Walls that Speak: the Frescoes of Bundi

The soaring sandstone walls of the Taragarh fort stand guard over the present city of Bundi. From its ramparts one has a clear view of the surrounding mountains, the blue houses and the black kites soaring above the city, riding the thermals and waiting to swoop down on unsuspecting prey.

Nawal Sagar Lake and the tourist district as seen from the fort
Nawal Sagar Lake and the tourist district as seen from the fort

Once you enter the fortress through the lofty Hati Pol (Elephant Gate), it is but a study in contrast. The construction started in 1354 and the present structure is but an agglomeration of the various palaces built thereafter by the rulers of Bundi. While most of these individual palaces are in dire need of repair (thanks to the litigation among the surviving members of the royal family), some have been taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India and given a fresh lease of life.

Inside one of the several palaces that make up the fort
Inside one of the several palaces that make up the fort

Whatever be the state of preservation, the palaces in Taragarh have one thing in common – frescos. These paintings follow the Bundi style of miniature art. While the other kingdom of Rajputana like Amber, Mewar and Marwar were heavily influenced by Mughal Miniature art, the painters of Bundi borrowed elements from the miniature art forms of Deccan, thus giving rise to a unique style. The bright colours of Bundi miniatures and frescos are derived from minerals, vegetables, precious stones, as well as pure silver and gold.  The paintings deal with both secular and religious themes. They also showcase the physical beauty of the Hadoti region, the rivers, the dense forests, dramatic night skies and feature ‘a distinctive way of depicting water by light swirls against a dark background, and vivid movement’. Bundi miniatures emphasized on hunting, court scenes, festivals, processions, life of nobles, lovers, animals, birds and scenes from Lord Krishna’s life.

Painting on the ceiling of Hathi Pol. The sun is indicative of the fact that the Hada Rajputs who ruled over Bundi were Suryavanshis; i.e descended from the Sun
Painting on the ceiling of Hathi Pol. The sun is indicative of the fact that the Hada Rajputs who ruled over Bundi were Suryavanshis; i.e descended from the Sun
Painted Niches
Painted Niches
Painted niches
Painted niches
Painted niches
Painted niches

Apart from Chitrashala (discussed later), a rich collection of paintings can be found on the walls and ceilings of Badal Mahal (Palace of Clouds). Occupying some of the highest rooms in the Taragarh Fort, it is said that during the monsoons, the low hanging rain clouds would actually float through the courtyards of the Badal Mahal. Almost tucked away in a corner and accessed by narrow flight of stairs, Badal Mahal once served as the zenana or the women’s quarters, housing the harem of the then ruler Rao Bhoj. Women then had no access to the outside wall except what they could see through the latticed windows. The paintings on the walls and ceilings of Badal Mahal, depicting battle formations, rural life, fantastic beasts and heavenly creatures and even scenes from a royal darbar might have served as a portal to the outside world for the ladies. A strange, gilded prison.

Strange birds. Roosters? Phoenixes?
Strange birds. Roosters? Phoenixes?
Strange women
Strange women
Battle scene. The details are mind boggling
Battle scene. The details are mind boggling
The king in his court

The centerpiece of Badal Mahal is definitely the ceiling of its topmost chamber. Sometimes referred to as Rajasthan’s Sistine Chapel, the mural on the ceiling depicts, in painstaking detail, the raas leela of Krishna.

The stunning  Badal Mahal ceiling in one frame.
View of the ceiling of Badal Mahal, depicting the Raas Leela
The stunning Badal Mahal ceiling in one frame

For the next collection of Bundi miniatures, head over to the Chitrashala. Previously known as Ummed Mahal after Maharaja Ummed Singh, this section of the fort was taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India, restored and preserved. If you find yourself here, please avoid flash photography.

Chitrashala, from the outside
Chitrashala, from the outside

The walls of Chitrashala come alive with the life and exploits of the kings and queens of Bundi. Along with the royals, Lord Krishna can also be seen playing his flute, gamboling on meadows with his gopis and getting up to all sorts of cosmic mischief. Most of the paintings you see here were done between 1773 and 1821. The artists of Chitrashala, and indeed of Bundi had their own standard of depicting feminine beauty. Women are portrayed with small round faces, receding foreheads, prominent noses and full cheeks. The royal ladies of chitrashala are shown wearing a transparent Jama over pyjamas. Featured prominently on most paintings is a background comprising of lush landscapes painted in vibrant colors. These compositions, massed with a variety of trees and floral creepers, ponds with lotus flowers in the foreground, fish and birds form a distinguishing feature of the Bundi style.

