EVERY MOONLIT night, in a small town in the middle of the desert in rajasthan, on the wide terraces of a beautiful stone palace, a thousand queens emerge. eyes sparkle, anklets jingle, skirts rustle amid peals of laughter as they swish and glide across the corridors of the palace playing hide and seek. As the night slowly fades, they fade away too, taking their music and magic with them. that’s what i saw and heard, sitting with my eyes closed on the lonely parapet of Khetri mahal at Jhunjhunu, the heart of the Shekhawati region.
In the triangle formed by Delhi- Jaipur-Bikaner, spreading across many districts of barren flat land lies a region dotted with abandoned havelis, ruins of forts,chhattris (constructions with an umbrella type dome) and baoris (step wells); the erstwhile garden of rao Shekha — Shekhawati. After the fall of the mughal empire, the descendants of Rao Shekha aligned themselves to the rajput rulers of Amer. Almost every haveli in this region has beautiful frescos, murals and paintings — both inside and outside — thus gaining the name “the open art gallery of rajasthan”. the art tells stories from various ages: Krishna combing radha’s tresses, British officers dining with indian merchants from the region, kings on horseback, love stories of Shiva and Parvati and so much more. the most unique feature of these paintings is that ever so often they mix up the times — european ladies attending the raasleela, becoming the gopis of Krishna, and women arriving in motor cars to Shiva and Parvati’s wedding.
I figured the best way to see this region was to draw a map and do a road trip. i was staying at the Piramal Haveli which is in Baggar, near the town of Jhunjhunu. every morning i would drive out and follow the dusty roads to one small town, nawalgarh or Parasurampura or mandawa, leisurely taking in the magic of Shekhawati. i would spend the entire day in that town — meeting caretakers of old houses who’d serve me thick milky tea and reverently open locked doors to show me a room where every inch of the wall is covered with rich art work; chatting with young boys who live in hostels set up in a deserted haveli with open courtyards and narrow ledges; following women who walk miles to draw water, to see a 1,000-year-old baori. A sense of nostalgia, heavy with memories, hangs over the entire region. you can hear whispers in every corner.
Shekhawati has a rich history of valour in the battlefield. The Indian Army has a large number of recruits from the region
Nearest airport: Jaipur
Nearest station: Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan
Hidden architectural gems emerge from amidst muddy bylanes and ugly concrete facades that have sprouted in front of these havelis that once were the houses of some of the richest merchants of the country.
You leave with a sense of enchantment and a faint shadow of sorrow. most of the paintings are fading, the havelis are crumbling. the owners of these havelis and their families no longer stay here. running huge businesses in mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, they have probably forgotten Shekhawati. And Shekhawati, a mausoleum of its past grandeur with its magic and its mystery, lies quite alone.