The painted towns of Shekhawati-7: Mahensar

Ilay Cooper’s book on Shekhawati set me off on an extraordinary trip to that extraordinary place in January this year. I had to wait for nearly 6 months, though, before I felt ready to write about it — so overwhelming were my thoughts and emotions. This post on Mahensar is the last of 8 posts in the series on “The Painted Towns of Shekhawati”. If you haven’t read the introduction to Shekhawati’s history (and the series), I recommend that you do so now, before proceeding further. If you have already done so, then dive straight into the post.


Mahensar is well-known for two things — the paintings inside a place called Sone Chandi ki Dukaan (or the Gold and Silver Shop) and a liquour made from saunf or aniseed. I knew about the first, having read about it in Ilay Cooper’s book, but was completely ignorant about the second, till the manager of the hotel I was staying in told me about it.

According to him, no Rajput wedding in the Shekhawati region was complete without this particular liquor being served to the wedding guests. Why, it was popular across Haryana, Punjab and Delhi and was also more famous than the frescoes of the region and with heritage value as well !

So when I arrived in Mahensar from Bissau at around 2 on that January afternoon, I was expecting to see more of the famous liquor around instead of the frescoes. And I probably would have, if had not been a local election day at Mahensar and, therefore, a dry day.  There weren’t too many people around and the few frescoes visible were faded and located high up on the haveli walls.

Mahansar, Mahensar, Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Fresco, Art Gallery, Painting, Heritage, Travel, RajasthanI thought of heading towards the Mahensar Fort, but my bad luck with Forts in Shekhawati continued — the Fort was now a hotel and out of bounds for the casual visitor. As I was looking around for a possible direction to head towards, a man came up to me with a large bunch of keys and said, “You must have come to see the Sone Chandi ki Dukaan. I’m the caretaker of that place. Come, I will open it up for you.” Mahansar, Mahensar, Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Fresco, Art Gallery, Painting, Heritage, Travel, RajasthanMahensar was inherited by Nawal Singh (yes, the same one who founded Nawalgarh) in 1746. He promptly built a Fort and also town walls, though nothing remains of the latter.

The Poddars were the most prominent bania family in Mahensar and are reported to have built 6 havelis. They made their fortunes in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and along with the more traditional style havelis, also built one shown in the photo below in an architectural style strongly reminiscent of houses in Calcutta. Sadly, this one did not have any visible frescoes, which was perhaps a good thing as the gates were chained together and locked.

Mahansar, Mahensar, Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Fresco, Art Gallery, Painting, Heritage, Travel, Rajasthan
A beautiful, but empty and locked, house with shuttered windows reminiscent of grand houses in Calcutta.

“This is the Sone Chandi Ki Dukaan,” the man with the keys announced as he stopped outside a plain, whitewashed traditional styled structure with a verandah. I looked a little dubiously at it for it seemed too plain. According to what I had read in Ilay Cooper’s books and other accounts too, the Dukaan or the shop did not sell gold or silver; rather the name came from the paintings inside which used gold liberally.

The man must have noticed the expression on my face for he said with a touch of amusement, “Don’t worry, Madam. All the sona and chandi are inside. You will like it.” Saying this he unlocked the doors and ushered me inside. Initially, I couldn’t make out much, but as my eyes adjusted to the dim light and the details started popping up, I was stunned into open-mouthedness (I know there is no such word, but there is really no equivalent to what I felt at that time).

The red and gold interiors of the dukaan was dazzling and in surprisingly good condition considering that they are over 150 years old. The dukaan is one long and narrow room with three vaulted ceilings. Each ceiling is intricately painted — one has scenes from the Ramayana in one, the central ceiling has the incarnations of Vishnu, and the third ceiling has scenes from the life of Krishna. The walls are also painted, but not as intricately as the ceilings.

As I walked though the dukaan, looking up at the ceiling and the paintings, one by one, noticing the details (and ignoring the growing crick in my neck), two things struck me: (i) the Mughal miniature style of painting, and (ii) the use of a water body to introduce a major break or shift in the narrative. In both the Ramayana set of paintings and those from the life of Krishna, it is the river or the sea that marks the shift in scene / phase of the story. Click on the photo below to see the full details.

