Mandawa is a small city 190 km north of Jaipur. It was a trading outpost in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, on the camel caravan route from China and the Middle East. A fort was built in 1755 by Thakur Nawal Singh, the Rajput ruler of this area. Mandawa grew up around this fort, attracting a large community of traders, who settled here. These merchants built huge homes, called havelis, that now are a signature feature of this area.
Typical Shekhawati havelis are mansions with two courtyards: the outer one, mainly for men, was a place for visitors, for doing business and trading. The inner courtyard was the domain of the women (and children) of this extended family. The haveli walls were usually covered with paintings and frescos of gods and goddesses, animals, scenes from the British colonization, life stories of Lords Krishna and Rama, and images of the Maharaja and the owner of the building. The havelis made a safe and protected space for the family from the outside world, with just one large main gate for entry. The word comes from the Arabic haveli, and probably from the Persian hawli, meaning “enclosed place.” The architectural style was influenced by Islamic, Persian, Central Asian, and Indian influences.
Havelis probably originated in Northwest India with the temples built by Vaishnavas in Gujarat, where havalis for Lord Krishna are common with large mansion-like construction and painted frescos. This style was later imitated by those building mansions.
Below are a few photos of the Mandava stopover on our recent trip through Rajasthan.
Mughal art, derived from Persian miniatures, is the basic style of the frescos on the walls of the havelis. I will write more on that within this article. Here is an example, a Mughal “Composite” elephant, from christies.com:
From Jaipur to Mandawa
This is the first time we have seen the Rajasthan countryside. Here it is, fields and trees. And neat stacks of hay.
We pass a small herd of camels, walking along the road. While we are in Rajasthan, we will see many different things on the roads here. After all, it is still India. But with lots of camels.
I think the structure pictured below is part of a temple or shrine. I have not been able to find a name for this style of Rajasthani structure. Does anyone know? I notice that there is another car stopped here and a man is taking a photo. Do you see him?
A Rajasthani woman in typical dress. The scarf (dupata) of a gauzy material, over the head, hiding the face (at least partially) is the common style for women here. This is the first of a number of such photos I will show, given my fascination with this style of dress.
Heritage Mandawa Hotel
This is the place we stayed, the Heritage Mandawa, a nice haveli turned into a hotel. This is our first look at a haveli.
The first courtyard (chowk). Here the way that they use the two courtyards is not at all like a typical haveli, except that it is the first place you will enter and be greeted.
Painting on the wall. This is typical of havelis.
Our bedroom featured this kind of paintings. (We weren’t sure how well the paintings coordinated with the hippie-style tie-dyed curtain.)
Above the door into the bedroom are colored pieces of glass that let in light from the courtyard, which usually has lots of light. We will see this kind of feature again.
Walking Tour of Mandawa
We start out on a walking tour of Mandawa, led by our local guide, Sekur.
This is a regular neighborhood, not one lined with big mansions.
We start to see havelis by the street. This one is old, the paintings faded.
A usual feature here is the second floor that is built out from the wall of the first floor, and supported by a series of braces. All these braces are painted, and formed in decorative shapes. Windows upstairs have heavy shutters.
I tried researching to see if I could find a name for these projected second floors. The closest I can come is Chhajja, a traditional form of Mughal architecture. It is a term used for overhanging eaves usually supported on large carved brackets. They are designed for the purposes of cooling the walls and protecting them from the rains in the monsoon. I think this design also makes the haveli more secure, by not providing a wall someone could climb up to break in.
A haveli is ahead. You can see the form of the upper story, the projecting walls and upstairs windows. Note that there are usually not windows in the lower floor. This adds to the the security of the haveli from outsiders.
Under these “eaves” are more paintings. These are the brightest, since they are not exposed to direct sunlight or rain.
Here are two men meeting and having a cup of tea; a scene from the life in a haveli.
An man is above. Below is a man with a drum.
Touring Our First Haveli
This is a haveli we are about the enter. We will enter through the massive gate (darwaza), to the left, up the ramp. Closer to us are entrances to a curio shop, which we will visit after touring the haveli.
These havelis were built in the 18th to the early 20th century by the Shekhawati Thakurs (noblemen) and Marwari traders. Great wealth had come from trading with the British East India Company. With this newly found wealth, Shekhawati’s Marwari merchants and landowning Thakurs competed with one another to build grand, flamboyantly decorated havelis. From asianartnewspaper.com:
The towns of Shekhawati seamlessly blend the architectural styles of Rajput and Islamic forms and the main characteristic of the region is still its abundance of lavishly painted havelis. They are typically formed of rooms around a central courtyard, a bit like a Moroccan riad, which works well to counteract the harsh heat and provides separation for male and female dwellers. The elaborate decoration of arches and frescoes, as well as the number of rooms and courtyards, increased over time in tandem with the wealth of the merchant. In fact, large havelis like the grand Char Chowk ki Haveli directly reflect the merchant’s command on the business dynamics of the town.
