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Despite the relative poverty of the desert people, and the harsh living conditions that they endure, the Rajasthanis are a colourful, happy and proud people with a culture deeply rooted in tradition. The Rajasthanis are traditional to the point of being orthodox and extremely conservative, especially in matters of caste and community. Till not so long back, women were restricted to living within the purdah and education and careers were distant dreams for most women. In matters of honour, the Rajasthanis are very touchy and any insult, real or imagined can end in bloodbaths, even today.

But the flip side is that the people have an amazing zest for life and are as fun loving as industrious. They have a rich tradition of folk music and dance, each region with its own dance styles, songs and music. Several communities of professional performers - the Bhaats, Dholis, Mirasis, Nats, Bhopas and Bhands, spend their lives going from village to village. The villagers patronise them and even participate in their performances.

The semi-arid Shekhawati region in the northeast that make up Jhunjhunu and Sikar district, have developed a rich artistic tradition since the mid-18th century. As if to brighten the drab landscape, the walls and ceilings of the 'havelis' (mansions) in village after village are decorated with exquisite frescoes. You won't find such a large concentration of frescoes anywhere else in the world.

The crafts that have developed in this colourful albeit arid desert land are innumerable in their range and variety. Though the Rajput rulers were constantly at war, craftsmen and artisans were encouraged to absorb the refinements of the Mughal courts. They gave stone, leather, glass, wood, clay, ivory, brass, silver, gold and textiles the most brilliant shapes and forms as they breathe life into them to produce an astounding range of handicrafts

Rajasthan is famed for its textiles, tie and dye, block printing, embroidery and silver and gold relief work on fabric. These are converted into an irresistible selection of furnishings and apparel. Some items worth a buy include the lightweight cotton quilts which are surprisingly warm, elegant gold and silver jewellery, leather goods, furniture, miniature paintings, blue pottery and woollen carpets in Mughal designs.

Raja Man Singh of Amer (Jaipur) brought five Sikh enamel workers from Lahore to Jaipur in the 16th century to introduce the art of 'meenakari' craft to the local craftsmen. Today, Jaipur's 'meenakari' (coloured enamel work) has acquired world fame. 'Kundankari' is another traditional craft in which precious and semi precious stones are set in 'lac' or lacquer inlaid in gold. The lacquer background is then hidden with refined gold wire. These skills go to produce the most fabulous jewellery, whether in gold and precious stones fit for queens, or as silver ornaments worn by the peasants. The religious cloth paintings of Nathdwara or Pichhawais depicting gods and goddesses and the brightly coloured phad cloth paintings of rural Rajasthan make excellent wall hangings.