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Mandawa is just over 100 kilometres north of Jaipur in northern Rajasthan, but it could be on a different planet. Located north of the Aravalli Hills on an incredibly arid, dusty plain, its painted havelis – or merchants' mansions – have been unusually well preserved. In the 18th century the market town of Mandawa was inhabited by a community of merchant families of the region.  These wealthier merchants began to build havelis to live in and they painted the ornate exteriors to produce these stunning buildings. Such is the incredible quality and variation in Mandawa, the 300-square-kilometre Shekhawati area is often referred to as an "open air art gallery".

Mandawa is a small town, perfect for exploration on foot to get up close to these unique havelis. Made from sandstone, the havelis are usually built around two courtyards, the smaller, more discreet one acting as a zenana for the women, and although many are falling into disrepair through lack of funding, many are truly charming, often featuring aspects of colonial life – such as the railways or western dress – seen through the observant eyes of locals. 

Amongst the narrow lanes of Mandawa are the most famous havelis: Murmuria Haveli and Jhunjhunwala Haveli. The Murmuria Haveli has paintings by Balu Ram in 1930, whose work include a fascinating look at an art form that merges East and West, for example the fresco of Lord Krishna with his cows in an English courtyard and gondolas in Venice. The haveli also depicts a tableau showing a modern scene of industrialism featuring a train at railway crossing. Visitors who choose to explore the interior of Jhunjhunwala Haveli will be rewarded with an opulent room shimmering with gold leaf.

In the centre of Mandawa is the 18th century Mandawa Fort, which is now a heritage hotel. The fort was built by Nawal Singh, who was the first descendant of the Shekhawati rulers, and displays an imposing and impressive architecture, through Medieval turrets, multi-tiered terraces and an interior that showcases grand family portraits and antique cannons alongside paintings of Lord Krishna and beautifully carved mirrors.

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