The doorway, specifically the design and the adornment of it, was also often an indicator of a family’s economic standing. Height, embellishment, arches and carved timber all hinted to the social position of the family inside.
The Marwaris were the most influential business community in Shekhawati, and they prospered until the beginning of the 19th century, due to the caravan routes that crossed the area to reach the ports of Gujarat. These trade routes were part of the ancient Silk Road between China, India, and Europe. Marwari traders started moving to eastern India ports like Calcutta and Madras as trade routes started changing around 1820. Between 1830 and 1930, the traders erected havelis in Shekhawati, their homeland, as evidence of their trading success. As a symbol of their opulence, the Marwaris commissioned artists to paint those buildings. It is these paintings that make the havelis particularly special today.
It might seem strange that these buildings were built after the peak era of trading in the Shekhawati region was over. I understand that when they were trading, they did not want to call attention to their success, so they did not create wealthy-looking homes. But when the traders (the fathers, maybe some of the uncles and sons, maybe a grandfather) went away to pursue trade – something usual in a trading family – the rest of the extended family stayed home. I think these havelis were built for the families back home. This kind of tradition continues today in India. For example, many men from Kerala go overseas to places like Dubai for what are good paying jobs. They send the money home and many build nice big homes for their families.
Once inside the haveli, we are directed first to the area in the courtyard to the right. The first courtyard is where a visitor would be greeted, and to the right is where they would meet with the owner. In this haveli I saw that the front gate, though massive, was not decorated. What is decorated and done with some flair is the gate into the women’s area. I did not get a good photo, but you can see a bit of this gate to the left in the photo below.
The room is nicely painted, with frescos on each wall. The subjects mainly seems to be men, who might visit this place.
Visitors would be greeted, then sit in this room and be offered basic hospitality, a drink of tea, a puff of opium or hashish, (the Marwaris were major traders in opium from Afghanistan), maybe a bit of food. Then they would talk about whatever business they had.
The ceilings are decorated with paintings, too.
Close-ups of figures on the walls.
Three Western visitors on this wall, above the colored glass arch over the doorway.
Painting of a building, maybe from a customer? The sign says “Art Furnishers.”
Maharaja Rewa. These were Rajput rulers of an area just south of Ahmedabad, the southern end of the trade route that passed through Mandawa.
Going from the men’s area to the women’s courtyard, there is a jali, a perforated stone screen, through which the men and women could talk.
Carol is in the women’s courtyard.
This courtyard is two-story, every surface is highly decorated. How wonderful it must have looked maybe 150 years ago, when it was new and the paint bright.
A narrow stairway upstairs.
Downstairs there is a covered walkway with doors leading to the rooms.
The jali on the women’s side.
Paintings on the wall. Blue-skinned Krishna, here playing his flute, is a popular subject in the women’s area. Notice the elaborate carving on the top of the doorway below the painting. For beautiful photos of this kind of woodwork, see this article.
Krishna again, with a woman, maybe Radha, his most well-known lover. Note the small statue in the niche. I think it is a faint reflection of what might have been there before.
More of the decoration on the walls.
Another stairway up, I think the main one.
Carol is entering a room.
The room does not look like much now, with the deteriorated paint. But imagine what it was like when the paint was fresh.
More painting on the wall.
The wall painting we have seen in Rajasthan from this era fascinated me. I told Carol they are from the Islamic influences. But she reminded me that we were told that Muslim decoration mainly used flower and geometric patterns, due to restrictions on images from the Quran. This started my research. This is what I have found out. It is a bit of a story, so bear with me.
The painting style traces back to Persian influences. By the 1200s, Persian miniature artists were illustrating books of stories. While they would not use human representations in Qurans, they would do so in the story books. The Mughals, Mongols who invaded India from Moghulistan, north of Kashmir, in about 1500, had acquired a strong Persian influence in their literature and culture.
Persian Miniature, ca 1000 ce, from http://www.iranchamber.com:
Mughal emperors, like Akbar when he took the throne in 1556, brought Persian cultural influence to its zenith in India, and the resulting Indo-Persian synthesis outlived the Mughals. He also forged alliances with several Hindu Rajput kingdoms, including those in Rajasthan. Mughal artists were influenced by Persians, especially since they were initially trained by two great Persian painters who had come to India for this purpose, brought there by Akbar’s father. Akbar then expanded his father’s atelier (workshop of painters), and had books created for him and his court, using their miniature illustrations. A famous one is the Tutinama (“Tales of a Parrot”), which was a 14th-century Persian series of 52 stories, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. The book was illustrated with 250 miniature paintings, showing imperial Mughal style as it was being formed. Though retaining the upright format, general setting, and flat aerial perspective of Persian painting, the Indian artists of Akbar’s court exhibited an increasing naturalism and detailed observation of the world around them.
