Shekhawati is the arid region of the North Western districts of Rajasthan, generally encompassing Jhunjhunu district and parts of Sikar district. The name Shekhawati is derived from the Shekhawat Rajput clans that ruled these lands. However the prosperity of the Shekhawati region is due to the ancient and medieval caravan routes that halted and passed through this region and the commerce that took place thanks to the affluent merchant Marwari class.
Shekhawati is principally known for its Marwari houses and the frescoes on those walls of the wealthy merchant class. Some of these painted havelis date back over two centuries. These fresco paintings depict anything from Hindu mythology to English soldiers marching past to hunting scenes to erotic positions in the Kama Sutra on the outer walls of buildings! It is a pity that most of these havelis have been abandoned after the merchant class moved to the ports of Calcutta and Bombay.
Most of Shekhawati’s fresco glory would have been lost had it not been for the research and subsequent promotion done by some French enthusiasts like Francis Wacziarg who came to India in the 1970s and put Shekhawati, (among other places), on the international tourist map. And Shekhawati hasn’t looked back since!
Shekhawati had several small principalities or thikanas, notably Fatehpur, Dundlod, Nawalgarh, Mukundgarh, Jhunjhunu, Mandawa, Alsisar and several others. In terms of richness of frescoes and the sheer number of preserved albeit precariously abandoned painted havelis, arguably nothing matches Mandawa, Fatehpur and Nawalgarh. We have been visiting these places regularly. But recently, we happened to pass through Mandawa, one of my favourite villages in Shekhawati.
In Mandawa, I was riding through and was looking for an old friend of mine called Rupa. He is a magician. I mean a real life magician. He shows simple tricks on the roadside to passing foreign tourist groups, makes them laugh, entertains them with his wonderful bag of endless magic, like swallowing a five hundred gram iron ball and making it reappear in the pocket of an unsuspecting audience, or changing the colours of a page of a notebook with the flick of a finger and so on. Thus he manage to eke out a living from what the travellers leave behind as tips, some generous, some not so much.
I have seen his tricks many times and each time he has left me smiling. When I reached Mandawa, I saw his name written on some of the walls of houses in Mandawa. But unfortunately I could not find any other trace of him. I went around peeping into the beautiful havelis oft frequented by the seasoned traveller. But he was nowhere to be found. Maybe it was not the right time of the day. Maybe he was busy in something else other than magic. Maybe these were his practice hours. Whatever it was, visiting Mandawa and not seeing his brand of magic in the courtyard of a fresco painted Haveli, my visit remained incomplete. I rode out, thinking I had to come back. Again! Rupa the Magician, I remember you.