The painted rooms of Bundi Palace

When our group arrived at the ticket counter for the Bundi Palace on that November morning in 2016, the sight before me took my breath away. A path ascended and disappeared seemingly into nowhere, while part of the Palace loomed up above me, soaring up to the skies. In the distance, walls of the Taragarh Fort snaked away, disappearing into the mountainside it was built on.

Taragarh Palace, Taragarh Fort, Bundi Palace, Art, Painted Rooms of Bundi Palace, Royal Wall Paintings, Bundi School of Painting, Travel, Rajasthan, Incredibl India

If I had been awed by that first sight of the Palace and Fort when I had arrived in Bundi, I was spellbound now. I couldn’t help but recall Rudyard Kipling’s words when he first saw the Fort and the Palace at Bundi in the winter of 1887.

such a Palace [is] … the work of goblins rather than of men. It is built into and out of the hillside, in gigantic terrace on terrace, and dominates the whole of the city.

Our group was at the palace to see the paintings within and our explorations weren’t too different from Kipling’s. Like him, we too walked up a steep, stone-paved path and entered the Bundi Palace Complex through the Hathipol, and then explored its many corridors, rooms, halls, etc. with a guide authorised to unlock the many closed areas and tell us stories about them. [1]

Taragarh Palace, Taragarh Fort, Bundi Palace, Art, Painted Rooms of Bundi Palace, Royal Wall Paintings, Bundi School of Painting, Travel, Rajasthan, Incredibl India
The stone-paved approach to Hathipol, the entrance to the Bundi Palace
Taragarh Palace, Taragarh Fort, Bundi Palace, Art, Painted Rooms of Bundi Palace, Royal Wall Paintings, Bundi School of Painting, Travel, Rajasthan, Incredibl India
The Hathipol or Elephant Gate was built by Maharao Ratan Singh between 1607-1631

Our story, in the context of the painted rooms of Bundi Palace, begins in 1569, when the king of Bundi, Rao Surjan Singh (r. 1554-1585), allied himself with the Mughal Emperor Akbar and his Empire. Rao Surjan Singh was awarded the governorship of Varanasi. Successive Bundi rulers, too, served or campaigned for the Mughals in distant places from as far as Afghanistan’s Balkh region in the north to Odisha in the east to the Deccan in the South. All this meant that the rulers got exposed to artistic and cultural traditions and experiences, both of which they brought back to Bundi.

Taragarh Palace, Taragarh Fort, Bundi Palace, Art, Painted Rooms of Bundi Palace, Royal Wall Paintings, Bundi School of Painting, Travel, Rajasthan, Incredibl IndiaRao Surjan Singh and his son Rao Bhoj Singh (r.1585-1607) began the construction of what would grown into the Bundi Palace Complex. As the political and economic power of Bundi grew due to their association with the Mughal Empire, successive rulers of Bundi built their own buildings and added to the Bundi Palace Complex.

The palaces built by Rao Bhoj Singh (Bhoj Mahal), his son Rao Ratan Singh (r. 1607-31) (Ratan Mahal), and great-grandson Rao Chattrasal (r.1631-58) (Chattar Mahal) form the core of the Bundi Palace Complex, from which other units extended. Over decades and centuries, several interconnected palace units grew into the massive Bundi Palace Complex that exists today.

Wall paintings in the palaces were initiated by Rao Bhoj Singh and Rao Ratan Singh, and these “remain the earliest, finest and best preserved royal wall paintings in India”. [2] These early Bundi wall-paintings indicate

a Rajput court fascinated by the new worlds it has encountered, whether Mughal, Deccani, or European, and eager to explore new artistic experiences. [3]

Taragarh Palace, Taragarh Fort, Bundi Palace, Art, Painted Rooms of Bundi Palace, Royal Wall Paintings, Bundi School of Painting, Travel, Rajasthan, Incredibl India
Beautifully painted frames with a distinctly Mughal aesthetic on the walls of a room in the (?) Ratan Mahal.

The Bundi Palace Complex is beyond huge and for a visitor, a confusing mix of corridors, halls, rooms, staircases, terraces, courtyards and dead-ends. The inter-connectedness of the various palace units makes the palace seem like a labyrinth. If not for Kukkiji, our guide, I would never have found my way around or once in the painted rooms, lost track of time.

Not all parts of the Palace are open to the public, but we were lucky that day. Thanks to a very persuasive Kukkiji, we were able to see many of the painted rooms — Badal Mahal, Chattar Mahal, Phool Mahal, and Chitrashala. Each set of painted rooms was a burst of colour, design and style that left my senses buzzing. If Badal Mahal was all red, white and gold with some blue, at Chattar Mahal it was largely red, gold and indigo. While turquoise is an occasional colour in the Phool Mahal; it is the dominant shade, along with white and black, in the Chitrashala.