Chitrashala ceiling
Chitrashala ceiling
Paintings like you wouldn't believe. This is history on the walls. Never know how the hours went by!
Paintings like you wouldn’t believe. This is history on the walls. Never know how the hours went by!
Details, Chitrashala
Details, Chitrashala
One of the more famous murals from Chitrashala, showing women celebrating the Teej festival
One of the more famous murals from Chitrashala, showing women celebrating the Teej festival
Portrait of a lady
Portrait of a lady
Krishna with his gopis
Krishna with his gopis
Women of the harem
Study of a princess
Study of a princess
There is no space that has not been painted
The detailing is insane!
The detailing is insane!

It is said that the existing tradition of creating miniatures was given a boost in 1605 by the sudden arrival of three master painters from Chunar, near Varanasi. These painters were a gift from emperor Akbar, in return for Bundi’s obedience. These painters who had previously worked only on palm leaf manuscripts changed their idiom by painting frescoes like those at Badal Mahal and Chitrashala. This zeal soon spread through the city, across classes and through time. Even today, a graffiti on the roads of Bundi usually borrows from city’s historic miniature style.

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Snapshot: Breathless in Bundi

Rajasthan is, in all probability, one of the most visited states in India – both by domestic, as well as International tourists. It has been this way for decades. Given this context, to think that in this oft-visited state still lies a corner that is still relatively unexplored and untouched by the tourism industry, is well, incredible.

The kingdoms of Jaipur, Mewar (centered around Chittorgarh and Udaipur ) and Marwar (Jodhpur) were bigger, richer and almost incessantly at war – either with each other or some invading foe. Hadoti, with Bundi at its centre was tucked away in the corner, on the border with Malwa, away from the path of the invaders from the northwest.

What we now know as the region of Hadoti, started as a kingdom in the 12th century AD. It was, however, not destined to remain united. In 1631, the independent kingdom of Kota separated from Hadoti. The region was further split as Jhalawar became an independent state in 1838. So when Indian gained Independence, the three independent kingdoms of Bundi, Kota and Jhalawar joined the Indian Union.

The modern town of Bundi is yet to spill out of its medieval city walls. As a result, you are treated to a miraculously well preserved medieval town. Most of the hotels / guest houses are converted havelis, while the streets are lined with shops that have been functioning for close to half a millennia. All this, against the backdrop of the remarkable Taragarh Fortress – an impregnable statement in sandstone and granite growing like a beehive on the side of a mountain.

The charm of Bundi is very difficult to put in words. It is the result of a rather eclectic mix of rooftop cafes, blue houses, streets lined with medieval graffiti, farmers transporting milk in brass jars and a vibe that is distinctly wild and free.

It is perhaps this very charm that drew Kipling to Bundi. It is said that it was this town that inspired Kipling to write Kim. Rush to Bundi before the juggernaut that is commercial tourism steamrolls through the city’s incomparable  vibes. Go there, take in everything, change nothing and, keep Bundi a secret wrapped in time.  Above all, let’s not talk about Bundi, just like the first rule of Fight Club.

(Please click on any photograph to open the slideshow)

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Bharatpur 2013

Something remarkable has happened over the last year and a half. Due to reasons I cannot explain properly, I have found myself drawn to one of nature’s best creations – birds. Over the last year or so, i joined online groups, went for birding walks, bought books and read them from cover to cover. I really surprised myself when i started waking up before sunrise on weekends to go for birding walks.

The timing could not be better. My eight year old Nikon D80 was in its dying days and it was time to upgrade. So i invested in the brand new Nikon D7100 and the Sigma 50-500 OS HSM telephoto lens. Now that I have read the books, shot some birds in my garden and in and around Delhi, it was time to take a trip to that Mecca birders call Bharatpur.

Last time I went to Bharatpur was over two and a half years back. Back then I could not tell the Sarus crane from the Painted Stork. But now i can do just that. Not much else. Bharatpur was in a bad shape in the February of 2011 when i was last there. The water levels were almost at an all-time low. Feral cattle had taken over most of the pastures. Politicians were , well politicing on the much needed water and the whole thing was a big, big mess. Fortunately, the water issues have been resolved. Now water will come in from Chambal as well as from a dam nearby in Rajasthan. The canals were full and so were the marshes. When I went in the beginning of November, the numbers of migratory birds were not large but i think if they can maintain the water levels for a few more years, the numbers will steadily increase.


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It was the first day of the boat rides. The water was quiet and quite spectacular
The channel opens up on the main swamp, which is guarded by a flock of fierce and fearless cattle egrets
Other people
Still waters
This algae turns red around February. Even more spectacular
View of the heronry from the watchtower
Perfect habitat for munias
One of Bharatpur’s many tree tunnels
Another swamp from another watch-tower. Hendrix was playing on my headphones. Guess the track 😛
I check out some nilgais. They reciprocate
Stranded tree
Mirror-like water
Quiet little corner
Marooned Nilgai


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In the numerous recent Delhibird walks, I met Mr Ajay Maira who was kind enough to point me in the direction of one Bachchoo Singh (+919351341917). I was with him from sunrise to sunset for three days and not for a moment did the smile fade from his face. He knew his birds, drove the rickshaw at a languid pace and was quick with a joke.  I cannot recommend him enough.

