4 Essential Tips for Photographing the Havelis of India


Photo by Ry Sangalang
Photo by Ry Sangalang

In the North Eastern part of India, there’s a town called Nawalgargh, that has ancient mansions with unique frescoes. The locals call these mansions Havelis. The people that lived in Nawalgargh, the Marwaris, built these mansions as far back as 1830. To decorate their homes, the Marwaris hired skilled artists to paint scenes of animals, gods and high ranking officials. The artists painted these scenes throughout courtyards and the rooms of the house itself. Today you’ll find that some of the frescoes have retained their vibrant colors.

The following are 4 essential tips that you might consider to help you rediscover and photograph these timeworn paintings.

Tip #1: Hire a knowledgeable local guide

Photo by Ry Sangalang
Photo by Ry Sangalang

 When I arrived in Mandawa, my friend, Guermel introduced me to a young tour guide, Bhaghat. If India had hipsters, then Bhagat definitely would be one. He wore a well fitted outfit despite the hot weather. His shaggy hair fell over his trendy glasses. He had a thick mustache and a homemade cigarette tucked behind his ear. Because of his hipster vibe, he was a pleasant tour guide, but more importantly he was knowledgable.

 Before we started the walking tour, Bhaghat explained to me the history of the Havelis. He also explained to me the proper etiquette such as how much to tip each caretaker or owner.

 As we visited each Haveli, Bhaghat pointed out the best places to look for frescoes. He identified scenes of the god Krishna in dark corners of the house. He then would go into a short story about that particular painting and share interesting facts.

 I asked him about the fresco above with Krishna surrounded by many beautiful women.

 “Krishna was a very powerful god who rescued hundreds of girls from a demon.” Bhagat said. “After he rescued them, he also married them all.”

 I smiled, raised my eyebrows in surprise and nodded.

 A good guide will make your exploration of the Havelis more entertaining. Not only will you learn about the history, but he can show you artwork to photograph that you might have otherwise missed.

The photo below is of Jesus Christ. According to Bhagat, it is the only fresco in the entire village which depicts Jesus. Historically, most of the locals followed Hinduism therefore an ancient fresco like this one is very rare.  It was located outside underneath an awning of a haveli that was two stories tall. Without Bhagat, I never would have found it.

Tip #2 Bring a zoom lense to photograph high up art

Photo by Ry Sangalang
Photo by Ry Sangalang

Related to the photograph above, I recommend that you bring a zoom lense. Some frescoes are located two to three floors up, right underneath outdoor awnings.

The above photo was shot at 88mm. If I only had a wide angle lens, then I definitely would not have been able to capture this much detail. I would have shot a lot more wall and sky, which was not my goal.

Since you can’t move physically closer to an object several stories above you, unless you can fly, a zoom lens will help ensure that you are able to capture art that is high and hard to reach. 

Tip #3: Set your camera to a high ISO in dark corners

Photo by Ry Sangalang
Photo by Ry Sangalang

 The havelis don’t have any electricity or lights in them. Some of the rooms had oddly placed windows so many corners were covered in shadows.

 In low light situations, try setting your camera to a high ISO. If you don’t then you could end up with camera shake and your photo will turn out blurry.

To capture the photo above I had to set my ISO to at least 1000. Originally this particular corner was filled with darkness, but the high ISO allowed me to capture a decent photo. This of course caused the window in the back to become blown out, but that wasn’t my focus to begin with. 

You could also try opening up your aperture, but that depends on your desired depth of field. For this shot, since I knew I was going to possibly use the picture for a future art project such as a photomontage, I didn’t want a too shallow depth of field.

 Tip #4: Prepare a nice tip for the watchers

Photo by Ry Sangalang
Photo by Ry Sangalang

 One thing Bhagat taught me is that after visiting a Haveli, it’s proper etiquette to give away a small tip to the watcher on duty.

 Before you go on a long tour of the Havelis, be sure that you have some small bills on hand. If you don’t then ask to visit an ATM. Sometimes you’ll find that you’ll be more interested in taking a portrait of the current owner rather than the artwork. This makes a tip much more necessary.

 The photo above was taken of a man who has been taking care of this Haveli, since he was 8 years old. The tip may not seem like much to you, but it may seem like a lot to the person living there.

 Tipping keeps the local economy going and helps ensure that there is someone to protect the Haveli for future generations to explore.

 Visit the Havelis Nawlgargh and you’ll be treated to intricate artwork you will never see anywhere else. The old mansions have so much charm and  character that you’ll feel like you’re in an adventure movie in which you are the brave explorer. My experience with the Havelis of Nawalgargh was unforgettable. If you like ancient art I recommend that you put the Havelis in your itinerary and remember the essential tips above.

 What other tips can you think of for shooting ancient buildings with well aged art?

Have you photographed the hieroglyphics in the pyramids of Egypt? Do you know of a similar historic site that’s worth photographing?  Share with us some examples and of course, if you have any other tips for ancient monuments that you think I’ve missed, please share those as well!

Article written by Ry Sangalang. Ry is a surreal fine art photographer living in L.A. He travels the world to gather photos for his art works. You can find his blog at https://www.MakePhotoArt.com/

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