‘The Palace of Bundi, even in broad daylight, is such a palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams, the work of goblins rather than of men.’
So said Rudyard Kipling of Bundi Palace, contrasting it with other parts of Rajasthan.
Also known as Garh Palace, this was home to the rulers of Bundi for centuries, although the present king Ranjeet Singh lives in Delhi. The current ownership of the palace is disputed between two family members, the maharaja and his sister, following disagreements about inheritances.
The palace was shut up completely between 1948 and 2000. Although it is now open to the public for visits, it has never been properly restored after those years of neglect. Neither family member will take responsibility for its repair until sure that they are spending money on property they own. Many bemoan this air of neglect; certainly it is sad to see that many of the beautiful wall paintings here have suffered damage (some deliberate, some the result of time and weathering). And yet the palace has a special charm of its own; this very dilapidation seems to imbue it with a special atmosphere that I found nowhere else in Rajasthan.
Construction of the palace was started under Raja Rao Ratan Singh who ruled 1607-1631; it was added to in piecemeal fashion by his successors. You approach via a steep cobbled path; halfway up the path turns back on itself and you find yourself passing beneath the Elephant Gate or Hathi Pol. The two massive elephant statues high above it reach towards each other, their trunks entwined.
As you pass through look up to see the marvellous ceiling painting. And note the huge spikes on the wooden doors designed to deter charging elephants.
The Hall of Public Audience and Ratan Daulat
Once through the great gate you arrive in a large courtyard, the Ratan Daulat. This was built by Raja Rao Ratan Singh and had stabling for nine horses.
Above this and looking down on it from the opposite side to the gate is the Hall of Public Audience or Diwan-i-Am. To reach this you must climb the first of what will be several flights of steps. It is an open-sided pillared hall with a white marble throne overlooking the courtyard below. Here the maharaja would hear supplications from his people or address them on state occasions. The throne is ornately carved with elephants (something of a decorative motif here) but the rest of the hall is fairly plain apart from some wall paintings at each end.
The Hall of Private Audience and private apartments
On a level above the Hall of Public Audience is that of Private Audience. Its most distinctive feature are the elephants that ornament the top of each of its many pillars. There are four elephants to each pillar, facing in each of four directions. These give the hall its alternative name, Hathiyasal or Elephant Hall.
Facing this hall across an open courtyard is the Chhatra Mahal, the private apartment of the king. It was added by Raja Rao Chhatra Shabji in 1644. This has some interesting wall paintings, albeit rather damaged – by weathering, and I suspect disrespectful tourists, also probably the many monkeys who are left to roam freely through the palace. They are still worth seeing however, and include some scenes from the life of Krishna and colourfully painted ceiling beams.
From the courtyard that lies between these two halls you get marvellous views of the town below. We could see the chequered roof terrace of the hotel where we had stayed the night before, and Nawal Sagar, the artificial lake on the edge of the old town. There is a temple dedicated to Varuna, the Vedic god of water, half-submerged in the middle of the lake.
Above this level lie separate quarters for the king and the queens, the Phool Mahal and Badal Mahal. We weren’t able to visit these; I understand that these are usually locked. But if you find them open (or find a guide willing to open them for you) they are well worth seeing for their painted ceilings.
The hanging garden
Between the privately owned areas of the palace and the government-run Chitrashala is this small pretty garden courtyard. It was added by Raja Rao Ummed Singh in the 18th century as a place for leisure and relaxation for the ladies of the court. Its sunken pool allowed them to bathe in its cool waters in reasonable privacy, before relaxing on the stone steps and thrones around its edges.
There are wonderful views from here of the Taragarh Fort on the hillside above, and of the town below. It’s also a good place to orientate yourself within the palace.
The Chitrashala or Painting Gallery is also known as the Ummed Mahal. It is named for Raja Rao Ummed Singh who added it in the 18th century. Unlike the rest of the palace it is run by the Indian government and is consequently somewhat better maintained.
The whole of this pavilion is covered with paintings and is stunning! Bundi is one of the few cities in India to have developed its own unique painting style. The Bundi School lasted from the 17th to the end of the 19th century. The most popular themes were hunting and court scenes, festivals and processions, court life, romantic tales, animals and birds, and scenes from the life of Lord Krishna. It was influenced by Mughal and Mewar styles but was, our guide pointed out, unusual in depicting figures in profile; most Indian paintings of that time show them face forwards. Other distinctive features include lively movement, dramatic skies, and a unique way of depicting water with light swirls against a dark background.
The examples of Bundi School paintings here in the Chitrashala, which date from 1773 to 1821, are considered to be among the best. They are painted to a consistent colour scheme; they use green for backgrounds, white for human bodies and red, blue, black and yellow for traditional dresses. Every surface is covered, including the ceiling. The subjects of the murals reflect the two phases of Ummed Singh’s life; firstly as a ruler, and later when he renounced the throne and lived as a hermit. One section therefore depicts his court, hunting scenes, dancing etc. The larger section has murals depicting the various gods from the Hindu pantheon, scenes from the Ramayana, and so on.
Our guide pointed out some of the most interesting paintings, some of which I photographed:
An elephant and bull are fighting but the artist has very cleverly painted a single head which serves as that of both animals.
Lord Krishna is holding up Mount Govardhan and using it as an umbrella to protect the earth from the storms raging overhead caused by Indra, the god of thunder and rain. His defeat of Indra is celebrated in the Govardhan Puja festival, the day after Diwali.
This is a sort of map of Lord Krishna’s birthplace, Mathura (we were to pass through here a couple of days later on the train from Sawai Madhopur to Delhi)
The Bundi School of Art
To finish, here is some interesting information about the Bundi School that I found on the India Profile website:
‘The painters were masters of their brush strokes and the chiaroscuro of light and shade. The lines are mainly serpentine and circular in character. They were developed to capture complex and intense emotions. The deep brush marks add life to the clouds, trees, cascades, lotus flowers and flowing streams in the paintings. There is use of characteristic shades of blue, green and maroon reflecting the verdant greenery of the region, while bright colours are seen in the borders with red prominently appearing in the background. These paintings are made in gouache, an opaque watercolour that requires less preparation than oil.
… The colours used by the artists of miniatures were made from minerals, vegetables, precious stones, indigo, conch shells, pure gold and silver. The preparation and mixing of colour was an elaborate process and took weeks, sometimes months, to get the desired results.’
I visited Bundi in 2015