I love hearing and retelling the many stories and the history behind our unique vintage and antique furniture. Knowing their heritage and that they area are one-offs makes old furniture that much more special. Over the last 10 years I have been able to acquire a small number of pieces of antique furniture from Shekhawati a region of Rajasthan, north west India. Shekhawati is far less visited by tourists than other parts, but is famed for its old havalis covereed with amazing frescos: ornately decorated large residences, with numerous courtyards and myriads of windows and doors and always elaborately constructed. So when I had 2 days spare at the end of my latest buying trip to India I decided to visit the region to see the unique havalis and architecture for myself.
I started from Jodhpur (also in Rajasthan) early in the morning with a 6 hour train journey to Churu, followed by a 45 minute bus journey to Ramgarh. Then it was a further 20 minute trip auto-rickshaw trip along a dirt track to Mahansar a small village on the way to Bissau. I had booked a 2-night stay at the Narayan Niwas Castle. When we approached Mahansar the magnificent sandstone fort was clearly visible in the middle of the village.
The owners, Thakur Tejpal Singhji & his family, were very welcoming and we sat down over chai to discuss the history of the region, the village, his family and his fort. Mahansar Fort was founded by Thakur Nahar Singh in 1768 and has been passed down to the current Mr Singh. He arranged for a local guide to take me to see the havalis and their frecscos in Ramgarh, Fatepur and of course Mahansar. In the 2 days I was there I did not see another tourist in Ramgarh or Fatepur.
In Shekhawati, frescoes were initially introduced by Shekhawat Rajputs in their forts and palaces. The towns in Shekhawati are known for their painted havelis. This region is widely known as the “open art gallery of Rajasthan” with the largest concentration of frescos in the world. They depict images of gods, goddesses, animals, and the life of the lords Rama and Krishna.
Shekhawati started flourishing in the late 18th century with the development of overland caravan trade route linking Pali and Bhiwani to the Silk Road. Exorbitant taxes imposed by Jaipur and Bikaner, resulted in the merchant and trading community, aka Banias, moving to Shekhawati, where the taxes were low. Later, the British used the skills of local merchants to improve trade. While the traders ventured out to far outposts of the colonial empire, they built havelis for their families back home.
The havelis really are breathtaking. They are like nothing I have ever seen in India or anywhere else. They are mostly deserted and empty now, and their desolation, combined with their size and opulence, evokes a real feeling of wonder. Each is unique in design and construction and frescos and I did not tire wandering the streets seeing row after row of grand brightly coloured mansions.
I enjoyed seeing the differences between antique furniture from Shekhawati, other parts of Rajasthan and NW India. Shekhawati furniture shows many of the attributes of neighbouring regions and areas, but clearly has more decoration and embellishment. Chest panels that are usually left plain arecarved with simple motifs and finished with brass decorations in Shekhawati.
My top tips for Shekhawati are:
1. Don’t rush – allow at least 2 days in the region. There are up to 10 towns with grand havalis with frescos. Plan to see no more than 2-3 in a day.
2. Go local – consider using a guide. A good guide and their local insights will enhance a visit. Try one recommended by your hotel. Using public transport to get around is possible, but it’s much slower, consider hiring a car and driver for a couple of days.
3. Get lost – allow time to wander away from the main havelis, temples and attractions and take in the sights, sounds and smells in a typical Shekhawati town or village. You really will not see any other tourists.
4. Live like a Shekhawati King – stay in one of Narayan Niwas Castle’s suites. There are not many castle suites you can stay in for just £25 / night. Dinner fit for a Lord is just £3.50!