JYOTI BASOTIA AND her husband Vishnu are investing what is to them a small fortune - US$36,000 - to keep history alive. That's how much it's costing the couple to restore their haveli - a traditional north Indian courtyard home - and convert it into a guest house. They hope the hotel project will save their home in Nawalgarh, a town in the Shekhawati region, in northeast Rajasthan, famous for its ornate heritage homes. 'These buildings are beautiful and a very important part of this region's history, but they're very expensive to maintain and difficult to renovate,' Jyoti Basotia says. Owners often can't afford the upkeep and many havelis in her neighbourhood are being destroyed as a result. 'It's a great pity,' she says. Besides repairing the structure, another snag in the renovation work is the dearth of skilled artisans who can touch up the frescos that decorate the walls. 'The artists that can paint these frescos just aren't around any more,' says Basotia. To cut costs, she tells the workmen to paint over the intricate fresco of Hindu deities in her dining hall, keeping patches of wall blank until they can be decorated in the traditional style. 'When these skills are available again, we will make use of them,' she says. The three-year transformation of Basotia's family mansion into the Thikana Hotel is expected to be completed next month, but she's uncertain whether she'll recoup her investment. 'We haven't had many tourists yet,' she says. 'One of our problems is that we're not in any guide book.' Most of the havelis in Shekhawati were built during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the semi-arid region profited from being on a strategic trade route between the fertile Ganges Valley and the ports of the Arabian Sea. Seen as status symbols by wealthy banking and merchant families, the mansions were built on a grand scale, with separate courtyards for men and women, ornately carved window frames and elaborate gateways. Teams of artists decorated walls and ceilings with frescos of Indian deities, local celebrities and the world's latest inventions, using techniques that had been imported from Italy under Mughal rule. But Shekhawati's fortunes waned and more than half of its 1,000 havelis have been in a steady decline for decades. Many have been turned into shops and now sport ugly concrete facades. Others have been obscured by poster advertisements plastered over the once-prized paintwork. Their decline spurred Nawalgarh businessman Ramesh Jangid to found a non-governmental organisation, The Friends of Shekhawati, in 1993 to try to halt the trend. 'Our heritage has to be saved. You won't find anything like this anywhere else in the world,' Jangid says. 'But the wealthy families that built these homes in former times have left the area. There was a gradual exodus, and many now live in big cities such as Mumbai and Calcutta. They don't care about the havelis any more.' Most havelis are looked after by caretaker families who have little interest in maintaining the properties, he says. Meanwhile, Jangid says, leaks from the water mains installed in recent decades have raised moisture level in the ground, causing the brick and lime buildings to crumble. He tried to buy a haveli for conversion into a hotel, but encountered what he describes as the 'typical setback' in acquiring one. 'Ownership had been passed down through the family, so maybe the haveli may be owned by four, or six, or eight people - brothers and cousins,' he says. 'They may not even know each other any more. To make a deal with that many people is close to impossible. They may simply not want to have any dealings with their relatives.' Jangid fears the future of the havelis looks bleak. 'Most will disappear,' he says. Minja Yang, director of the Unesco office in New Delhi, says that part of the dilemma for havelis is they are not protected under Indian law. 'While many of the country's monuments are protected by law, the civil architecture is not,' she says. 'In India, it's very difficult to get private buildings protected.' Yang encourages state and national officials to invest in the preservation of havelis and other types of private structures, while suggesting that converting the homes into museums and hotels could be their best chance of survival. One project involved French artist Nadine Le Prince, who bought an impressive haveli in Fatehpur for US$70,000 eight years ago. She spent US$150,000 renovating the 1802 building, and has turned it into a gallery, museum and exchange centre for art students, the Haveli Nadine Prince. In Nawalgarh, former heritage official Basandani Hotchand is mid-way through the four-year conservation of Morarka Haveli Museum, a showcase 106-year-old property beside the Naya Bazaar, at the behest of its owner, politician Kamal Morarka. 'There were so many problems with the building,' says Hotchand, the museum's director. 'There were cracks and holes in the walls and ceilings. Some walls were deteriorating and had turned black. The window frames were being eaten away by termites.' Hotchand, who studied fresco preservation in Rome during the 1970s, has also employed a team of six workmen who are reviving the traditional skill of painting wet plaster with vegetable dyes in an effort to refresh the frescos. Although he concedes that most havelis will disintegrate in time, Hotchand remains optimistic. He estimates that about 10 per cent will be preserved through various projects. 'When they become dilapidated, we feel sorry for their loss, but try to preserve what's left,' he says. 'The process has started. Owners are beginning to take an interest in their conservation, more tourists are visiting, and the government and media are beginning to get involved. Responsible people are starting to see the importance of reviving our heritage.'