200km (124 miles) SW of Delhi; 160km (99 miles) NW of Jaipur

Shekhawati, known as the open-air art gallery of Rajasthan, lies in the roughly triangular area between Delhi, Jaipur, and Bikaner, and encompasses the districts of Jhunjhunu, Sikar, and Churu. Its largely semidesert, wide-open (uninhabited) spaces offer a peaceful respite from the cities, and its ubiquitous evergreen kejri trees create a far greener landscape than the Jaisalmer area. But the primary drawing card is its remarkable art collection -- unusual for the unique painting styles and for the fact that the exhibition space consists of the exterior and interior walls of literally hundreds of havelis, temples, cenotaphs, wells, and forts in the region. The trend for decorating walls in this way was imported from the courts of Amber and Jaipur, where the Rajput princes in turn were inspired by the Mughal emperors' patronage of the miniature-mural art form. The Shekhawati's patronage was funded by duties imposed on merchandise carried across that section of the Spice Route that traversed their region (cleverly, the local barons here ensured that their duties were lower than those of the house of Jaipur, thereby diverting trade), or by raids across the borders, but patronage truly flourished during the British Raj, a period when the Shekhawati merchants, renowned for their business acumen, moved to the ports of Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay to capitalize on the growing trade in these new centers. There they made small fortunes and celebrated their wealth by adorning their mansions -- an age-old urge, and the result here is a great deal more interesting than anything Martha Stewart might have suggested.

The demand was such that skilled artists could not paint fast enough. Even local masons tried their hand, injecting a wonderful naiveté and humor into many of the paintings. Subject matters vary tremendously, from mythological stories and epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata to local legends of battles and hunts and of course the ever-present erotica, nearly all of which has now been painted over; but perhaps the most amusing are copies of British photographs featuring hot-air balloons, "airships," trains, and cars -- objects most of the painters had never set their eyes on but faithfully rendered according to the descriptions and prints supplied by their employers.

Today there are some 30 "painted towns" in the region, but the most essential to include in a first-time itinerary are Ramgarh (the town with the most painted buildings), Nawalgarh (second in number, but with a superior selection, some better preserved than Ramgarh's, particularly the restored Anandi Lal Poddar Haveli), Fatehpur (together with Jhunjhunu, this is Shekhawati's oldest town, featuring murals that predate any others in the region as well as the Haveli Française; see box below), and Mandawa (a quaint town with a number of beautiful painted buildings, and centrally located with the best accommodations in the area).

Armed with a good map and a car and driver, it is relatively easy to explore the surrounds on your own -- not least because of the usual army of small kids eager to accompany you and point out the relevant sights. But to know more about the history of the buildings, the artisans, and the area, you may wish to hire the services of a guide through the hotels listed below. Most of the buildings are uninhabited and caretaker families usually look after the ones that are, with the real owners being in the big Indian cities of Kolkata and Delhi; and are accessible for a small fee (Rs 10/15-Rs 20/25 per haveli to the caretaker or watchman); negotiating payment (and whether you should offer to pay at all) is where a guide comes in handy. (Remember that, as is the case in all temples, you may need to remove your shoes to enter the inhabited havelis; ask before you enter.) Although the region evokes real passion in some and has resulted in a number of excellent books, it must be said that many of the murals are mere shadows of their former selves, either defaced by human indifference -- posters and graffiti mar many of the walls -- or faded by the increased water supply to the region, the rise in the water table creating damper conditions.

Note that including this area in your itinerary can be tricky, unless you are intent on traveling the long, dusty haul through Bikaner (where overnighting is not advised) to Jaisalmer, or journeying directly from Delhi and then moving on to Jaipur or vice versa, both of which mean many hours spent on a bumpy, nerve-wracking road with virtually no scenery except the brightly colored boulder-laden trucks bearing down on you. You should know that the area has become a European tour groups' delight and seems to be oversold by French and Italian agents.