Nawalgarh, the Open-air Art Gallery of India

We woke up early, before the first blush of the day. The dog that was barking outside in the abandoned streets the whole night decided to call it a day, satisfied that no intruder dared to roam escaping its vigilance. It was mild cold outside; the town was waking-up and there was hulchul around. The sound of prayers and the tinkling bell could be heard from a near-by temple. The small towns have their own distinctive chores. Life is relaxed, but follow orderly discipline.

One-by-one all the adults were in the courtyard, stretching themselves, inhaling the crisp unpolluted winter-air, listening the chirping of birds, looking at the rising sun and the first blush in the sky, with a cup of tea in hands. A beautiful morning indeed!

Sunrise at DS bungalow

First Blush of the day

Over the breakfast, the plan to explore the town and its famous havelis was discussed. The owner of DS Bungalow suggested sending a boy to assist us in locating them. We declined. Nawalgarh is a small town. It would not be difficult to explore it on our own. For me asking directions from locals and in-turn finding an opportunity to interact with them is part of the fun.

The early morning view of DS Bungalow from our room

Dining area and courtyard as seen from our room

The Poddar Haveli was just a stone’s throw away from the hotel. It is spread over 11,200 square meters and is well maintained from inside and outside. The seven hundred fifty frescos spread across its entirety, have been restored to their original beauty under the supervision of the experts, using the natural colors extracted from the stones and vegetables.

Poddar Haveli Museum,  Nawalgarh

Well, before entering the Poddar haveli, let us talk about havelis in general. What makes a mansion a haveli? Its size! Of course, but havelis also have several distinctive features.

Invariably, the entrance to havelis is through an ornamented wooden or brass door that opens into arched porch. The entrance lead to the forecourt, known as मेहमानखाना where visitors are received. The rooms around this court are अतिथिगृह, where the guests of the family stay. The side of the guest room is flanked by large pillared reception area, the बैठक, where the business and meetings are conducted. In the galleries surmounting the बैठक, women-folk could sit and participate in the business conducted below.

The main courtyard lies after the first courtyard separated by beautifully ornate doorway. Main courtyard was the place where normal household chores took place. The life proceeded here shielded from the eyes of the street and business conduct taking place in first courtyard.

One courtyard, the Nohra, invariably was reserved for the cattle of the family. The size of livestock represented the prosperity of a family. Many havelis in Shekhawati have around four courtyards and some like the “Aath Haveli” of Nawalgarh has as many as eight courtyards. The courtyards invariably had rooms for drinking water called “परेंदा”, and the other rooms were used as storerooms to keep the clothes, utensils, food grains, firewood etc.

The Nohra in Morarka Haveli, Nawalgarh

Nohra in Morarka Haveli

These havelis have airy, well-lit living rooms with light and air entering from small jharokhas and even these jharokhas are tastefully decorated. To assist elder folks coming down on narrow-stairs at the time of dawn and dusk, the stairs usually had chains or ropes to hold.

Beautiful Jharokha in Poddar Haveli, Navalgarh

Beautiful Jharokha

Stairs with ropes in Nawalgarh Poddar haveli

Stairs with ropes

Resuming the Poddar haveli exploration, it is converted into a Museum giving glimpse of this part of Rajasthan. Different courtyards are remodeled and decorated as different galleries displaying musical instruments, miniature paintings, bridal costumes and the typical Rajasthani baithaks. I find such galleries a cliché. The unique and the most striking feature of this haveli were the murals and frescoes adorning every nook and corner. I was keen in studying and observing the themes selected for the paintings.

The local artists, Chiteras and Chejaras, selected wide ranged themes. Though, as I expected, most of these themes were religious, depicting selected episodes from Mahabharat and Ramayan. However, when an artist was given a task of embellishing the complete haveli, he cannot choose only the religious theme. It limits the creativity, moreover, the task is to paint a living place and not a religious place.

They used richer palette including natural cinnabar, green copper chloride, indian yellow and natural ultramarine made from lapis lazuli, gold and silver. The painters initially sketched the design on the surface and then painted them in. The paintings on the external walls were often painted onto damp plaster so that the pigments were bounded to the surface as it dried. They used pigments resilient to the strong sunlight. Later on, starting mid-nineteenth century two new artificial pigments – Chrome red and artificial ultramarine blue, synthesized in Europe become more popular.

Krishna with Gopi, Poddar haveli, Nawalgarh

Krishna with Gopis

So, there are paintings with secular themes as well. These paintings portray folklores, proud Rajasthani men in thick moustaches, thick-manly beards and colorful pagdis, nimble women-folks in pretty costumes, all supported the concept of “Rangeela Rajasthan”, and others celebrating the love-story of Dhola-Maru.

