Inside India’s exquisite haveli mansions

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When it comes to wall decorations, it’s hard to beat an Indian haveli.

Havelis, mostly built more than a century ago by the Marwari community in India, are mansions adorned with frescoes so exquisite that they’ve become a tourist attraction.

The Marwari amassed great fortunes in cotton, indigo and opium trading. They then hired artists to decorate their huge homes to boast their wealth. The colorful wall murals are often visual diaries of the owners. Daily life and travel memoirs are depicted, as well as popular imagery, folk mythology and even erotica.

Disappearing havelis

There are more than 2,000 painted havelis spread across India's Shekhawati region.

Over the years, most of these heritage havelis crumbled away to be replaced by modern structures or had their artworks painted over. Today, the best chance of seeing them in their glory is by visiting northeastern Rajasthan state’s Shekhawati region, where there’s a cluster of more than 2,000 painted havelis.

A haveli is usually multistory, organized around two courtyards. Traditionally, the opulent outer courtyard is strictly reserved for meetings and trade while the inner courtyard is home to a large extended family. Some havelis have been converted into hotels or museums.

Most remain privately owned but caretakers will sometimes show visitors around for a small fee (Rs50-100, or $0.8-1.5).

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Lived-in artworks

Vivaana Culture Hotel restored and preserved the original features of two havelis.

The best place to see century-old frescoes up-close is at Vivaana Culture Hotel (Churi-Ajitgarh, Mandawa; +91 98 1127 6231).

The 23-room hotel is composed of two 19th century havelis, restored by hotelier Atul Khanna. A heritage lover and an entrepreneur, Khanna traveled more than 2,000 kilometers before chancing upon these aging buildings.

“It took us more than five years of negotiation with multiple owners to buy these havelis,” Khanna tells CNN. “Then restoration took us another three good years.”

“The biggest challenge was to get the plumbing done for each private bathroom.”

It’s easy to spend days admiring the intricate walls with their illustrations of religious stories, portraits and floral patterns. Alongside original features, new luxury elements have been added – private baths, minimalist chic furnishing and a swimming pool.

Rooms 103, 104 and 106 are the most impressive with detailed wall art, painted floors and grand baths. Adding to the atmosphere, local bards gather each evening to sing their high pitch tunes. The hotel is a great starting point for exploring neighboring towns and guided day trips of other havelis can be organized.


This fresco of Jesus Christ adorns the walls in the Kamal Morarka Haveli Museum.

Located 22 kilometers from the Vivaana Culture Hotel, the town of Nawalgarh has one of the region’s highest concentration of painted havelis – close to 200.

Kamal Morarka Haveli Museum (Naya Bazar, Nawalgarh; contact: Dr Hotchand, conservation director, +91 93 5176 7266) was built in the 1900s by the prominent Morarka family.

The outer and inner courtyards are decorated with mythology-themed murals and the entrance has a carved wooden door surrounded by mirror work.

Kamal M Morarka, a descendent of the family, decided to turn his “treasure house of frescoes” into a museum in 1995. Conservator Dr. Hotchand has been working for years to preserve close to 700 original artworks.

“The most interesting part of these frescoes are the indigenous techniques and materials,” Hotchand tells CNN. “Earth color was derived from minerals, blue from indigo, white from lime, red from vermilion and black from kohl.”

Not far from Kamal Morarka sits the grand Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum (Rambilas Podar Road, Nawalgarh; +91 15 9422 5446).

Constructed in 1902, the museum has more than 750 restored frescoes that cover more than 11,200 square meters. Religious deities, folklore and portraits of British men and women are all depicted.

The 19th-century Bhagton ki Choti Haveli (Near Podar Gate) has some of the most eclectic wall imagery. The entrance is adorned with interesting murals of a locomotive and a ship. The facade of the outer courtyard is covered with a scene composed of a royal procession, a portrait of Queen Victoria, English memsahibs and some religious imagery.

Among favorites is a room on the upper floor with a uniformed pipe smoker with a small dog on his shoulder. A caretaker at Bhagton ki Haveli walks visitors through the murals for a small fee.

Mandawa, Dundlod and Fatehpur

Colorful doors often lead the way into the world of havelis.

Completed in 1875, the Seth Arjundas Goenka Haveli (Dundlod; contact: Mohan Goenka; +91 98 8405 3841) sits between Mandawa and Nawalgarh.

In addition to the colorful murals, the mansion once occupied by the Goenka family includes a display depicting life in a traditional haveli. A booklet of cotton samples from Kettelwell Bullen & Co. highlights the family’s trade in textiles.

Mandawa town is home to more than 175 havelis. Most of them are either closed or occupied by families of caretakers, but many allow visitors to take a look for a fee.

The best place to start is at Chokhani Double Haveli (Ward 5, Mandawa). Visitors can only get as far as the outer courtyard, but the artworks there are worth the visit, especially the paintings of Hindu deity Krishna.

The 140-year-old Snehi Ram Ladia Haveli (Mandawa) is also open to visitors. Meanwhile, interesting frescoes can be seen just by strolling through the local market, which is lined with havelis.

Le Prince Nadine Cultural Centre (Pulia, Fatehpur) in the village of Fatehpur is a gem. Built in 1802 by the Devras family, this haveli has been restored and turned into an artists’ residency and gallery by French painter Nadine Le Prince. Le Prince manages and guides tours at the building with some volunteers. A heritage walk around the city is also offered.

How to get there: Shekhawati can be easily reached by road via Delhi (260 kilometers) and from Jaipur (175 kilometers).

This article was originally published in December 2015

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Divya Dugar freelances as a photojournalist for various publications and produces documentaries.