From Tutinama, mid 1500s, from Wikipedia:
In the next century, less emphasis was given to book illustration. The Mughal emperor of Jahāngīr (1605–27) preferred court scenes, portraits, and animal studies, which were assembled in albums, many of them with richly decorated margins. The compositions are less crowded, colors are more subdued, and movement is much less dynamic. The artists of the Jahāngīr period exhibited a sensitive understanding of human nature and an interest in the psychological subtleties of portraiture.
From Janagir period, a court scene, early 1600s, from blog.artoflegendindia.com:
Local Rajasthani forms of this miniature painting also developed in the 1600s, especially Mewār painting, characterized by simple bright colors and direct emotional appeal.
Radha-Krishna Lila, early 1700s, blog.artoflegendindia.com:
By the 1700s this painting style moved from books to buildings. The Mughal rulers and the Rajput Maharajas had started to decorate their palaces and temples with wall paintings, frescos. They hired the finest artists of their day, which were these miniaturists. The painting would be done by a team, with the senior artists – the miniaturists – laying out the composition, and the junior artists executing the paintings. In this way, the forms that had been in the books, illustrations of various stories etc., became royal wall art.
Painting on wall at Palace in Bundy, ca 1800, from allposters.com:
When the merchants of the Shekhawati region started to get rich, and build great mansions, they imitated the styles of the upper class at the time, the Rajput Maharajas, and hired the best artists of their era to decorate their havelis. So this art form, born of Persian miniatures, was on the walls of all the great house of the time.
The resulting style is called Maha maru gurjar painting, or Rajput painting.
Back to the walls. Below, on the top, Krishna is to the left, another goddess, maybe Durga, is to the right. Below are various court figures.
Upstairs in the women’s area.
Pretty splendid, it must have been.
Upstairs, there is an open terrace in the women’s area. Carol and Sekur are talking.
When we exited the haveli, we went into the curio shop. The walls were lined with old stuff.
We browsed, and found an old piece of jewelry we thought my daughter would like for her tribal dance costumes.
So many things on the shelves.
I like these two female figures.
Walking on the street
Now we are back on the street, surrounded by more havelis.
Another Haveli, the Gulab Rai Ladia Haveli
We enter through the gates, the darwaza, into another haveli, the Gulab Rai Ladia haveli, famous for its mirrored door, seen through the gate in the photo below.
There is a smaller door, that was probably the most used to enter. In actual use, I believe that these giant gates were rarely opened, just for special occasions and important visitors.
The first courtyard. This haveli is still being lived in, and it is kind of messy.
The entrance into the women’s courtyard.
Fresco to the right of this entrance.
The entrance is made with inlaid mirrors. I think the Rajasthanis liked mirrors. Tribal people here thought they warded off evil spirits. Maybe that has something to do with it?
Close-up of one of these mirror inlays.
This cloth hung down in front of one of the rooms that open up to the courtyard gives me an idea of how they were actually used sometimes.
I see these metal rings mounted high up on the wall. I think they were used to hang cloth, as above.
View of courtyard wall.
Note the heavy, carved wooden door and door frame. This is the door into the women’s courtyard.
The women’s courtyard.
There is a shop in here.
Entrance to doorways, upstairs, with Muslim horseshoe arches.
Again I am taken by the extensive and very detailed craftsmanship involved in this work.
Krishna, with cows on the left and gopis to the right, above the door.
The shop downstairs. We bought a pair of these puppets for a friend in the USA.
On the street
Back outside, walking through the streets again.
Are they having some kind of bull competition?
Another haveli, in restoration
We entered one where there is active restoration going on. The paintings are bright.
There is a big wall of paintings to the left of the entrance to the women’s courtyard.
This one has two unusual figures in it. Do you see?
These are “composite images,” one specific element in Moghul art. This is probably one from Mughal performing traditions, the nava-nari-kunjara: an elephant made up of the figures of nine women interlocking themselves into that shape (though I only see eight in the painting).
Krishna riding a composite horse.
The chief male figure, the haveli owner?
Krishna with a flute.
The images painted on the other side of the door.
Gate into the women’s courtyard. This is one form of a special gate in Rajasthan, and, I think, the Muslim world. It is recessed within a pointed arch (developed by the Muslims and indicative of their architecture). I think it could be called an Iwan — an Arabic word for a rectangular hall or space, usually vaulted, walled on three sides, with one end entirely open. These are typically used for special gateways. Finely detailed ornamental painting fills the recess of the arch.
Above the lintel is a shiny Ganesh idol. Maybe it is made of silver? Why is it so shiny?