Each set of painted rooms was distinct from the others and together represented a tradition of around 300 years of wall paintings in the Bundi Palace Complex. As I moved from room to room, it was interesting to see the change from a predominantly Central Asian/Persian style in the oldest set of painted rooms (Badal Mahal) to an indigenous ‘Indian’ style in the youngest set (Chitrashala). It is believed that the earliest artists came from the Mughal ateliers and their work influenced local artists at Bundi as well. But this influence was “quickly subsumed by a deeply rooted, indigenous sensibility and expressed through the Rajput artistic tradition of Rajasthan” [3] as you will see later on in the post.

Let me now take you through each of the painted rooms I saw. Each set has brief write-up followed by a set of photographs. Click on any image to enlarge it; you can then use the left or right arrow keys to navigate through that set. Once done with a set, do come back to continue reading the rest.

Badal Mahal

Badal Mahal or “Cloud Palace” is the uppermost level of Rao Bhoj Singh’s Mahal. It is a small room, about 4.3 x 7.3 mts in size, and the experience of viewing the wall paintings there is magnified due to its intimate size. The paintings, which are the oldest in Bundi Palace, were done from 1600 to around 1640.

When I walked into Badal Mahal, I was immediately lost in the brilliant reds that dominated the room, especially on the ceiling. If I hadn’t got a crick in my neck from looking up all the time, I might never have noticed the wall paintings, which cover every inch in the Badal Mahal, including the side walls of the niches. The ceiling is centred on a rasa maṇḍala or Krishna’s rasa leela. Other paintings in the Badal Mahal include the avatars of Vishnu, ragamala paintings, hunting scenes, as well as depictions of Shiva, Brahma, Durga and Saraswati. There were many favourites in this room, but one painting I couldn’t take my eyes of was of Chandra as a crescent moon in a chariot drawn by a pair of black bucks.

Initially, I thought all the paintings were uniform in style. But as I looked closer and the details became more apparent, the differences emerged. For example, the paintings in the niches were done by one set of artists, the rasa maṇḍala was done another group, and the paintings in the squinches by yet another group. Considering the size of the Badal Mahal, only a few artists would have been able to work in that space at a time. Perhaps, that was the reason painting was a continuous activity for decades.

Chattar Mahal

The Chattar Mahal was built between 1631-58, though the paintings date from a later age. It comprises a large pillared hall that opens into several small rooms, of which I saw two with wall paintings.

While the paintings in the pillared hall are fairly well-preserved, the wall paintings in one of the two I saw was not. The paintings there appear to be covered in soot, but in all likelihood have just darkened over the centuries. In some places, the paintings have flaked off exposing the plaster underneath. In spite of this, most of the paintings can be identified, ragamala paintings. The paintings in the second inner room are in fairly good shape, including a ceiling painted in a blaze of rich red and gold.

The paintings that do survive in the Chattar Mahal are exquisite, especially a Vishnu in the form of Ranganatha (the family deity for the Bundi rulers) and one of Shiva with the Ganga emerging from his matted locks. But my favourite painting is the one of the slightly cross-eyed and bemused looking Surya on the ceiling in one of the inner rooms.

Phool Mahal

The Phool Mahal is on the middle level of the palace built by Raja Bhoj. Built between 1585-1607, it comprises a columned hall and a small room leading off from it, both with wall paintings and inlay work of coloured stone or glass on the walls and ceiling. Like most palace units, it is architecturally very distinct from the others.

It is not entirely clear when the wall paintings were done, but to me they appear to be younger than the paintings at Badal Mahal. While some of the paintings in the Phool Mahal do depict religious themes, most of the paintings show everyday life, royal and religious processions, and festivals. My favourite painting from the Phool Mahal is one of a row of horse riders facing the viewer; the horses and their riders seem to be waiting, but I’m not sure what for.

Chitrashala

The Chitra Mahal or the Chitrashala is the most visited and photographed of all the painted rooms of the Bundi Palace. Built in 1679, three sides of the Chitrashala cover an open central courtyard and the fourth opens into a garden. The Chitrashala was once part of the private apartment of Rao Umaid Singh (r. 1758-1770), but at the time Kipling visited in 1887, it had been converted into a pleasure pavilion for the royal family.

In fact when Kipling visited, the Chitrashala was still being painted. It is quite possible that older paintings exist underneath the ones that we see today. There are painted rooms which lead off from the Chitrashala, including that of Rao Umaid Singh’s bedroom, but they were not opened for us. Those paintings are believed to be at least a 100 years older than the ones in Chitrashala. [3]

Krishna and forms of Vishnu dominate the theme of paintings at the Chitrashala — Jagannatha, Srinathji, Ranganatha, Rama, as the eternal lover, etc. Though there are paintings of Shiva, Saraswati and Durga among others, it is Krishna/Vishnu who dominates. My favourite painting at the Chitrashala, though, is a pilgrim map of what I think is Nathadwara with such minute details that each part appears to tell a story of its own.

I left the Bundi Palace Complex in a daze. In spite of having seen photographs of the painted rooms, read various articles and blog posts on them and listened to excited accounts of friends who visited it before me, it was like seeing them for the first time, which it was. But you know what I mean, right?

