India: The Painted
Havelis of Shekhawati

A bunch of dusty Rajasthani towns where the interior decorators have gone crazy- on the exterior of the buildings. 

Why visit?
Shekhawati is basically an open-air museum. Nowhere else in India will you find so many painted havelis (family homes built around an open courtyard.) For a slice of fairy-tale Rajasthan, you'll struggle to find a place more exotic than this. 

At the same time, spare a thought for these poor buildings, many of which could do with some tender love & care, and some of which end up getting stripped in order for their decorated windows and doors to become fashionable coffee tables and wall objects. 

North-east Rajasthan, about 3-4 hours north of Jaipur.  The region is centred on Jhunjhunu, and towns worth visiting include Nawalgarh, Mandawa and Fatehpur.  Most pictures here were taken in Nawalgarh. Map

IT SEEMS RATHER bizarre- how did so many beautiful buildings end up in this dusty little corner of Rajasthan, well away from major cities like Delhi and Jaipur? But here we are, in Shekhawati, and every little town seems to have an extensive collection of stunningly decorated havelis
Grand entrance. 
Havelis are a traditional building type of Northern India- a family home built around a courtyard, typically fronted by a large gate and a high wall. Inside, the multigenerational family enjoyed some peace and quiet, blocking out the noise, dirt and riffraff of the town outside (a principal that still applies to five-star hotels and gated communities all over India.)

You would think that any money spent on decoration and art would be used to paint the interior, for the family, rather than for the riffraff outside to enjoy. But in Shekhawati, this principle was turned upside down as rich merchant families tried to outdo each other, in their attempt to keep up with the Kumars. Elaborate fresco paintings cover these havelis from top to toe, outside as well as inside. 
There is a clear Mughal and thus Muslim influence on Shekhawati art but the themes are purely Hindu- you'll see images of colourful gods and (often blood-thirsty) Hindu epics. 
Baby Krishna chews of the breast of the evil Putana, killing her in the process. Who said breastfeeding was healthy?
This kind of craftsmanship is rare these days, and as owners have moved to the big cities, many of these buildings have fallen upon hard times. One of the biggest threats is the repurposed-antique market, which sees whole havelis stripped of their decorated and painted windows and doors, which are turned into coffee tables, wall decorations, etc (have a look at Bombay’s Mutton Street or some Delhi art emporiums).
This would make a lovely coffee table, wouldn't it?
Few visitors make it to these dusty towns, as most (foreign) visitors contend themselves with rushing between the Golden Triangle of Indian tourism (Jaipur, Agra, Delhi), unaware of the cultural richness that can be found in provincial Rajasthani towns. 
Two tourists stroll by a frescoed haveli. Actually, tourists are so rare here, I had to bring my own for this picture...
And so you should come here, stay in one of the renovated heritage hotels, visit the impeccably restored Podar Haveli Museum housed in an old haveli, and wander around these towns to satisfy your inner shutterbug, armed with a camera, a bottle of water and some hand sanitiser (it’s still India, after all.)

A few havelis are officially open to the public. Others are not, and they are often uninhabited and locked, but despair not. Somebody will have a key and this person will often find you before you have even made an attempt to find them. A little baksheesh will open many a door and you can marvel at the inside as well as the outside of these magnificent buildings. 
A bit of baksheesh opened the door to this haveli.
Podar Haveli has been immaculately restored and redone. Perhaps a little too immaculate, but don't worry, there are plenty of other havelis that retain that 'old and faded' look. 
Getting there:
Public transport exists- buses ply from Jaipur and between towns, but this is only recommended for those who are time-rich but cash poor. 

Arranging your own wheels makes it easier to get around within towns and from town to town. For 2000-3000 INR a day you should have your own car and chauffeur. Because it’s a long ride from Jaipur (or even Samode- another Minor Sight), try to spend at least one night in one of the towns. There are a few havelis that have been converted into heritage hotels. 

Useful links: website provides a useful overview.
Sherrel Cook's Tripsavvy pages on Shekhawati are excellent.