Travel to Shekhawati on your Rajasthan, India Tours, to explore the most ancient and revered Shekhawati travel attractions of painted forts, chhatris (cenotaphs), temples and havelis (mansions) and also know the entire spectrum of Shekhawati Rajasthan. Stay in Rajasthan Heritage Hotels during your travel vacations in Shekhawati India.

India - Rajasthan - Shekhawati Region

Shekhawati Region

¤ The Picturesque Beauty of Shekhawati Region

Travel to Sekhawati Haveli in Sekhawati Rajasthan Shekhawati is simply beautiful. Every street, house and wall has the stamp of an artist's imagination in paint. Wherever you cast an eye, frescoes smile back. The plethora of these murals comes rather as a surprise in a land which is traditionally known as an 'impoverished corner of an arid land'. But then the whole of Rajasthan, which is partly sandy and partly rugged and blessed only in a few places with a lake or a patch of green, is an exercise in colour. Colour which is the everyday life of the people. Colour which the people live in to counter that of the semi-arid scrub. Colour that people give to their surroundings… You just have to visit Shekhawati to believe what a riot colour and imagination can create together, the Shekhawati which is Rajasthan's very own Open Air Art Gallery.

¤ Shekhawati Lists on Tourist Itinerary

In spite of being this exotic visual treat, Shekhawati, for some strange reason, did not figure in the tourist itinerary until the early 80s. Important guide books like Eustace Reyolds-Ball’s The Tourist’s India (1907) and Nagel’s more ambitious India: Encyclopaedia-Guide (1977) conveniently left out this paradise of paintings. It was only after Francis Wacziarg’s and Aman Nath’s discovery that Shekhawati began to be taken seriously. Wacziarg is a French businessman and an Indophile, while his friend Aman Nath a writer and graphic designer. In their peregrinations through the country, the two young men had stumbled upon the Shekhawati frescoes and decided to expose them in a photographic essay, The Painted Walls of Shekhawati (1982). It was only after that Shekhawati began getting the attention it so much deserves.

¤ Formation of The Region

Shekhawati is a blanket name to describe the three districts of Churu, Jhunjhunu and Sikar, the mural rich areas. The name derives from Rao Shekha, a member of the Kachhawaha family of Rajputs who ruled Jaipur for centuries. In the 15th century, Shekha conquered a considerable territory in this northeastern part of Rajasthan. This, retained and extended by his heirs, the Shekhawats, came to be known as Shekhawati, literally the 'Garden of Shekha'. The region came under the purview of the larger Jaipur State. The allegiance, however, was not always a peaceful arrangement, and the later generations fought against their cousins to break away.

¤ Main Attractions

Shekhawati has the greatest concentration of painted forts, chhatris (cenotaphs), temples and havelis (mansions) in the country. In fact, this is also the largest collection of murals in the whole world. The earlier frescoes in this colourful fantasy world were financed by the Shekhawat Rajputs and later the wealthy business class of the Marwar region – the marwaris – patronized the art. Apart from adding vitality to the flat landscape, the frescoes are an interesting documentation of the history of the region. Some of the flourishing towns were Sikar, Ramgarh, Fatehpur, Lachhmangarh, Churu, Mandawa, Jhunjhunu, Nawalgarh and others. Although the idea of frescoes might have been imported from the splendid Fort-Palace of Amber, which was in turn influenced by those of the Mughal courts, it reached a completely new form in the hands of the artists of Shekhawati, where the west fuses with the east and mythology is at peace with cars, aeroplanes and balloons.

After the reign of Rajputs, came the British. The latter patronized their own kind of trade which required the marwaris to rush to fresh pastures like Calcutta and Bombay. Thus the beautiful Shekhawati towns gradually came to be abandoned. It is only in the last two decades that the Shekhawati region acquired a fillip, with its art being the central focus. and the children of the house of Shekha are now back, opening their dusty family castles and turning them into hotels.

¤ History

ShekhawatiIn the 16th-17th centuries, Rajasthan stood divided into five large and several smaller kingdoms. The five were Amber (Jaipur), Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur (Marwar) and Udaipur (Mewar). The first two kingdoms shared the region which was destined to become so rich in murals. The founder of this beauteous Shekhawati was the Rajput, Rao Shekha, a descendent of the illustrious Kachhawaha family who held Amber-Jaipur for centuries. The chieftains of Shekhawati were the descendants of Baloji, the third son of Raja Udaikaran, who succeeded to the throne of Amber in 1389.

