If you're an art lover, or even someone who's into architecture and history, the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan is well worth including on your itinerary. Located in the triangle of Delhi, Jaipur and Bikaner, many people overlook it in favor of more popular destinations in Rajasthan. However, this unique region is often referred to as the world's largest open air art gallery.
The old havelis (mansions), with walls adorned with intricate painted frescoes, are the main attraction in the Shekhawati region. The region's background is fascinating. It was established in the 18th century along a caravan trade route, and ruled by the Shekhawat Rajputs. The region was a prosperous one, with over 100 villages, and 50 forts and palaces.
Over the next century, many people from the neighboring Marwar community migrated to Shekhawati and made it their home. These rich business people commissioned artists to paint frescoes on their homes as a sign of opulence. Painted havelis cropped up all over the desert landscape. The art was kept alive for nearly 300 years. However, eventually, more and more families settled elsewhere. These days many homes are abandoned, locked up, and neglected.
How to Get There
The Shekhawati region is best approached from Jaipur or Bikaner, in Rajasthan, or Delhi. If you want to take the train from Delhi, Indian Railways trains depart from Delhi Sarai Rohilla station and go via Churu (on the outskirts of the region) to Bikaner or Jodhpur. Travel time is approximately 4.5 hours. There are more frequent departures from Jaipur, and they conveniently stop at Nawalgarh. Travel time is approximately 3.5 hours. The nearest airport is in Jaipur, around 150 kilometers (93 miles) away.
Hiring a car and driver is recommended and facilitates easy touring of the region. From Jaipur, V Care Tours and Travel provide top quality car and driver services. Their cars are new and clean, and the very courteous drivers are uniformed and English speaking. If you don't have a car, you can explore by everything from horseback to bus.
For an in-depth experience of the Shekhawati region, this Straight from the Art trip from Breakaway is recommended, departing from either Delhi or Jaipur.
When to Go
The main tourist season extends from October until March, when the weather is the coolest and driest. If you go in early February, you'll be able to catch the annual Shekhawati Festival that takes place in Nawalgarh. This festival is dedicated to showcasing the heritage of the region. Highlights include a handicrafts market, organic food court, cultural performances, and local games. Winter nights are cold though, so do pack warm clothing!
Best Places to See Shekhawati's Havelis
As the Shekhawati region is spread out over around 100 kilometers (62 miles), it's a good idea to choose a base for yourself, keeping in mind that the roads from north to south are in much better condition than the roads from east to west. You'll most likely find that a few days in the region are enough, as to be honest, the painted havelis are similar and some people find that viewing one after another becomes monotonous. If you feel like relaxing though, Shekhawati is a peaceful region for some time out.
Nawalgargh and Mandawa are two recommended bases. Mandawa is arguably the best choice, as it's centrally located for exploring the region and is popular with travelers.
- Nawalgarh: Nawalgarh is a vibrant town with a great blend of accommodation options (which are absent in smaller towns and villages) and painted havelis, which number in the hundreds. The finest frescoes can be found here. Some of the most attractive havelis are the Aath (eight) Haveli complex, Jodhraj Patodia Haveli, Bansidhar Bhagat Haveli, and Chokhani Haveli. Do check out the town's colorful bazaar and fort too. The Morarka Haveli Museum is a landmark and depicts the various motifs prevalent in the frescoes. The Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum, built in the 1920s on the eastern side of town, also has vibrant murals. If you want to get around the Shekhawati region on horseback, Nawalgargh is the place to start from.
- Mandawa: The small market town of Mandawa has more of a rural Rajasthani village feel and dozens of decorated Shekhawati havelis. However, some of them are sadly dilapidated. The town is dominated by an imposing fort, turned into a hotel. For a panoramic view over the town, head up to the terrace of the Mandawa Castle. There are plenty of attractive accommodation options in Mandawa.
Other Places Worth Exploring
- Jhunjhunu: The Old Capital and largest town in the region. Located in the north, it has a number of painted havelis, as well as an old palace and numerous temples. However, it lacks the charm of the smaller villages.
- Fatehpur: Fatehpur, founded in the mid 15th century and taken over by Shekhawati Rajputs in the 18th century, has many painted havelis. Unfortunately, again, many haven't been well maintained. Do have a look at the frescoes on the walls of the Devra and Singhania Havelis, which combine Indian and Western styles. Surprisingly, the mirror work at the entrance has Japanese tiles with images of Mount Fuji. The Nadine le Prince Haveli is also a major point of interest. This haveli was bought and restored by a French artist, and was recently converted to a boutique hotel. There are various art galleries inside. You can have a look around by paying an entry fee is 500 rupees, which covers the cost of the guided tour you'll be given by a French student.