Taragarh Palace, Taragarh Fort, Bundi Palace, Art, Painted Rooms of Bundi Palace, Royal Wall Paintings, Bundi School of Painting, Travel, Rajasthan, Incredibl IndiaNothing prepared me for the painted rooms of Bundi Palace. I had expected a sense of déjà vu when I saw the paintings; instead, I felt the excitement of discovery as each room was unlocked and the painted walls came into view. I felt the thrill of recognition as I identified paintings and their contexts. I heard music in my head when I saw the ragamala paintings. I felt wonder at the colours at Badal Mahal… Nothing had prepared me for this.

Even though I was with a group and there were other visitors to the Bundi Palace that day, I felt like I was the only one there. And that the honour and privilege to be in their presence and view them was mine and mine alone. Such was the power and impact of the painted rooms of Bundi Palace.

In the months since that visit, the colours have come back to me in unexpected ways. For instance a dupatta I bought only because the colours reminded me of the Chitrashala paintings or the red bandhani dupatta I didn’t buy, because it wasn’t red enough! And 8 months after the visit, as I sat down to write this visit I found that I could recall every detail vividly. Such was the impact of the visit to the painted rooms of Bundi Palace.

Dear reader, have you seen the painted rooms of Bundi Palace? If yes, did you have a similar experience? If no, has this post made you add it to you travel list? Do let me know in the comments section. 🙂


Notes:

[1] Rudyard Kipling (1914): From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches. London: Macmillan and Co.

[2] Milo Cleveland Beach (2016): Bundi Fort: A Rajput World. Mumbai: Marg Publications.

[3] Milo Cleveland Beach (2008): “Wall-Paintings at Bundi: Comments and a New Discovery”. Artibus Asiae, Vol. 68, No. 1, pp. 101-127, 129-143.


Disclaimer: This part of my Hadoti Trip was done with One Life to Travel, and it was NOT a free, sponsored or discounted trip.


The Hadoti Trip Series: Dear Hadoti | Discovering Jhalawar | The painted rooms of Garh Mahal in Jhalawar | Bhawani Natyashala: The Opera House of Jhalawar | An evening in Jhalrapatan | The Buddhist rock-cut caves at Kolvi | The Gagron Fort at Jhalawar | An impact crater, a temple ruin and some discoveries | A fun evening in KotaA safari on Chambal River | The painted rooms of Kota Garh Palace The Shiva temples of Bijolia | The temples at Badoli | That and this in Bundi | The painted rooms of Bundi Palace | The stepwells of Bundi | The Hadoti Trip Planner |


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33 thoughts on “The painted rooms of Bundi Palace

    1. Thank you so much, Cornelia. This was a difficult post to write for I just didn’t know what to include and what to leave out. So the appreciation is all the more special. 🙂

      Like

    1. Thank you so much,for the appreciation, Mahesh. As I mentioned in my reply to the previous comment, this was a difficult post to conceptualise and write. Therefore, appreciation makes me feel vindicated. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Go, Naina, go. The weather in Bundi wil be lovely now. And the Aravalis, surrounding the city will be lush and green and the stepwells will be full of water. Go.

      Let me know if you need any further assistance. 🙂

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      1. I love to read your posts because of the attention to detail and the images with stories. This is an area of interest for me though more as an armchair enthusiast.

        This could have been 2 posts also with the different mahals split across as loads of information to savour.

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  1. Thank you for the beautiful photos and write up on Bundi Palace. Have visited Bundi 3 times and your blog brings back such wonderful memories. We had Kukki as our guide too. Did he show you the cave paintings at Bundi??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kukkiji is quite something, isn’t he?

      The Bundi Palace is stupendous and I feel that I have just looked at them and not really seen them.

      The cave paintings were not part of the OLTT itinerary, but Kukkiji has said that he will take me there the next time I visit Bundi.

      Like

  2. I can see why you like the Chandra painting so much! It is pretty unique. Also, the one of Saraswati–i haven’t seen her depicted like this ever before. She is usually in such pristine white and sober sarees, and the lehenga choli she is wearing here is a lovely colour–a bluish green?
    The paintings look so spectacular here, I can imagine how much more brilliant they must be in real life!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The depiction of Chandra is unique, but is also instantly recognisable as the iconography has been maintained. The same is the case with Saraswati; in spite of the bluish green that she is clothed in, every other aspect of her iconography is the same making her instantly recognisable. In the Badal Mahal, Saraswati is shown wearing a brilliant red lower garment.

      Actually, most of the paintings are not so brilliantly coloured when you see the; I have increased the contrast for most of the photos so as to show the features more clearly.

      Thank you for commenting. 🙂

      Like

    1. Thank you very much, Bikram. These paintings are part of a private property – they belong to the Bundi royal family. One of the reasons it has stayed for so long is because it was never open to the public. Now that it is, the deterioration has set in. Honestly, I don’t know what these paintings will be like even 5 years from now.

      I am fully aware that while I am lucky to have seen these paintings, I have also contributed in my own way to its eventual damage.

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