Often-overlooked by the hordes of tourists visiting India, the Shekhawati district in north eastern Rajasthan and its crumbling havelis, or mansions, are vivid reminders of the wealth and opulence of many of India’s billionaire merchants and traders who flocked to the area long ago.
History tells that from the 17th to 18th centuries, merchants were lured to the area by lower taxes and diverted ancient caravan routes, brought on when the Rajput chieftain Rao Shekha established his own kingdom in the region.
Many of theses merchants became enormously wealthy as a result, as trade was diverted away from traditional centers such as Jaipur and Bikaner.
The wealthier they became, the more they would try and outdo each other when it came to building their mansions, commissioning artists to adorn their already elaborate residences with intricate and colorful frescoes.
Artists were often sent to observe and recreate scenes from some of the world’s largest cities, and by the early 20th century, many depicted scenes of motor vehicles, steam-engines, gramophones, and even stranger motifs such as Hindu gods being chauffeur-driven in cars.
Accordingly, Shekhawati has been deemed the World’s largest open-air art gallery, containing the largest concentration of these magnificent frescoes in a single region, and as a consequence, 2 of the local districts within the region have joined forces to, thankfully, prevent further decline by prohibiting any construction or repair which may harm the heritage look of havelis.
By the early to mid 20th century, merchants began to follow the more lucrative opportunities springing up around the larger capitals of Bombay and Calcutta, and Shekhawati became all but forgotten and development ceased as the money moved elsewhere.
Interestingly, Forbes has cited that almost 25% of India’s 100 richest were from Shekhawati, including the likes of steel baron Laxmi Mittal, Kumar Birla of Aditya Birla Group, pharmaceutical billionaire Ajay Piramal and Nepal’s only billionaire, Binod K Chaudhary.
Luckily, many of these beautiful and elegant buildings are now being faithfully restored, as their cultural and architectural significance, along with tourist potential, becomes abundantly clear.
We can only hope that more Havelis are lovingly preserved like the example below, as an evocative reminder of this wonderful region’s historically rich heritage.
Photos (unless otherwise credited) by: Neelima Vallangi