The havelis of Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region have a charm and distinction that the discerning traveller spots immediately. The region comprises the districts of Jhunjhunu, Sikar, Churu and Nagaur in the north of the state and is an abiding reminder of the migrations that led to the trade and business networks that this small community formed across the subcontinent.

In the years between 1830 and 1870, Marwari merchants constructed these grand havelis in their home towns and villages. Their hallmark was an opulence that came from their extraordinary commercial success. These merchants traded in silk, opium, cotton and other commodities besides setting up banks and clearing houses in the subcontinent and beyond. These grand edifices were richly decorated inside and outside with painted murals and served as a mark of their achievements, like the mansions of Chettiar traders in Tamil Nadu or the palaces of Venice, also built on commerce. The striking architecture, vibrant and colourful interiors and massive parapets of the havelis reflect the wealth and prosperity of those Marwari merchants.

As a visual artist the singular feature of these havelis that attracts me is the frescoes and murals that speak eloquently of the skill and aesthetic sense of the artisans who had crafted them with meticulous precision and intensity.

Structurally, the Shekhawati havelis share a common layout. Usually built above road level, they might feature a basement. They have at least two floors—a ground and first floor. The first floor or higher floor juts out of the base, creating a ‘chajja’ or balcony. The terrace could be adjoining rooms on the first floor or could be above these as a separate floor.

The architectural styles are a mix of Mughal and Rajasthani with their ornate doors, paintings and other elements like motifs and arches. The British presence can be felt in the paintings of soldiers carrying muskets and women walking with umbrellas or enjoying a drink.

With the architecture, themes and motifs reflecting the cultural sensibilities as well as aspirations of their owners, Shekhawati havelis were designed to impress. In the words of Ilay Cooper, author of The Painted Towns of Shekhawati, ‘the haveli was to the merchant what the fort was to the Rajput—his home, his status, his headquarters and his defence.’

Some of these architectural marvels are being chipped away by the ravages of time as families abandon them or cannot afford the upkeep. The sense of desolation that permeates an abandoned haveli is all-pervading and overwhelming. Increasingly, it seems as if time is catching up with these dwellings, some of which are over 200 years old. They are threatened with obsolescence and the time might not be not far off when they vanish, leaving only memories handed down by the families whose forefathers inhabited them.

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Both the outer facade and the inner courtyards of these mansions were painted with ornate frescos and murals. This is the outer courtyard of the Seth Anandiram Poddar haveli at Nawalgarh, called “baithak” where businessmen used to hold meetings.
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The imposing Mahavir Prasad Goenka haveli at Fatehpur. Marwari traders built their havelis in the towns of Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region in a mix of Mughal and Hindu architecture.
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The elephant had special significance in Rajasthani business households. It signified prosperity. So elephant statues and frescos were common in places like the Nadine le Prince haveli, Fatehpur.
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The havelis are notable for geometrical symmetry in architecture. The angles were so constructed that each part of the house received equal amounts of sunlight, as at Radhika haveli, Mandawa.
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Some of the houses are crumbling to dust. Goenka haveli, Mandawa.
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This is the inner courtyard, or women’s preserve, of Nadine le Prince haveli at Fatehpur. The outer courtyard is for men. 
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Many of these palatial mansions today have a single occupant, often a distant relative of the owners, lone custodian of a forgotten past. Chokhani haveli, Mandawa.
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The Morarka haveli in Nawalgarh is the repository of a rich tradition of art, heritage and culture.
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The vegetable dyes used in the paintings of Shekhawati havelis have stood the test of time. This example is from Gulab Rai Ladia haveli, Mandawa.
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For historians and anthropologists, the havelis are open air art galleries where ancient folk art styles are preserved in the paintings of mythological characters and events. The Mohan Lal Saraf  haveli in Mandawa provides this example.
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Ancient folk customs and rituals are depicted in the frescoes for the eye that sees. The ceiling of the Modi haveli in Jhunjhunu shows the Raas festival, popular in northern and western India.
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While many of the havelis are in excellent condition, some contain only scarred remnants of a glorious past. Gulab Rai Ladia haveli, Mandawa.