Rajasthan Feature

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Shekhawati, Rajasthan's Open-Air Art Gallery

Known as Rajasthan's open-air art gallery because of the frescoes painted on the walls of ornate havelis in the region, Shekhawati—about 160 km (100 miles) from Jaipur or 200 km (124 miles) from Delhi—makes an intriguing day trip. Influenced by the Persian, Jaipur, and Mughal schools of painting, Shekhawati's frescoes, many of which date back to the early 19th century, illustrate subjects ranging from mythological stories and local legends to hunting safaris and scenes of everyday life. You'll even find illustrated experiences with the British and cars or planes. The introduction of photography in 1840 gave Shekhawati's painters still more to work with.

The painters were called chiteras and belonged to the caste of kumhars (potters). Initially, they colored their masterpieces with vegetable pigments; after mixing these with lime water and treating the wall with three layers of a very fine clay, the chiteras painstakingly drew their designs on a last layer of filtered lime dust. Time was short, as the design had to be completed before the plaster dried, but the technique ensured that the images wouldn't fade.

The havelis themselves are quite spectacular, with courtyards, exquisitely latticed windows, intricate mirror work, vaulted ceilings, immense balconies, and ornate gateways and facades. They date from the British Raj, during which traditional overland trading routes to Central Asia, Europe, and China were slowly superseded by rail and sea routes. Only a handful of the havelis have survived—some have been restored by their owners, and a few have been converted into hotels. In Sikar, formerly the wealthiest trading center, look for the Biyani, Murarka, and Somani havelis. Lachhmangarh features the grand Char Chowk Haveli, particularly evocative of the prosperous Marwari lifestyle. In the village of Churi Ajitgarh, unusually erotic frescoes are painted behind doors and on bedroom ceilings in the Shiv Narain Nemani, Kothi Shiv Datt, and Rai Jagan Lal Tibrewal havelis. The frescoed temples of Jhunjhunu make for interesting comparisons: visit Laxmi Nath, Mertani Baori, Ajeet Sagar, and Qamrudin Shah Ki Dargah Fatehpur. Warrior-statesman Thakur Nawal Singh founded Nawalgarh in 1737, and the town has some of the best frescoes in Shekhawati, in the Aath, Anandilal Poddar, Jodhraj Patodia, and Chokhani havelis, as well as at the Roop Niwas Kothi hotel.

Logistics: Hire a guide from Delhi or Jaipur, making sure they know the Shekhawati area; get an early start to make the most of your time, and be prepared to spend a lot of time driving from site to site, since the havelis are quite spread out.

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