AROUND 200 years ago, Shekhawati, located in the middle of India’s barren Rajastan Thar Desert, became a magnet for the richest of tycoons.
That’s because the region, which was founded back in the 15th century, became a popular trade route during the 19th century. It quickly prospered and soon it was home to more than 100 villages, along with 50 forts and palaces.
In fact, almost a quarter of India’s 100 richest people are from Shekhawati, according to Forbes, including pharmaceutical billionaire Ajay Piramal and steel baron Laxim Mittal.
Many rich businessmen who had made their fortunes in Mumbai were lured by the promises of Shekhawati such as reduced taxes, and ended up even wealthier by trading opium, cotton and spices upon moving to the area.
Here they created lavish displays of their wealth, turning what were once modest homes into decadent havelis (mansions) which included elaborate courtyards and large gardens.
In an attempt to outdo each other, the wealthy businessmen commissioned artists to paint magnificent murals on their homes, often including images of the family, erotica, or religious scenes. The intricate artwork was a sign of great opulence, and it was backbreaking work.
Strewn across an area of more than 13,000sq km, Shekhawati was soon transformed into an open-air art gallery.
But sadly, it wasn’t to last. Over the first half of the 20th century, the wealthy occupants gradually abandoned their homes and moved to the bustling area of Mumbai and Calcutta, or even overseas.
By the 1950s the once-thriving towns were well and truly struggling, and with the havelis deemed private properties, the local government’s hands were tied as they couldn’t do much to preserve them.
As a result, many of the once grand mansions have decayed, with much of their former glory reduced to dust.
These days, Shekhawati is more like a land that time forgot.
However, there are still glimpses of the once-great architecture, and in a bid to preserve what remains two districts within Shekawati have banned the sale of havelis to those who may harm their heritage look.
It’s hoped the area will become a tourist destination.
While it’s still well off the beaten track, traveller Snigdha Sharma has described what it was like to visit the region, including neighbouring Nawalgarh, in an article forOutlook Traveller.
“The first haveli we went to was the Koolwal Haveli. At this point of time I had no idea what to expect — it was a 140-year-old abandoned structure entirely covered in frescoes.
“The front porch was huge and was covered with family portraits of the past five generations of the family.
“I was gaping at these portraits when I noticed something quite peculiar — the portraits of all the women of the family had their faces scratched off. My inquiries were in vain, nobody was ready to explain.”
It’s bound to be a fascinating sight for those willing to explore a little off the more popular Indian tourist hot spots.