Love story of Dhola-Maru in Poddar haveli, Nawalgarh


However, one thing that makes Shekhawati murals unconventional and unique, lies in its naive depiction of machines, events and contemporary fashions of the British world. The Marwari merchants wanted to share the emerging trends and probably wanted to boast about their new learnings. Sometimes the artists drew those frescoes after witnessing the advancement themselves and sometimes they drew it from narration using their imagination.

Railway in pix in Poddar haveli, Nawalgarh

The railways

After Poddar haveli we visited the Morarka haveli, Aath Haveli and then the Goenka Haveli. All of them are close-by. As the differences lies mainly in the paintings, wood work, I let you enjoy the tour in pictures.

Morarka Haveli, Nawalgarh

An embellished Jharokha of Morarka Haveli

Views from the terrace of Morarka Haveli

From the terrace of Morarka Haveli

Wood work on Chaukhat

wood-work on the frame of the door

The havelis in Shekhawati are scattered everywhere. Most of these havelis are looked after by the caretakers, and the owners have not visited these havelis for years. Some of them are still well maintained, but many are in dire need of maintenance and general repairs. Some of them are even vandalized. Portions of some other havelis like Morarka haveli are used for running schools as well.

Main courtyard in Morarka Haveli, Nawalgarh

Main courtyard in Morarka Haveli

In my zeal to discover more than what my guide-book recommended, I entered random havelis, in one case disturbing a caretaker who was about to start his meal. He continued only after the assurance that we are around and would be visiting the haveli after he finish his meal.

The haveli was not impressive, I was intruding and causing trouble to random people, and so as soon as we came out of that haveli I was cornered and told, no random haveli hunting. The rests were ready to explore only if there was something different in that haveli. The only one I could remember at that time was Surajmal Chhavchharia Haveli.
Orders flew, “Ok, then move to this haveli and move straight to this one, no looking left or right. And as you enjoy asking directions, we let you have some enjoyment too”.
Wifely generosity!

Finding Chhavchharia Haveli by asking directions from people and wandering in street, did not turn out to be that easy. Most of the locals were unaware of it, the name itself was tongue twisting, forcing Jaishree to correct me several times, generating giggles from the kids and helpless-frown on Jaishree’s forehead every time I committed mistake even after corrections. I think most locals don’t understand the value of these havelis and so the names as well, not to blame, after all there are so many. After checking with many, finally I managed to find a boy cum guide who was aware of it.
“So you are looking for the famous painting of European ladies floating in a hot air-balloon, blowing into the balloon to power their journey”.
“Yes, Yes”, eager me replied.
“Ok you are near, go straight and remember don’t leave the main road and stray in side lanes”.
I smiled,
“कोशिश करने वालों की हार नही होती,
लहरों से डरकर नैया पार नही होती|”

We paced up. Suddenly there was hope against hopes in me, who like Columbus was well aware of the brewing revolt against the idea of exploration of new lands and new havelis. The pace slowed when we reached a point where the road forked in two. Again, no one to help and we had to move on. We moved in one direction and after some time met another person aware of the haveli. The suggestion was again the same, “Go straight …, and don’t stray on side lane”. Again it was the same. And these two were not the stray cases. It happened several times. Confused, we admired the acute sense of main road and side lanes of the Nawalgarhis.

For us, Nawalgarh is a place that present two options to its explorers, one bringing him closer to his destination and the other taking one to his destiny.

Well, the outcome was that neither Columbus could reach India nor we could spot the Chhavchharia Haveli, Columbus went the opposite direction, I feel that we were still close. He discovered America in the process and we reached Parasrampuria Haveli. Columbus used force and money power to further his explorations, in my case the caretaker probably well aware of what happened to the original inhabitants of America after Columbic explorations, denied me any opportunity to enter inside.

We could explore it only from outside and this time another theme appeared on the walls of this haveli, the portraits of Indian Freedom Fighters and the proud and valiant kings. Very impressive, I wish we could visit it.

By this time, the patience of fellow explorers gave way to the primal desire for food. They revolted, subdued the Columbus in making, and the diktats were clear, “No more Haveli hunting! Enough of Murals and Frescoes”. They asked for a decent food joint and headed to the Natraj Hotel. And the decision for the second half of the day was taken, a nap followed by a camel cart ride.

I was quietly enjoying my destiny in search of the destination. If not in Shekhwati, where else you could walk in narrow lanes with looming opulence on its sides, in between stepping on stairs to give ways to the donkey carts. The hidden open art gallery, which was always so close, was a treat for the art connoisseur in me.

Parasrampuri Haveli, Nawalgarh

Parasrampuri Haveli

Join me for the camel-cart ride in my next post.

Series Navigation<< Shekhawati : Land of Kubers and WarriorsA Photo Essay on camel cart ride in Nawalgarh >>


  1. Your description is covering every detail that I wont need to go for visiting Nawalgarh now. It was a nice journey with all of you 🙂
    And yes, pictures are very beautiful. Nice piece of writing.

