- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2004

MANDAWA, India — Stepping through the small opening cut in a colossal iron-studded wooden door of the mansion, we leave behind a dusty brown village street and enter a fantasy world of color.

From wall to ceiling, every available surface of the 79-year-old Newatia Mansion is covered with paintings: elephants carrying triumphant kings, the amorous god Krishna frolicking with milkmaids, scenes of great battles and, amazingly, the first flight by the Wright brothers.

“Don’t miss that one,” says our little guide, 14-year-old Kamlesh, who insisted on showing us her village’s treasures — a dozen or so mansions bursting with an astounding range of frescoes that attract thousands of foreign tourists and photographers every year.

Mandawa, a village of open drains and wandering cows, is but one jewel in a vast open art gallery of painted mansions, or havelis, in dozens of towns of northern India’s Shekhawati region.

Located in the desert state of Rajasthan, the region is said to have the largest concentration of household frescoes in the world, inspired mostly by religion, folklore and great social events, such as man’s first flight.

In the anonymous artist’s imagination, two wealthy Indian couples standing next to a palm tree are waving at the airborne Wilbur and Orville Wright while a late-comer spectator pedals toward the historic event on a bicycle.

“I show that painting to everybody,” says Kamlesh, an eighth-grader who sells candies during holidays. She abandoned her cart of goodies to accompany my wife and me on a tour of Mandawa’s havelis. For free. “You are Indians. I won’t take money from you,” she says.

Each of the havelis is more brightly decorated than the other with unimaginably vivid frescoes on subjects ranging from religious to mundane, historic to absurd, exotic to erotic.

Most of the havelis were built during the 18th and 19th centuries by wealthy merchants, or seths, who commissioned armies of artisans to painstakingly trace and color the vivid pictures.

The artistry and profusion of the frescoes — not just the size of the mansions — became a status symbol, as owners tried to outdo each other, hiring the best talent in town.

No part of the mansion was left uncovered, and colorful stories sprang up from walls, pillars, arches, windowsills, ceilings and even the space behind doors.

Intense rivalry between two seths in the town of Churu led to the construction of the biggest havelis in the region, with one mansion ventilated by 1,100 windows. Another seth built a haveli on 1,000 pillars.

Shekhawati’s grand mansions throw out rare bursts of color in an otherwise bleak desert landscape and speak of the financial exploits of its business community, known as marwaris.

Amid the abject poverty of the region, the marwaris of Shekhawati succeeded in amassing huge fortunes through the sale of rice, opium, cotton, spices and textiles. Today, their family names — Birla, Goenka, Piramal, Dalmia, Singhania, S. Kumar — are synonymous with India’s industrial might.

With growing wealth and business, the marwaris moved to cities such as Calcutta, New Delhi and Bombay, and within a generation were managing huge business empires from air-conditioned glass skyscrapers.

Their mansions in Shekhawati, meanwhile, lie abandoned or in the care of indifferent tenants, in one case looked after by a one-eyed guard. Smoke from cooking fires has defaced many of the paintings. Harsh desert sun, dust and neglect have peeled the sheen off others.

One can walk into any haveli uninvited, and welcoming resident caretakers will show you around for free. There are no efforts to preserve or conserve the mansions, however, and local guides predict the frescoes will disappear within a decade or two.

The art of wall painting is a folk tradition in India, with the earliest examples found in the ancient Ajanta caves of western India. The paintings generally have reflected lifestyles or mythology. Some tribes believed their wall paintings had psychic healing qualities.

The Shekhawati frescoes, however, are “a folk tradition with a contemporary tinge,” says Ratnottama Sengupta, one of India’s foremost art writers and curators.

She says the Shekhawati paintings mirrored social transitions as the region passed through various rulers: Rajputs, Moguls and the British.

As the rulers and other gentry succumbed to Western influences in the 19th century, it became apparent in the anachronistic frescoes. The Wright brothers flying their plane in India is but one example.

Some of the Shekhawati paintings were based on descriptions by those returning from England of the affluent lifestyle there. The rest came from the artists’ fervid imaginations: One panel shows god-king Rama and his wife, Sita, dressed in mythological finery, being driven in a Rolls-Royce by his brother, Lakshman.

Battalions of marching soldiers and locomotive trains are the most popular motifs in horizontal friezes. A local folk tale of lovers Dhola and Maru escaping by camel, followed by scenes of a chase and a battle, is a popular theme on linear panels.

Erotic panels were painted too, but many were defaced in a puritanical backlash.

The marvels of Mandawa and its neighboring towns would have faded away unnoticed but for a chance visit by a writer, Francis Wacziarg, to the castle of Mandawa’s erstwhile ruler in 1979.

Mr. Wacziarg was researching Indian frescoes and had heard about Mandawa. He was invited to spend the night at the castle, which also has fabulous wall paintings.

Mr. Wacziarg left Mandawa with a deep impression and persuaded French writer Dominique Lapierre to visit the castle. Mr. Lapierre did so in October 1979 with a group of 70 French tourists, who were accommodated at the castle by the family. That marked the birth of group tourism in Shekhawati.

“The whole village came out to welcome them. Schools and offices were given a holiday. The villagers had never seen white people before,” says Kesri Singh, one of the brothers who own the castle.

Realizing the business potential, the brothers turned the 250-year-old castle into the luxury 70-room Castle Mandawa Hotel. Kesri Singh, 60, gave up a bank job to manage the hotel along with his younger brother, Pradyuman Singh.

Today, it provides the best accommodation in Shekhawati and has become the favorite staging post for exploring the region.

We were happy to restrict ourselves to Mandawa while luxuriating in the comforts of Castle Mandawa Hotel.

After a sweaty tour of the village, it was rewarding to return to our white marble room, which was once the queen’s boudoir, and watch the sun — losing its luminescence with every passing second — dip behind the castle’s battlement.

• • •

Mandawa is about 155 miles west of India’s capital, New Delhi, which has the closest international airport. It takes about six hours to drive from New Delhi, as roads in Rajasthan state are in bad condition. Jhunjhunu is the nearest railhead to Mandawa. Trains run between Jhunjhunu and New Delhi, and between Jhunjhunu and the state capital, Jaipur, 110 milesw to the south, where there is a domestic airport.

The best time to visit is October to March, when the weather is coolest before the sizzling desert summer sets in. A bonus is a visit during the Hindu festival of color, Holi, which will be observed March 25 in 2005.

Travel agencies in New Delhi and Jaipur organize road tours to the Shekhawati region by air-conditioned sport utility vehicles and arrange accommodations.

The Castle Mandawa Hotel is the best place to stay in the region. Rates are $50 to $100 a night. Call, in Mandawa, 91/1592-223-124; it has no Web site. Another hotel in the town is Hotel Heritage Mandawa.

Other towns worth visiting include Fatehpur, Ramgarh, Jhunjhunu, Nawalgarh, Mahensar, Sikar, Churu, Churi Ajitgarh and Dundlod.

Bring mosquito repellent, sturdy footwear and a hat and drink lots of water.

For more information, visit these Web sites: www.tourism-of-india.com and click on Mandawa and www.indiatravelite.com/feature/shekhawati.htm.

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