Havelis in Shekhawati


she-elephant-mural-1.jpg To end our travels in Rajasthan, we decided to visit the Shekhawati region which according to most guidebooks has been spared by mass tourism and allows travellers to get some insights into rural life in the region. This is a place where we can see colourful men and women alongside camels and the beautiful thorn scrub forest in the background.

Shekhawati is also a place where we can visit beautiful havelis. Havelis were the homes of rich and powerful people in the region such as traders, ministers and rajputs – each of them trying to outdo each other by adding new levels and sections to their lavish properties. The region flourished mostly in the 17th and 18th century when the Rajputs had full control of the region and could generate revenue from the trade route on the Silk Road.

A Haveli would typically include a couple of courtyards, surrounded by two or three levels of rooms. The lower levels would have large open rooms connecting to the courtyard where men would watch musicians and dancers or conduct business transactions. The upper levels would have bedrooms for the entire family. At the back, there would be the kitchens and rooms for the staff. As is often the case in India, some parts would be reserved for women – any men entering these sections would probably end up in serious trouble!

she-haveli-fresco.jpg Overall they are not unlike the riads that we visited in Morocco. They take decades to construct and would cost a fortune if they were to be built today, let alone to find workmanship for the finely sculpted and painted walls. Some architectural particularities are steps of different heights so that intruders would stumble and be caught before they could escape.

When the men were conducting business outside, women would stay inside and ask craftsmen to decorate the havelis with paintings inspired from the tales of their husband. As a result, the decorations depict Europeans doing trade with Indians, Rajputs at war, dancers and musicians, elephants and horses and even trains and aeroplanes! Some would be very fine while others would be quite naive.

As Europeans established alternative trade routes, the region started to decline. The rise of trade ports and the expansion of rail in India moved business opportunities elsewhere and the havelis were progressively abandoned and neglected. Nowadays, the remaining havelis are generally inhabited by a caretaker who will let tourists in for less than a dollar…