The doorway into the women’s courtyard is topped by another type of Muslim arch, the horseshoe arch. This is especially used to ward off the evil eye, so is appropriate in the entry to the women’s quarters. Note that the “speaking grill” is to the left of the doorway, so that men could speak to the women without disturbing their privacy.
Within the haveli is their own private Hindu shrine.
Back on the street, walking through town
Walking in this section, I keep seeing old havelis.
This seems kind of funny to me, a small building, but with an upper floor of a haveli. All the others I saw looked so much grander. This is on a small scale.
Women walking on the street, faces covered with their dupatas.
Decorated mule, pulling a wagon.
The main market street.
Since this is a tourist town, I am passed by a Western man on camelback.
The remains of another old building. Maybe this was some kind of temple?
We walk to the Mandawa fort, the reason for the town’s existence.
Mandawa was a trading outpost for the ancient caravan routes (the Silk road) that stopped here from China and the Middle East. Thakur Nawal Singh, the Rajput ruler of Nawalgarh and Mandawa, built a fort in 1755 to protect this outpost. The township that grew around the fort soon attracted a large community of traders, who settled here.
A big gate into the fort, big enough for elephants to go in and out at the same time.
We reach the gate into the fort. We notice spikes sticking out from the gate, starting about five feet off the ground. These, we were told, were to prevent elephants from pushing the door in.
Inside the fort.
To the left is a fancy hotel, built within the fort, the Castle Mandawa Hotel.
I think this would be a good place to stay in Mandawa, considering the several attractive restaurants there.
Walking back to our hotel
Outside on the street again I notice a group of men doing what they often seem to be doing—sitting.
The Raghu Nath Temple. We did not go in.
Ahead of us is a famous arch in the center of the city.
On one side, Hanuman stands at the top of it.
You can barely see him at the top.
The gate itself is pretty thick.
And looking back there is another figure on this side, Krishna with two cows.
The street back to our hotel looks like many we have seen in India.
Last looks at Heritage Mandawa Hotel
That night we were treated to a puppet show in our hotel.
A puppet show after dinner.
More puppets. They seem usually to come in male and female pairs.
Before we leave the next morning, I take another tour of our hotel, taking photos.
Krishna and a woman, Radha? I wonder what they are going to do under that wrap?
Krishna in a garden, with musicians and dancing ladies.
I think someone is romantic.
The owner invited us in to see two special rooms. One room is filled with mirrors! This is the loft in the room.
Looking down from the loft. These mirror-rooms are hard to photograph.
The mirrored ceiling.
Painting on the wall of the mirror-room. Again, I think romance is in the air.
Krishna and his gopis, dancing. There is a Krishna for each gopi.
The second special guest room that we are shown is a red bedroom.
More Krishnas. I get the idea that Krishna paintings are supposed to get the ladies feeling romantic.
A wall in the red bedroom, showing the paintings.
Back outside the rooms to our photo tour.
A fresco showing a royal elephant procession.
A pleasant space to sit and have tea, upstairs.
Krishna again. He is certainly a ladies man!
The following images are from the painted panels at the top of the wall in the front courtyard.
The Maharaja having a glass of wine with his Maharani.
A princess has her hair adjusted.
Europeans riding a camel. The striding camel is a standard Rajasthani image.
Ganesh riding in a bullock cart.
Hunting boars with a bow and arrow from horseback.
Water for the horse rider.
Arjuna on his chariot, with Krishna, the charioteer.
Krishna in the chariot, with a woman rider, being chased.
A scene from a Hindu story. Not sure what.
This is a scene from the Mahabharata, where Dusshasana tried to pull away the saree of Draupadi..
A composite elephant, ridden by demons.
Krishna and Radha dancing. This is the same painting design as an older classic miniature I have seen pictures of.
Thinking about what is implied by the story of these havelis, I have two questions I don’t know enough to answer. Maybe readers know more and can tell me.
1. Did the Marwari traders, who were opium traders in Shekhawati, continue with their trade in Calcutta? This is during the time when the British East Indian Company was earning great wealth with the opium trade with China.
2. Was the new wealth of this now-rich class of traders like what had happened in England about 100 years earlier, when power started to move from the Tories, royalists, to the Whigs, who believed in the power of commerce (and money), an extension of power outside the small number of royals? As we learned in Jaipur, the era of the all-powerful Maharajas was only about 50 –100 years before the rising of this Rajasthani rich middle class.
Another similarity between England at this time and Rajasthan: Both rulers were running out of money (they still used hard currency, the modern bank and credit economic systems not yet being in place), and to survive they had to get big loans from the merchant classes. Then both rulers start raising some of these money lenders into the royal class, to barons or viscounts in England, and Thakurs in Rajasthan.
Wow, what a tour! My head is filled with images of Rajput paintings. My mind is also filled with ideas of trading on the Silk Road, and Rajasthan history.
Now, what is next? I guess Bikaner and the famous Rat Temple. I can hardly wait.
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