  2. Well, a good travel story should be the one that makes the reader feels long to visit it. I don’t want my readers to save money, but I want them to spend it to explore the beautiful world around 😉

    Thanks Shilpa for reading and leaving the comment 🙂 Its always a pleasure to get comment from you.

  3. Hi!
    Just read your post on Nawalgarh! yes, they have some really good well maintained Havelis. Its good to know that people are looking at smaller cities and towns now for their holidays.

    We are owners of a small Haveli in Nawalgarh too and run a Heritage hotel there in the name of Koolwal Kothi by WelcomHeritage. Next time you are in the area please do let us know and we would be delighted to have you as our guest.



  4. Hi Varun

    Thanks for reading the article and inviting us to Koolwal Kothi. I had a look at the accommodation, it appears to be an amazing place, though costly for my kind of travel.
    However, I will surely contact you when we plan a trip to Nawalgarh.

    Thanks again.

  5. In December 2014 issue of Outlook Traveller I learnt about the book: Rajasthan: Exploring Painted Shekhawati by Ilay Cooper.

    The reviewer wrote how Ilay Cooper accidentally tumbled upon the painted havelis of Shekhawati. He got so fascinated by his discovery that he decided to explore it further. And how in mid 1980s INTACH asked him to document these painted havelis.

    The readers who want to read more about these havelis, probably this is really a good book to explore further.

  6. This post is dry, as it only talks about the havelis and not about the life they were once ripe with. Read snippets of such lives in “Rajsathan Patrika” by Author Shrimali.

    Two men are walking around one such beautiful haveli.

    “Look here is the haveli of Nagarseth.”

    “What Nagarseth! I have more money than him now.”

    “You may have. But he is the Nagarseth. Look how much he has done for our town. He has given so many jobs to people of the place, he has opened schools, at so many places he has opened Piyau where people are offering water to the thirsty. He has earned the Mahatmya. What you have done? Yes, you have more money, but you are sitting on it. Such people are not Nagarseth, they are Snakes, who are sitting over their wealth wrapping everything under them”.

    I have personally seen such plain speaking from the people of the place.

  7. The seth who is the second eldest in the house (son of the eldest one) had bad temper, one day he is very angry on his son. So much so that he beat him up and ties his hands and feel and hung him from a tree in the house.

    There is pin-drop silence in the house. No one dare to confront the Seth. All in the female part of the house are worried. Suddenly daadi, mother of the Seth, remembered someone and asked a kid in the house to call Sukha Kaka. Sukha Kaka come running to the haveli.

    He immediately untie the kid and bring him back to the ground. Seth is angered beyond limit and shout, “Don’t dare touch him Sukha Kaka”

    Why not?
    How would you feel, if I do the same with you. Was the reply of the servant “Sukha Kaka”.

    And the Seth knew he dare not to confront him.

    These havelis and their owners wielded so much power to the workers of the family. They were part of it.

  8. My wife told me, “At her Maternal Grandfather’s haveli, the kids used to have leisure time, getting up late in morning. All of them used to sleep on the roof.

    They were though afraid of Allahnoor, if they did not get up by the time he was there to wrap all mattresses and quilts, he would simply wrap them in them and go away.

    Nobody would have minded the punishment given to the Lazy Kids. And nobody would have questioned him.

  9. Similar thing once shared by Father Mr J.A. Carvalho, principal of Father Agnel School Noida (whom we still respect for his visionary and his utmost dedication to provide best education to his wards), in one of his address to Parents.

    “My father used to drop me to the college in his car along with the driver”. It is evident that he belongs to a very rich family.

    One day I was very angry and with a desire to show-off to my friends, I carelessly slammed the door of the car.

    Immediately the driver of the car got down and slapped me hard. My father said, “thank you for teaching my son lesson of the life”. Mind it the young Caravalho was taught a lesson of life by the driver in front of all his friends whom he wanted to impress(the authority of his driver was no less than his father too).

    Contrast with it the kind of learnings rich father give to their kids these days, “At the entrance of our society, the guard stopped a mercedez, as guests were not allowed to take car inside. Inside was a student in his teen who use to take tuitions in the society. He had to walk from the gate to the flat which was around max 200 meters away.

    The father of the kid in the car got very angry. He came back along with the driver and instructed the driver in loud voice, “Next time if any guard try to stop you, simply driver over him, I will manage the rest.”

    The lessons given and taken by the kids are clear.

  10. The newly wed bride enters the haveli. The first person she was taken to get her blessing was the old kaki, milking buffaloes in her old saree.

    She immediately rose on her feet. The bride touches her feet and she took out small money tied on one side of her Sari and gives it as her blessings.

    The message to the bride was clear, she is the elder most in the house and is treated the same.

  11. The lady of the house died while giving birth; at the same time, another worker of the house got baby. The newly born was fed by this worker like his own.

    She was not treated any less than the mother of the kid.

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