Mahansar, Mahensar, Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Fresco, Art Gallery, Painting, Heritage, Travel, Rajasthan
Detail from the Ramayana:
Note how the water body — river on the left and sea on the right — mark turning points in the story. The central portion is about Rama’s exile in the forest, kidnapping of Sita, killing of Jatayu, meeting with Hanuman and Sugriva, killing of Vali and crossing over to Lanka

Though I was aware of certain narratives that mention of more than 10 avatars of Vishnu, I was still surprised to see 24 of them, including the better known 10 avatars. Initially, I was puzzled at the unfamiliar depictions, but after caretaker pointed them out to me it got clear. Unfortunately, except for two of the lesser known avatars, all the other photographs came out blurred and unfit to be shared here.

Presenting a set of 34 photographs from the Sone Chandi Ki Dukaan and also of some frescoes in Mahensar. Clicking on any of the captioned photographs will start a slide show. Though you can start the slide show from any photograph, I recommend that you begin with the first, and once you have finished seeing the photos, don’t forget to come back to read the rest of the post.

I left the Sone Chandi ki Dukaan in a bit of a daze, a massive neck ache from staring at the ceiling for so long, and questions buzzing in my head.

Who was this visionary artist?
How did he set about painting the interiors?
Why did he introduce the quirky element of soldiers in the East India company uniform in Rama’s wedding procession?
Did he develop a crick in the neck while painting?
How have these paintings survived for so long?
Why was a shop painted in such a grand manner?

I was feeling so overwhelmed that I did not feel like exploring the other havelis. All I wanted to do was to close my eyes and recall the paintings one by one — the fine details, the stories, the depiction. But I did see other frescoes and idly took their photographs without realising what I was clicking. Its only when I downloaded the photographs that I realised what I had seen that day.

Mahensar was the last of the painted towns I saw on that trip to Shekhawati. As I was waiting for my car to pick me up, the man who you can see in the photograph below asked me where all I’d been in Shekhawati. After listening to me, he gruffly said, “It’s not enough. You have to come back.”

Mahansar, Mahensar, Painted Towns of Shekhawati, Fresco, Art Gallery, Painting, Heritage, Travel, Rajasthan.Yes, I have to go back for there is so much more to see and experience in Shekhawati. And I will go back. Sooner rather than later. 🙂


Notes:

  1. Mahensar is in Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan and about 79 km and a 2-hour drive from Nawalgarh, my base in Shekhawati.
  2. Many of the havelis are locked up and empty. Some have just been abandoned, while some have caretakers who will allow you to see them for a small fee. For your own safety, I would advise extreme caution in deciding to enter such havelis.
  3. While most caretakers/watchmen of the havelis will ask for a token amount upfront before you see the haveli, some may not. In such cases, I would suggest that you pay them something when you leave.
  4. If you plan on picking up some liquor, buy it from the shop at the base of the Mahensar Fort. This was the advice given to me by the Manager of the hotel I was staying in.

Join me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as I explore Shekhawati and other places as well. 

The Painted Towns of Shekhawati Series: Introduction | Nawalgarh | Dundlod | Mandawa | Lakshmangarh | Fatehpur | Bissau | Mahensar

Other Shekhawati-related posts: The Shekhawati trip planner | The painter of murals | Messages on the wall: The graffiti of Nawalgarh | The stepwell at Lohargal | The garbage well |


30 thoughts on “The painted towns of Shekhawati-7: Mahensar

  1. The Sone Chandi ki dukan paintings are awesome in their detailing. Very beautiful. Why did they paint such beautiful stuff? Could it be to show off their wealth? Could it be only one person did all the paintings? Imagine the house occupied with artists craning their necks or better still lying on a makeshift harness and painting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Though-provoking questions, Lata. Let me share my views on each of them:

