Just 132 kms. north of Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, are clusters of entire townships having homes and temples decorated with colourful murals which interpret tales from Indian mythology or record events from the past. This is the Shekhawati region. It is a 30,000 sq.kms. open-air art gallery, forgotten with the passage of time.
Shekhawati comprises the semi-arid districts of Jhunjhunu, Churu and Sikar. Its' prosperity dates back to the time when trade flourished in this region, situated on a caravan route between Central Asia and the rest of India. At that time, the area teemed with wealthy Marwari traders whose names read like a who's who of Indian enterprise - Morarkas, Poddars, Birlas, Ruias, Singhanias and Kedias. Their homes, or havelis, were grand edifices, exquisitely designed, and reflective of a lifestyle that began in the mid-19th century and lasted for 150 years.
Subsequently, the British took over and developed ports on the Indian coast, and the rich Marwari merchants moved to other parts of India. The old trade routes changed and Shekhawati was left to decay. Until recently, when concerned residents realized they were the unwitting guardians of a cultural treasure trove, and started taking action to preserve what is left.
Shekhawati summers are hot and dry, winters cold and dry.
The towns of Sikar and Jhunjhunu are connected by road as well as rail with Jaipur, Delhi and Bikaner.
Mural painting in India is an ancient art that dates back several centuries. Each region has a distinct style, but the profusion and perfection of Shekhawati's frescoes is unmatched. Originally, only vegetable or natural pigments were used: kajal (lamp black) for black, safeda (lime) for white, neel (indigo) for blue, harababhata (terra verte) for green, geru (red stone powder) for red, kesar (saffron) for orange and pevri (yellow clay) for yellow ochre. There are those who dismiss the paintings as kitsch; others praise them as works of art.
The fact is, they speak volumes about the history of the region, and the life and times of the people. Subjects range from scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to geometric and floral patterns. There are impressions of what wealthy merchants have seen in distant lands, including new technology such as the airplane, automobile, railway train, telephone or gramophone. Some show British officers in sola topis and memsahibs with parasols. The paintings conveyed to the women the outside world that they would never see, confined to the house as they were.
Though the number of havelis in existence is subject to speculation, the Rajasthan Government Tourism Department estimates that there are at least 5,000 in the region.
The Morarka Foundation and the Rajasthan Government Tourism Department jointly organize a festival every February to promote local customs and encourage craftsmen from the region to display their handicrafts.