Stepping through the small opening cut in a colossal iron-studded wooden door of the mansion, we left behind a dusty brown village street and entered a fantasy world of color. From wall to ceiling, every...

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MANDAWA, India — Stepping through the small opening cut in a colossal iron-studded wooden door of the mansion, we left behind a dusty brown village street and entered a fantasy world of color.

From wall to ceiling, every available surface of the 79-year-old Newatia Mansion was covered with paintings: elephants carrying triumphant kings, the amorous god Krishna frolicking with milkmaids, scenes of great battles, and amazingly, the first flight by the Wright brothers!

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“Don’t miss that one,” said our guide, 14-year-old Kamlesh, who had insisted on showing us her village’s treasures — a dozen or so mansions bursting with an astounding range of frescoes that attract thousands of foreign tourists and photographers every year.

Mandawa, a village of open drains and wandering cows, is but one jewel in a vast open art gallery of painted mansions, or havelis, in dozens of towns of northern India’s Shekhawati region.


Getting there: Mandawa is about 155 miles west of India’s capital, New Delhi, which has the closest international airport. It takes about six hours to drive from New Delhi, as roads in Rajasthan state are in bad condition. Jhunjhunu is the nearest railhead to Mandawa. Trains run between Jhunjhunu and New Delhi, and between Jhunjhunu and the state capital, Jaipur, 110 miles to the south, where there is a domestic airport.

Best time to visit: October to March, when the weather is coolest before the sizzling desert summer sets in. A bonus is a visit during the Hindu festival of color, Holi, which will be observed March 25 in 2005.

Tips: Bring mosquito repellent, sturdy footwear, hat and drink lots of water.

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Located in the desert state of Rajasthan, the region is said to have the largest concentration of household frescoes in the world, inspired mostly by religion, folklore and great social events, such as man’s first flight.

In the anonymous artist’s imagination, two wealthy Indian couples standing next to a palm tree are waving at the airborne Wilbur and Oliver Wright while a late-comer spectator pedals toward the historic event on a bicycle.

“I show that painting to everybody,” said Kamlesh, an eighth-grader who sells candies during holidays. She had abandoned her cart of goodies to accompany me and my wife on a tour of Mandawa’s havelis. For free. “You are Indians. I won’t take money from you,” she said.

Each one of the havelis is more brightly decorated than the other with unimaginably vivid frescoes on subjects ranging from religious to mundane, historic to absurd, exotic to erotic.

Most of the havelis were built during the 18th and 19th centuries by wealthy merchants, or seths, who commissioned armies of artisans to painstakingly trace and color the vivid pictures.

The artistry and profusion of the frescoes — not just the size of the mansions — became a status symbol, as owners tried to outdo each other, hiring the best talent in town.

No part of the mansion was left uncovered, and colorful stories sprang up from walls, pillars, arches, window sills, ceilings and even the space behind doors.

Intense rivalry between two seths in the town of Churu led to the construction of the biggest havelis in the region with one mansion ventilated by 1,100 windows. Another seth built a haveli on 1,000 pillars.

Shekhawati’s grand mansions throw out rare bursts of color in an otherwise bleak desert landscape, and speak of the financial exploits of its business community, known as Marwaris.

Amid the abject poverty of the region, the Marwaris of Shekhawati succeeded in amassing huge fortunes through the sale of rice, opium cotton, spices and textiles. Today, their family names — Birla, Goenka, Piramal, Dalmia, Singhania, S. Kumar — are synonymous with India’s industrial might.

With growing wealth and business, the Marwaris moved to cities such as Calcutta, New Delhi and Bombay, and within a generation were managing huge business empires from air-conditioned glass skyscrapers.

Their mansions in Shekhawati, meanwhile, lie abandoned or in the care of indifferent tenants, in one case looked after by a one-eyed guard. Smoke from cooking fires has defaced many of the paintings. Harsh desert sun, dust and neglect has peeled the sheen off others.

One can walk into any haveli uninvited, and welcoming resident caretakers will show you around for free. But there are no efforts to preserve or conserve the mansions, and local guides predict the frescoes will disappear within a decade or two.

The marvels of Mandawa and its neighboring towns would have faded away unnoticed but for a chance visit by a writer, Francis Wacziarg, to the castle of Mandawa’s erstwhile ruler in 1979.

Wacziarg was researching Indian frescoes and had heard about Mandawa. He was invited to spend the night at the castle, which also has fabulous wall paintings.

Wacziarg left Mandawa with a deep impression and persuaded French writer Dominique Lapierre to visit the castle. Lapierre did so in October 1979 with a group of 70 French tourists, who were accommodated at the castle by the family. That marked the birth of group tourism in Shekhawati.