- Ramgargh: This was once one of Shekhawati's wealthiest towns. The temples are particularly interesting and provide variation from the havelis.
- Mahansar: The lovely small town of Mahansar was settled by the prosperous Podder family who dealt in opium and chintz. The town flourished until one of the Podders lost his livelihood when ships carrying opium sunk. The two main attractions are the Mahansar Fort (there's a heritage hotel there where you can have lunch) and the Sone ki Dukan (Golden Shop) with its gold painted murals that tell the stories of Hindu mythology.
- Dunlod: To the south of Mandawa, towards Nawalgarh, Dunlod has a small number of havelis with impressive murals as well as a fort at its center.
- Mukundgarh: This town is a renowned craft center. In addition, you'll find one of the biggest havelis in the region there, as well as a fort.
If you base yourself in Mandawa, you can visit the surrounding towns in circuits. For example:
- Day One: Mandawa-Fatehpur-Ramgargh-Mahansar-Mandawa.
- Day Two: Mandawa-Mukundgarh-Dunlod-Nawalgarh-Mandawa.
Shekhawati Rajasthan Map
To enable you to plan your travels, this map shows most of the major towns in the Shekhawati region with Mandawa as the base. Do note that not all roads are drawn on the map.
Where to Stay in Shekhawati
One of the really appealing things about visiting the Shekhawati region is that you can actually stay in some of the beautiful old havelis and completely be transported back to the bygone era.
Budget travelers will be happy because in many cases, cheap is actually best value for money. Common complaints at the more expensive hotels include bad service, unclean rooms with inconsistent standards, and poor maintenance.
Best Hotels in Nawalgarh
- Roop Niwas Kothi (Palace) -- this grand country house located around one kilometer north of the fort was once the residence of the royal family. It received a full makeover in 1928, which added contemporary flare and architecture, and opened for guests in 1981. The hotel has a stable with around 60 horses, which you can take out riding. Expect to pay 5,000 rupees upwards for a double, per night.
- Apani Dhani Eco-Lodge -- something completely different, this hotel offers accommodations in attractively constructed mud huts surrounded by fields away from the city center. Plenty of activities are provided to help guests discover daily life and traditions of rural India. Rates start from around 1,500 rupees per night. Do be aware that there are a number of rules to be followed, such as no alcohol.
- Rajesh Jangid Tourist Pension -- guests rave about this sweet but simple place, which has the same owners as Apani Dhani. It stands out for its organic ingredients sourced from local farms, recycling, and cultural workshops lead by local artists. The eight rooms are located in a Brahmin home, so there's no meat or alcohol allowed. Rates start from about 1,000 rupees per night for a double.
- Shekhawati Guest House -- is an eco-friendly and homely guesthouse located on an organic farm outside the town. Rates range from 800 rupees per night for a standard double room up to 1,500 rupees a night for an air conditioned cottage. The home cooked food served in the garden restaurant is delicious.
Best hotels in Mandawa
- Vivaana Culture Hotel -- if you feel like splurging, then this is the hotel for you. This gorgeous property is a meticulously restored 19th century haveli located 10 kilometers from Mandawa. Rates start from about 6,500 rupees per night for a double, with breakfast included.
- Castle Mandawa -- a 240 year old fortress that's been converted into a hotel with a spacious courtyard, lofty domes, turrets, and cannons. It's a huge, rambling place that you can spend an afternoon exploring. However, this hotel is special for its atmosphere and setting, not for the rooms. Rates start from 7,500 rupees per night for a double.
- Mandawa Haveli -- this stunning decorated haveli has a very handy main street location. It's been lovingly restored and the walls of the inner courtyard are adorned with spectacular detailed frescoes with a Krishna theme. Staff are helpful and service is good. The hotel also offers a range of activities including camel cart rides. Rates start from 2,750 rupees per night for a double room. The Gopesh Suite, at 5,550 rupees a night is a treat, with arches, window seats, and countless windows overlooking the town. It also has a private courtyard.
- Hotel Shekhawati -- the best budget option at Mandawa. It has gorgeous painted frescoes in its spacious rooms, and very pleasant staff. Room rates start at a reasonable 1,000 rupees per night.
- Pawaana Haveli -- has a superb location in the heart of town with an organic rooftop restaurant overlooking Mandawa Castle and Raghunath Temple. There are 11 uniquely decorated and newly renovated rooms with frescoes to choose from, with rates starting from about 2,000 rupees per night (although some of the cheaper rooms don't have windows). Do book well in advance as this hotel fills up fast!
- Hotel Chobdar Haveli -- another newly and beautifully done up boutique hotel, the Chobdar Haveli has just five suites for guests, all individually themed in different colors. Room rates start from 3,500 rupees for double, per night.