Shekhawati, an open museum in India

Façade of a school. Shekhawati region, India.

Façade of a school. Shekhawati region, India.

The semi-desert region of Shekhawati ( in the western state of Rajasthan) is a colourful fantasy having a fascination of its own. An open air museum famous for its plethora of painted “haveli” ( urban mansion). Shekhawati means “the land of Shekha’s clan”. It derives its name from the king Rao Shekha ( 1433-1488), a scion of the ruling family of Jaipur ( then the capital of a powerful kingdom, now the capital of Rajasthan), the Kachhwaha.

The first frescoes were painted at the beginning of the 18° century but most of them have been painted between 1750 and 1930 especially on the walls of “haveli”, but also on the walls of forts, temples and cenotaphs ( the golden age being between 1830 and 1900).That’s the way the rich merchants used to display their wealth. ( Indeed, Shekhawati was one of the routes used by the caravans carrying merchandises between Europe, Africa, the Middle-East  and India, China.) These mansions display a unique architectural style that evolved around the courtyards to ensure safety and privacy of the women folk ( When a man who didn’t belong to the family came in the “haveli”, all the women retired to their rooms) and protection from the heat of the long and harsh summers.

The “haveli”, painted in blue, maroon, yellow, green and indigo have beautiful wall paintings that adorn their walls. The 18° and 19° century wall paintings were largely based on the hindu mythological themes, depicting local legends, animals, portraits, hunting and wrestling scenes and a glimpse of everyday life. At the beginning of the 20° century, new motifs appeared. It was an outcome of the Raj’s influence upon the Indian culture. ( The Raj is the British rule in the Indian sub-continent from 1858 to 1947.) So the traditional Indian miniatures mingled with the naturalism of the western paintings to produce hybrid results. The mythological themes depicting hindu gods, heroes, epics and legends were substituted by European oleographs, lithographs and photographs. Trains, cars, balloons, telephones, gramophones, English men in hunting attires and portraits of the haveli owners were painted all over the walls.

Everything stopped with the development of the railways. Caravans became outdated. So, rich merchant families shifted to Calcutta and Bombay, the commercial centres of India. Now, the “haveli” ( except a few) are neglected by their owners who seldom come back to Shekhawati but refuse to sell their property. That’s where their roots are…and that’s the region where Rani Sati, the tutelary divinity of these businessmen has her main temple.

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