¤ The Founder Is Born

The story of Shekha’s birth is rather interesting. Mokul Singh was a 15th century chieftain in the Amber territory who was much troubled because he had no son. In those days, it was almost sinful for a ruler to die without an heir, for who would sit on the throne after his death? So having heard a lot about the miraculous powers of the Muslim saint Sheikh Burhan, Mokul and his wife decided to pay the man a visit. James Tod, the noted historian, records the event in his Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan: "The Shekh in one of his peregrinations had reached the confines of Amrutsir [Amritsar], and was passing over an extensive meadow, in which was Mokulji. The Mangta [mendicant] approached him with the usual salutation, "Have you anything for me?" "Whatever you please to have, Babaji [sire]," was the courteous reply. The request was limited to a draught of milk, and if our faith were equal to the Shekhawut’s, we should believe that Shekh Boorhan drew a copious stream from the exhausted udder of female buffalo. This was sufficient to convince the old chief that the Shekh could work other miracles; and he prayed that, through his means, he might no longer be childless."
and true enough, with the blessings of the Sheikh, a son was born to the couple. Mokul christened his boy Shekha, who was to become the founder of Shekhawati or the ‘Garden of Shekha’, an important portion of the surface of Rajputana.

Rao Shekha (ruled 1433-88) was the chieftain of Amarsar in Amber when he refused to pay tribute to the Kachhawaha rulers. Thus breaking away, he laid his garden in 1471 and proclaimed sovereignty. In the following years Shekhawati comprised of a disparate sequence of small fiefdoms locally known as thikanas, the notable of which were Sikar, Nawalgarh, Dunlod, Mandawa, Chirawa, Parsurampura and Khetri. However, the chieftains of Shekhawati retained a nominal loyalty to the Amber (Jaipur) State, who in turn honoured them with hereditary titles. It was more like they were in alliance with, rather than subservient to the Amber throne. and it was probably due to this exposure to the beautiful courts of Amber-Jaipur that Shekhawati’s forts and havelis (mansions) came to be decorated gloriously with murals. Anyway, the Shekhawati-Amber power equation is best expressed in James Tod’s words: "The history of the Shekhawut confederation, which springing from the redundant feodality of Amber, through the influence of age and circumstances, has attained a power and consideration almost equalling that of the parent state; and although it posses neither written laws, a permanent congress, nor any visible or recognized head, subsists by a sense of common interest."

¤ The Expensions of The Shekhawati Thakurs.

Till the end of the 17th century, Shekhawati was restricted to the east of the Aravalli Range which cuts through the present district of Sikar and forms an eastern border to Jhunjhunu. To the west of the Aravallis lay the desert state of Bikaner, Churu being subservient to it. As the Mughal Empire fell into decline after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the descendants of Rao Shekha, who had already spread themselves in the east of the Aravallis, began to encroach the west and north through the Udaipurwati and Sikar gaps in the hills.

Before the Shekhawat Rajputs could properly establish their fiefdoms on a large scale, the land had to be wrested from the ruling Muslim nawabs (governors). The latter had secured their estates with the help of the Delhi sultans who were in the country until 1526 when Babur came and routed them (see History of Delhi for more). Anyway, the Shekhawats were there to announce their arrival on the scene. In 1730 Jhunjhunu was seized by Sardul Singh (ruled 1730-52) in a bloodless coup, when the ruling nawab, Rohella Khan, died on a journey to Delhi. Sardul was a diwan (minister) in the latter’s court and getting the reins of Jhunjhunu was thus easy. The following year he allied with Sheo Singh (ruled from 1721), the powerful ruler of Sikar and evicted the nawab of Fatehpur, Sardar Khan. Rohella and Sardar, descendents of one Kaim Khan and therefore called Kaimkhanis, were the most powerful of the nawabs of the region. With their defeat, important portions of territory thus got added to Shekhawati. By 1732, these two Shekhawati thakurs (chieftains), Sardul Singh and Sheo Singh, had carved a big niche for themselves. They grew very powerful and many of the other thakurs looked up to them for help.