      1. Why did they paint such beautiful stuff? That is an existential question and one that is almost difficult to answer. But let me put forth my views. An element of show-off definitely exists not just here, but all over the painted havelis in Shekhawati. I wonder if the first person who got his painted even dreamt off the domino effect that he would create. Big or small, all bania havelis were painted. Some like the owner of the Sone Chandi Ki Dukaan went the extra step of using gold and silver in a place that was really a shop. Good for business? Definitely.
      2. Could it be only one person did all the paintings? the saddest thing here is we don’t know who painted these. But from what I have seen the Ramayana and Krishna series have been done by the same person — the style and detailing is the same. The ‘carpeted’ ceiling and the 24 avatars has a very different style and in all probability was done by someone else. Again, in this set I feel that the avatars themselves have finer details, so could have been painted by a third person. Then there are some paintings on the walls, which are again different and indicates the presence of another artist. What binds all of them together is the colour palette. Maybe it was a master artist and his apprentices? I don’t know.

      And the house that you mention with artists craning their necks or lying in harness and painting? Its only the ceiling of one narrow room that has been painting. Not the entire house. Everything else is bare. 🙂

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  2. i am absolutely mesmerized by the paintings, sudha… not just the gold, but the colour combinations, the detailing, the stories. and the portrayal. hats off to the painters who created these masterpieces. and now i want to go there… and see all these… and more… if possible, stay at one of these gorgeously painted havelis! sigh! if wishes were horses…. i would be there by now 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The paintings have that effect, anuradha. I spent more than 2 hours in that small and dim room looking up at the paintings and going through the details slowly. While the Vishnu avatars grab your attention, watching the Ramayana and the life of Krishna unfold on the ceiling was something that I just cannot describe. Familiarity with the stories and the mythology is of course essential to truly appreciate and understand the paintings.

      More than anything else — the colours, the style — I have loved the depiction and how the characters look local wearing clothes and jewellery specific to the design. I also loved the fact that all the water bodies have been shown teeming with life (fish and turtles can be clearly made out) and how they bring the break or shift in the narrative. Simple change in the width of the water body depicts whether it is a tributary, a river or the sea ! These subtle details made all the difference in an enriching and rewarding visit to Mahensar.

      I can fully understand your wish to be transported there, and when you do go there, do remember to take a torch with you. 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much, Modern Gypsy. I did wonder if you got to read them or at least see the pictures. Was planning on mailing you with the links to all the posts and asking for your feedback. 🙂

      The Sone Chandi ki Dukaan is stunning – the way the pictures come into focus in a dim room has to be experienced. hope you get to visit Mahensar.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh yes yes…I’ve been reading and following! I’ve just been very very busy, and even to like a post you have to be signed into WP, which I wasn’t when I was reading them. Sowwie!

        I do hope to be able to visit Mahensar. Fingers crossed! 🙂

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  3. Really stunning pictures .. the painting of Shravan Kumar carrying his parents is so poignant. The first picture with the shuttered windows is so typical of old Calcutta houses. I lived in one with shuttered windows.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Neena.

      I found the picture of Shravan Kumar very interesting as the representations I have seen have always shown him as a young Brahmin boy either with a tuft or with a full head of hair, but always clean shaven. To see him dressed like a Rajput was a complete surprise so much so that if he hadn’t been shown carrying his parents in the basket, I would have wondered who he was !

      It is wonderful how art can challenge one’s perceptions and beliefs about people and characters.

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    1. Thank you, Shubham. I have still to visit Churu, Bagar, Jhunjhunu, Sethion ka Ramgarh and Sikar if not more. And I would want to visit Mahensar again. Don’t know when this visit will happen, but will definitely let you know when it does. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hello…. Visited this beautiful place today and was stunned to see the interior, wall and roof. However the guide did not.sat about 24 avatars but 8 only. And showed 8…
    Other very interesting thing he told about Sone kee lanka painting in the corner of roof. At one angle it appears to just gold painted lanka, however looking at from another angle, as the sun light reflects in the morning, this turns into 3d golden lanka… Worth seeing…….

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