The painted houses of Shekhawati



Shekhawati is a small administrative district in the East of Rajasthan with one of the most unusual art collections in the world. After the open air museum that is Jaisalmer, this whole area must be the closest thing to an open air gallery. Painted houses is one thing but how the two interesting aspects of the painted towns of Shekhawati are their history and what they depict.



The story of the murals begins with the fading of the camel routes through Rajasthan. Initially, the local rulers had been collecting taxes from poor farmers and imposed duties on merchandise crossing their territory. There were caravans from Arabian ports going to Delhi as well as East-West trade following the Silk Road. These taxes however were never quite sufficient to fill up their treasuries. With the British East India company, the newly built ports of Calcutta and Bombay and their low tariffs, camel traffic through Rajasthan was no longer viable. This should have been the end. Men from the Shekhawati area migrated and started business in the East, most prominently in Calcutta. These men were successful and they were followed by many others. By the end of the 19th century, men from the Shekhawati region were making enormous fortunes.



Initially, only the most visible parts of these houses in their home cities were decorated. Soon any surface could be painted : outer walls, inner courtyards, bedrooms. Competition settled in between the emigrant merchandisers and each would compete with its neighbour for the most richly decorated house. Decoration does not only include murals but also fine wood carving and, inside the rooms, the painting of wooden structures. Edifices grew larger and even temples and wells were covered with paintings. When famine struck in their arid province, the Calcutta would send even more money back home. "Their relief projects took the form of yet more palatial buildings decorated with yet more paintings."



The walls and ceilings in the Shekhawati region depict all aspects of life at the turn of the century. The obvious religious pictures and scenes of everyday life have changed little in India over more than 100 years. The interesting pictures are those that illustrate the modern machinery of the times such as aeroplanes, cars and telephones. Even illustrations of historical events, foreigners in India or important people of the time. The meeting of icons from the East and from the West at the turn of last century. 



We stayed in Shekhawati, an area of approximately for 3 days and visited the cities and villages of Fatehpur, Jhunjhunu, Bissau, Ramgarh, Nawalgarh, Mandawa and Manhansar ! Of the several hundred pictures we took we have selected only a few of the 3 places we were most impressed by : Nawalgarh comes in first, Bissau and Mandawa equal seconds ! These three had an incredible concentration of painted buildings that were varied and well preserved.



Train carriages pulled by horses (left), foreigners and their strange habits (centre), another strange foreigner (right)







Modern times !


The future ?
Most of these mansions and havelis are in everyday use. Some have turned into schools, homes or businesses. Time has taken its toll on the paintings as well as on the buildings and many need urgent restoration. Some erotic or religious paintings have been painted over or voluntarily damaged as times have changed. Several of the pictures taken above might have disappeared in less than a decade. 


We are doing well !

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