Shekhawati was flourishing, and the signs were obvious. The wealthy thakurs got their forts and palaces covered with murals. But they financed only a small portion of the murals, and in the 19th century they were overshadowed by the merchants’.

In the meantime, Jai Singh II (ruled 1699-1744) of Amber founded his new capital, Jaipur. The powerful diplomat that he was, he soon imposed his sovereignty over this expanded Shekhawati, making the latter a tributary. Then the whole of this new region became the administrative nizamat of Shekhawati under the government of Amber State. It was quite an achievement for Jai, for out of the total area of the Dhundar or Jaipur confederation, about a third was Shekhawati.

¤ Jhunjhunu Takes Centrestage

Shekhawati ChhatrisJhunjhunu, lorded over by Sardul Singh, was richest and the most happening thikana of the painted region. It served as the capital of the new and extended Shekhawati. After Sardul’s death in 1752, the estate was divided equally among his five sons – Zorawar Singh, Kishan Singh, Akhey Singh, Nawal Singh and Keshri Singh. Jhunjhunu thus came to be known as the Panchpana – the five estates. But it did not stay so for long, because Akhey died without leaving an heir. His share was to be redistributed among the other four. Sardul had made for himself quite a big empire, for even at the end of it all, the sons got big chunks and ruled autonomously. Zorawar inherited Taen, Gangiyasar and Malsisar; Kishan got Khetri and Alsisar; Nawal founded Nawalgarh and Mandawa; and Keshri Bissau and Dunlod. The thakurs of every village in the region covered by the Panchpana were all descended from one or other of these men.

In course of time, the cake that Jhunjhunu was got cut further. The most prosperous region remained Mandawa and Nawalgarh, because of the excellent relations they shared between them. On the other extreme was Bissau, which in the hands of Keshri’s grandson, Shyam Singh, dashed down to economic doom.

¤ Turbulent Times

The parent state of Jaipur suffered several major invasions during the latter half of the 18th century. Naturally this affected Shekhawati, too, directly or indirectly. In 1767, the Jat Maharaja of Bharatpur, as an act of bravado, crossed the land east of the hills, only to be defeated in the hands of the Jaipur army in the Battle of Maonda. But the Jats managed to inflict heavy losses on the Jaipur nobility. In 1775, the Rao of Rewari (of Haryana) attacked Jaipur, but was repulsed. The mighty Marathas invaded several times, most notably in 1792, when they plundered Udaipurwati and Singhana. Next the Marathas came attacking Fatehpur with an Irish freebooter, George Thomas, in 1799. The Maharaja of Jaipur quickly came to the rescue, but lost to the enemies. However, the forces from Jaipur did manage to force Thomas to call off the siege and retreat to Haryana.

Such strife gave employment to a large number of mercenary troops, who for the most part of their lives, thrived on banditry. A good many foreign freebooters also found their way into Rajasthan, who are duly depicted on the painted walls of Shekhawati, wearing hats and bearing muskets. It was also around this time that Thakur Shyam Singh of Bissau took to banditry, and often raided the regions across the border into Bikaner. Shyam even extracted huge sums of money from the merchants, which often led to their emigration from the town.

¤ Shekhawati- grooming up for the reign of the British

By the early 19th century, life was becoming increasingly difficult for the princes of Rajasthan. Lack of funds weakened the authority of the rajas, which encouraged individual chieftains to ignore their decrees. Shekhawati, however, had its successful cross-desert caravan trade going on, thanks to the industrious marwaris of the region. But over all, the time was ripe for the British. The efficacy of the European infantry had long been recognized, and now the demand for a central authority was felt more than ever. The whole of India was grooming up for the reign of the British and Shekhawati was no exception.

In 1808, Mountstuart Elphinstone, who later became known as one of British India’s greatest administrators, led an embassy through Shekhawati and Churu on his way to Afghanistan. When he reached Bikaner, the raja there, Surat Singh, tried to present him with the keys to the fort. Hard pressed by enemies from all sides, Surat saw in the British the ultimate saviour. But Elphinstone politely refused, only to sign a treaty in 1818. This was the result of Bikaner’s series of conflicts with Churu. The thakur of Churu, Sheo singh (not to be confused with the Sheo Singh of Sikar who lived about a century back), was acting with increasing independence. He was the senior most thakur in the Bikaner State, and Surat was scared that his sector of the kingdom might be lost. Anyway, the new bond that was singed with the British pledged "perpetual friendship, alliance and unity of interests." This naturally amounted to accepting British paramountcy in the long run. In other places, bonds were signed against marauding parties like the Pindaris and Pathans. Jaipur was also among those to shake hands with the British. The raja’s treasury was almost empty and his thakurs rebellious.

