulk of India's industrial base.

 A glimpse inside a havel
Clicked at Nadine Le Prince Haveli, Fatehpur

The residencies of these families - their havelis - are no less important. These palatial houses, bunched up in narrow lanes of the small villages that dot the Shekhawati region, comprise a gallery of an immensely beautiful art-form - the fresco. The region is rightly called 'the open-air art gallery' of Rajasthan.

 A random haveli in Fatehpur


The Prosperity Of Shekhawati

Shekhawati is one of the newer parts of Rajasthan in terms of its settlement. The area was situated strategically on the trade route from northern regions to the ports of Gujarat and those from the east passing on to Sindh. The settlements of Shekhawati were known as thikanas. These thikanas began with construction of a fort and the immediate settlement, which was later expanded with the help of merchants from the Marwad region. The thikanas were majorly of a feudal nature and were not strongly bound to the parent kingdoms. The merchants of Shekhawati, free from external threats, flourished and amassed some good wealth.

 The fort of Laxmangarh, seen from the Char-Chowk Haveli


The Shekhawati Haveli

The havelis of the Shekhawati merchants have traditionally served a dual purpose - household and business. The havelis have been designed in such a manner as to keep the household affairs at an arms length from the business affairs. Yet it was possible for the household to secretly peep out onto the business side of things.

The door to the inner courtyard and one-way windows accessible from inside
Clicked at Singhania Haveli, Fatehpur

The courtyard of the Ladia Niwas, Mandawa

The haveli begins from the door. The main door is to be used for processions and special occasions only. A smaller door - barely 2ft x 4ft - embedded in the main door was preferred for daily affairs. The door opens to a small chamber for the guards and then the outer courtyard. This courtyard is surrounded by chambers for conducting business and is connected to an inner courtyard through a small room. The inner courtyard is the surrounded by the family residential chambers.

 The entrance to a haveli - images of dignitaries and use of 'Belgian' glass is common
Clicked at Singhania Haveli, Fatehpur

Stepping in to the Nadine Le Prince Haveli, Fatehpur - the entrance and the outer courtyard

The separating room between outer and inner courtyard had asymmetric doors
Clicked at Saraf Haveli, Fatehpur

The inner courtyard surrounded by family rooms
Clicked at Radhika Haveli, Mandawa

Some havelis had designated space for caravans, cargo and animals outside the main haveli. Almost all havelis follow this basic architectural premise.The last of the havelis were built in the 1920s. Many have been neglected to the elements, but a recent interest has seen an uptake i restoration and conservation. And of course, hotels.

Crumbling gates of the Char-Chowk Haveli in Laxmangarh


Artistic Influences and The Fresco

Almost all available surfaces of the havelis were covered with frescos. The fresco is a form of painting done on wet plaster; executed during the construction of the walls itself. The original coulours uses were all natural. The process in itself involves multiple layers of pigmentation work. The result is a set of paintings that have withstood the test of time.

Morni - a personal favourite; She's got style!
Clicked at the Saraf Haveli, Laxmangarh

 A hunting party and some portraits under the eaves
Clicked at Ladia Niwas, Mandawa

 A rather striking portrait of a lady
Clicked at the Murmuria Haveli, Mandawa
 A rather timeless floral pattern
Clicked at the Agarwal Haveli, Mandawa

The paintings in the havelis often portrayed religious themes - the ones with Krishna being extremely popular. Portrayals of royalty were common while some also featured western aristocracy. Some interesting portrayals transpose Indian mythology on western landscapes.

Krishna-leela, clicked at the Saraf Haveli, Fatehpur

Radha-Krishna with a very-western-looking palace in the background
Clicked at the Kedia Haveli, Fatehpur

 A foreign accountant with his books
Clicked at Saraf Haveli, Fatehpur

The paintings also served as a means of education - especially for the womenfolk whose role was traditionally restricted to the confines of the haveli - the portrayals of objects of scientific progress (planes, trains) are a testament to this.

 River and bridge - a western or Himalayan setting
Clicked at the Rathi Haveli, Laxmangarh

A car portrayed at the Agarwal Haveli in Mandawa

 Current affairs - Portraits of freedom fighters
Clicked at Murmuria Haveli, Mandawa

The limits to artistry were often the ones imposed by the skill of the artist as no subject was particularly taboo. Paintings with erotic leanings were restricted to the private chambers, but then with the advent of the nineteenth century pan-India moral code these depictions were steadily obfuscated. There is a revival of the erotica though, largely due to the western interest in the exotic.

This is rather awkward
Clicked at the Singhasan Haveli (hotel) in Mandawa 

 This portrayal of Krishna-leela would be labelled as risque by today's standards
Clicked at Harlalka Chhatri (Hotel), Mandawa


Getting In

At present there are nine villages of Shekhawati which are known for the artistic appeal of their havelis - Mandawa, Laxmangarh, Fatehpur, Nawalgarh, Ramgarh, Bissau, Chirawa, Dundlod and Mahansar. All these villages except Chirawa can be approached from Sikar in the south-east and Churu in the north-west. Chirawa is to be approached from Jhunjhunu. Local buses are the best mode of transport as the rail network has not quite developed yet.

 Public transport ... yep, its interssting!

Each of these places is small enough to be done on foot in you have sufficient time. However, rickshaws are readily available too.

 Lane of havelis, Mandawa

Parking-lot and havelis, Fathepur

 The Singhania Haveli and the empty road, Fatehpur

I personally visited Laxmangarh, Mandawa and Fatehpur (in this order) in the 48 hours I could spend in the region. The notable havelis in these villages are listed at the end of the post.