Back home in Shekhawati, only Sikar and Khetri had managed to keep themselves intact because the rulers didn’t have too many heirs who would break up the estate into tiny bits! Elsewhere the land had been divided into many, many small holdings. Anarchy reigned. A century after Sardul had taken Jhunjhunu, there were no fewer than 169 surviving male heirs to his sons! and of these, 102 owed their descent to Zorawar Singh alone! This, combined with rampant activities of dacoits, made Shekhawati quite a mess. Complaints came in bagfuls, both from neighbouring Bikaner and within and without Shekhawati. It was the handiwork of a band of robbers from Shyam Singh’s Bissau which was the last straw. The British came and based their Shekhawati Brigade in Jhunjhunu in the 1830s. The brigade was funded by the rulers of Jaipur and Bikaner as well as by some of the local thakurs. It was a small body of local cavalry under the command of Major Forster. Forster became quite a popular figure with the people of Jhunjhunu.

¤ A Quick End

In the 1830s and 40s, the Shekhawati Brigade force was actively doing its duty. The worst offenders among the thakurs were captured and their forts destroyed. Peace returned. Shekhawati was reverted to the control of the Maharaja of Jaipur, and it continued uninterrupted till the Uprising of 1857, for which some of the thakurs even sent troops to support the British. What happened after that, of course, is well known. The British became the absolute lords of India.

But the biggest loser in the whole game was Rajasthan’s caravan trade. of course, the hardworking marwaris shifted their business to the colonial cities of the country.

¤ Trade Routes Open

ShekhawatiThis semi-desert area of Shekhawati covering about 30,000 square kilometers lies in the triangular mass of land between Delhi, Jaipur and Bikaner. The Aravalli Range divides the area into two unequal halves wherein the eastern fringes are comparatively well watered and fertile while the larger western bit is a classic desert region with rolling, drifting dunes interspersed with poor millet fields and grazing grounds. How then did the unpromising region become dotted with these extravagant havelis?

As the Mughal power declined and the British rose in the 18th century, the first fine paintings in Shekhawati appeared. It was around this time that the nawabs (governors in the Mughal Empire) of Fatehpur and Jhunjhunu had been evicted and the two Shekhawat chieftains Sardul Singh and his cousin Sheo Singh spread themselves over the place. But they were not completely autonomous, for they had to acknowledge the supremacy of the larger Jaipur State. However, they could take minor internal decisions at least – for example, summon muralists to decorate their forts and palaces with figurative paintings.

In the turbulent 18th century, the princely states found it rather difficult to sustain themselves, and were looking out for new methods of filling their treasury. For the Shekhawat chieftains there were two means of making money. The first was to extract more and more revenue from the poor farmers who had an ever poorer harvest. and second, through trade. Camel-borne trade was an important feature of Rajasthan's economy, and fortunately, Shekhawati was on the caravan route from the Gujarat ports and from central India to Delhi. Here the Shekhawati chieftains acted cleverly. The neighbouring rajas of Jaipur and Bikaner increased their trade taxes heavily, while Shekhawati did not. This made Shekhawati a narrow lane, albeit a long detour, for trading caravans to pass by by paying a lesser amount of tax.

¤ A Period of Prosperity

From the turn of the 19th century till about 1822, a vast amount of trade was diverted through Shekhawati and more and more merchants got attracted into the region. This was the meeting point of the camel caravans from the Middle East, China and India. Trade in opium, cotton and spices flourished. The merchant community that grew then is still a prominent class in the Indian society today – the marwaris. The huge sums of money that they dished out was to pay for the sheer volume of artistic expression that adorns the walls of Shekhawati. These marwaris and banias (traders by profession, not necessarily belonging to any particular region) built palatial havelis for themselves and memorials for their ancestors. For, the haveli was to a bania what the fort was to a Rajput. These havelis were like fortified houses which walled in the lives of the women, who spent most of their days in the zenana (women's apartments) built around an inner courtyard. The men conducted their business on the white cotton mattresses of their sitting rooms. The marwaris also financed many temples, gardens, baolis (step wells) and dharamshalas (caravansaries) for the people. It was obvious that Shekhawati was growing prosperous, thanks to the industrious trading classes. But greater wealth was yet to flow into Shekhawati.

The flourishing cross-desert commerce wilted away as the British political set up grew stronger. More and more stress was being laid on the ports of Bombay and Calcutta instead, to establish monopolies for the East India Company. By the 1820s and 30s, it became more than clear that the future of trading did not lie in the sands of Rajasthan. But the marwaris of Shekhawati would not be so easily put down. Leaving their native land, the menfolk migrated all the way to the upcoming eastern colonial capital to put their trading genius to good use. Here too, they flourished which inspired more of their brethren to join them in an alien land. and by the end of the 19th century, the marwaris had carved a pretty big niche for themselves in the economic sphere in Calcutta. Similarly, they took position in Bombay, Surat and Hyderabad too.

Nothing in the history of India compares with the successful migration of the Shekhawati merchants. According to an American sociologist "it is estimated that more than half the assets in the modern sector of the Indian economy are controlled by the trading castes originating in the northern half of Rajasthan". and of these, a majority originates in just a dozen little towns of Shekhawati.

So how did that help the murals of Shekhawati? Well, the NRRs (Non Resident Rajasthanis) poured in the dough for it, of course. They simply opened the floodgates to a torrent of murals. This served two purposes for them. First, they were proud to outdo the contribution of the Shekhawat Rajput chieftains, and secondly, it eased their homesick hearts greatly to think that their hard-earned money was being used to beautify dear old homeland. It was as if their triumph was being written all over the walls.

¤ Postscript

Little was painted after the 1940s. The merchants had taken their families with them to their adopted cities.

¤ Murals That Make the Land

Although it was the Mughal kings who made murals fashionable, their religious indictments forbade them from having man or animal as motif; they were allowed only floral and abstract designs. To an extent this posed as an obstacle, and mural painting in Shekhawati boomed only after Mughal power declined. For the early corpus, the artists depended heavily on traditional Indian subjects. This consisted of scenes from mythology, especially of Krishna, local legends, animals and plants, daily lives of men and women, towns and the Shekhawati rulers.

The fresco painters were called chiteras, who belonged to the caste of kumhars (potters). They were also called chejaras (masons) since they worked both as painters and builders. The paintings were depicted in bright two-dimensional paintings. The chiteras used only natural colours for their art, like kajal (lamp black) for black, safeda (lime) for white, neel (indigo) for blue, geru (red stone powder) for red, kesar (saffron) for orange, pevri (yellow clay) for yellow ochre and so on. Mixed in limewater and beaten into plaster, they remained vibrant for almost as long as the building lasted.

But things changed with the coming of the British with whom came their idiom. The paintings began to be a mix and match of everything. At best, the murals were a fine hash of the vast repertoire of existing motifs and the 'modern' ones brought in by the British. and with the combination of the great wealth of the indulgent marwaris, readily accessible lithographs and receptive painters, Shekhawati was groomed into what it is.

So by the 20th century, the mural scene had changed dramatically. The British element and the impact of technology were clearly discernable. Muralists found nothing too trivial to draw, be it motor cars, trains, gramophones or a foreigner in a hat! The painters took a delight in drawing practically every subject under the sun. A new technique of painting also surfaced – oleography. By this, an oil mural was produced by a series of impressions of stone or metal plates (the lithographic process), the impression from each plate being in a different colour. The finished product resembled that of an oil painting on canvas. Photography, which popped its head in India in 1840 also played a major role, and painters drew freely from this medium too. They picked up the three-dimensional aspect too by the use of shadow. Thus looking around him everywhere, the artist saw inspiration for the pictures he would paint. In the case of colours too, natural dyes started being replaced by chemical ones imported from Germany and England. Much finer work was possible as these paints were meant to be used on dry plaster (unlike the old ones which had to be applied on wet plaster). This fusion of styles gave birth to Shekhawati's most unique school of art, seen at its best on the walls of the turn of the century mansions. and today, the world comes to this storybook town to see its colourful frescoes.

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