On the map


Touring The Havelis

As far as the havelies are concerned, Mandawa and Nawalgarh are known to be best places to see them. Here you'll also hear tales of movie-stars as they are quite popular shooting locations. Havelis of Fatehpur are known for their artistic excellence, but since most are currently occupied, access is usually denied. Don't let that deter you though - there's still quite a lot of art on the outer walls and in any case entry to the outer courtyard is seldom refused (though photography may be restricted). Needless to say - please be polite!

 The outer courtyard of the Goenka Haveli, Fatehpur
Only accessed by a polite smile

Most havelis though are no longer occupied by the owners and are left for the caretakers for maintenance. The owners usually visit once in a decade or so. The caretakers in these cases would expect some amount from you - remember that since nothing is official, you have complete rights to bargain.


Notable Havelis in Laxmangarh

1: Char Chowk Haveli: Unique four-in-one haveli located to the north of the Laxmangarh fort. The southern side is residential, but free access on request. The Northern side has famous paintings of Mughal erotica, but manned by a watchman who locks and leaves at sunset.

 Inside the Char-Chowk Haveli - southern side

2: Rathi Haveli: A double-entrance haveli located to the east of the clock-tower. Residents run a shop in the market and visit the haveli at sundown or for breaks. Supposed to have good paintings on the inside.

 Gilded portraits outside the Rathi Haveli

3: Saraf Haveli: This small haveli to the north of Rathi Haveli is completely residential and has been renovated to resemble a modern practical house. A few paintings remain out of which one is the very beautiful 'Morni'.


Notable Havelis in Mandawa

1: Ladia Niwas: A simple haveli owned and maintained by an enterprising gentleman who arranges props for the movies shot in Mandawa and has himself featured in minor roles. The haveli has floral motifs and an antique shop in the basement.

The gentleman who gives samosas runs the Ladia Niwas antique shop ...
... yep, scenes of PK have been shot in Mandawa too 

 Aroom here has a few interesting royal portrayals

2: Gulab Rai Ladia Haveli: Currently undergoing renovations, so access is restricted. Originally known for its censored erotic content.

3: Chokhani Double Haveli: A double haveli as the name suggests, but with a large, dusty courtyard. Artistically not very significant, though you will definitely be asked for some tip by the caretaker - they are a poor lot.

 The junction of the two havelis

4: Jhunjhunwala Haveli: This one is known for its gilded room, which unfortunately is not impressive enough to justify the entry ticket (printed) of Rs100.

 The golden gallery

 I found this more intriguing than the gold

5: Murmuria Haveli: The paintings in this haveli are comparatively modern, and feature a take on the freedom struggle - there's Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and the likes. Even Shivaji Maharaj is present here. This also looks over to the Goenka Haveli which has a train lining the wall that opens here.

 Some floral patterns are found too

6: Monica Haveli: This one has been restored and reflects the general themes. It is more popular for its terrace restaurant.

7: Radhika Haveli: Just up the road from Monica Haveli, this one has been painstakingly restored to a hotel. It really is a wonderful feeling to be inside this place.

8: Temple of Thakurji: The temple has scenes from the 1857 mutiny. The horrors are portrayed rather imaginatively. The temple attendants expect a tip.

 Scenes from the mutiny of 1857 on the temple walls - also cannon fodder

9: Harlalka Chattri: The chhatri is a mausoleum of sorts, but has been renovated to a hotel. Features imagery related to Krishna and also some erotica which is rather explicitly restored. Order a cup of tea here and sit on the terrace to enjoy the view and then the paintings too.

 This one at the Chhatri had me really wondering - what a ride!

 A Mughal court scene at the Chhatri

10: Others: These are the havelis that line the streets, but are lost without names, nor doors.

Daily life under the eaves

Simply majestic


Notable Havelis of Fatehpur

1: Nadine Le Prince Haveli: A haveli belonging to a certain Devra family has been retrofitted and painstakingly restored by French artist Nadine Le Prince. It also serves a hotel (rather pricey) and an art gallery. Guided tours of the haveli are offered by students who work in its restoration. Tickets are for INR 100. Locally known as 'angrezon ki haveli'.

 An idea of restoration at Nadine Le Prince Haveli
The central arch is pending restoration, while the flanks have been restored three months prior

A Mughal-Rajput style portrait in the haveli

2: Saraf Haveli: This one is located next to the Nadine Le Prince Haveli and is one of the oldest. The haveli has not been restored and gives an idea to how the Nadine Le Prince Haveli would have looked before it was restored. Architecturally, it is an exact replica of the former. Entry on tips only.

 Entrance to the Saraf Haveli

3: Singhania Haveli: This one is located 100m north of the Saraf Haveli. This is a double haveli out of which one is open for visitors. It has been restored, but entry is free.

 Krishna, some cavalry and Laxmi ... at the Singhania Haveli

4: Goenka Haveli: Located at the northern fringe of a large cluster of havelis, this one is externally almost nondescript. A step inside and you will be amazed by the beauty of the designs here and the way it combines modernity with its heritage. Entry on request and of-course restricted to the outer courtyard.

5: Kedia Haveli: Located close to the bus stand on the main road, this one has some unique paintings - especially of vimanas. Entry on (very nominal) tips.

 A vimana (celestial flying craft) and portrait of Krishna at the Kedia Haveli

6: Mungilal Devra Haveli: This one lines the street, almost like a double haveli. The gates were closed, but the facade is excellent.

7: Others: I use this term to indicate the lane that starts perpendicular opposite the Kedia Haveli and is literally lined with havelis on all sides. Most of these are closed, but the art still makes its way through.

Havelis that line the streets

Chowdhary Haveli - the board says

 A certain Chotia Haveli


© KP On The Go!


  1. Beautiful place and yes beautiful clicks !!

  2. Very informative and beautiful
    Thanks 👍
    I could not locate the last two mandawa havelis on maps.
    Can you help with the temple of Thakurji and the chhatri


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