Bachchoo Singh
Finds me Sarus cranes to shoot then goes to fetch his rickshaw

THE BIRDS (and some amphibians, reptiles and mammals)

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I think it is safe to say that I am more of a photographer than a birder. Apart from a handful of birds that I could identify (sarus cranes, painted storks and a few others :P), i was dependent on my field guide and of course, on Bachchoo Singh. I could have really used a tripod though. The camera and the lens together weigh close to 3kgs and getting the frame right was a challenge, especially at 500 mm. Anyway, here’s what came out of the trip:

Greater Coucal or Crow Pheasant (Centropus sinensis)
Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) – not the best of shots, but i love this one
‘What have you got there? Is it for me?’
Portrait of a bee-eater
A slightly cock-eyed White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) also known as the White-breasted Kingfisher
Woolly-necked Stork, Bishop Stork or White-necked Stork (Ciconia episcopus)
Painted stork with chicks. The mothers open their wings thus to protect the chicks from direct sunlight. In this case the mother clearly does not know where the sun is. Or maybe she is just sunning herself.
Jungle Babbler (Turdoides striata)

I love munias especially so because due to their small size and the constant state of motion they are in, they are extremely difficult to photograph. On this trip, i also saw a few Red Avadavats or the Red Munias but could not photograph them. A couple of silverbills did pose for me.

The Indian Silverbill or White-throated Munia (Lonchura malabarica)
Cosying up
One comes closer
I wish this was a better shot.
Collared Scops Owl (Otus lettia)
The resident Comb Ducks (Sarkidiornis melanotos), males
The Himalayan, or the White-cheeked Bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys)
Indian Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris), male
Shikra (Accipiter badius). About the size of a small crow, it is one of my favourite birds of prey. Packs way too much punch for its size. I have seen it chase off Oriental Honey Buzzards with are about four times the Shikra’s size.
Shikra, this time viewed from the back
Bronze-winged Jacana (Metopidius indicus), also called the jal-mor (water peacock) in Hindi on account of its stunning colour
A male Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) was kind enough to pose for me

House sparrows which we have seen all around us are undergoing an alarming decline in numbers, especially in human-inhabited ares due to human activities. Read this to know more about the decline and how you can help.

The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Portrait of a Great Egret (Ardea alba)
Bay-backed Shrike (Lanius vittatus), back view
Bay-backed Shrike (Lanius vittatus), front view
Was stalking this Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) for over 45 minutes in very bad light conditions hoping for a record shot. Just when i had my lens trained on it, it decided to fly. This is what came of it
Finally the Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) decides to sit so i could get off some shots
Why did the chicken cross the road? Ask the White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus)
Common Babbler (Turdoides caudata)
Oh the colours – Back view of White-breasted Kingfisher
Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri), also known as Chandana. Popularly also referred to as Mithoo
Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) male
Yellow-crowned Woodpecker (Dendrocopos mahrattensis) or Mahratta woodpecker, female
Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus) female. It is known in Bengali as ‘Moutushi’
A male Pied Bush Chat (Saxicola caprata
Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus)
Oriental Darter or Indian Darter (Anhinga melanogaster ). Also known as the snakebird on account of its serpentine neck
A snakebird, or the Indian Darter pokes its head out of the water while hunting
A group of great cormorants strike a pose
Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) keeps an eye on the surroundings
Just before some poor fish gave its life
Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea), flying away
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) shares its hunting spot with an Intermediate Egret (Mesophoyx intermedia)
Grey heron with neck retracted
Oriental Magpie-Robin (Copsychus saularis) or ‘Doel’ as it is known in Bangla. Also, the national bird of Bangladesh
Oriental Magpie-Robin (Copsychus saularis) or ‘Doel’ female
Another one. I love these birds
Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)
A bunch of pretty ladies. A brood of Purple Swamphens
Hoopoe, pronounced huːpu (Upupa epops). Looks like a woodpecker, but isn’t one
Portrait of a Hoopoe
A baby python sunning itself
Could have lost it in all the vegetation
A water snake, at a water hole
A monitor lizard
Close-up of the monitor lizard’s head
In Bengali, we call these fish ‘Shole’. Tastes great in a coriander based jhol (gravy)
Chance encounter with a pair of male nilgais
Another male Nilgai.
Nilgai female with calf. So beautiful!
Close encounters of the blue kind
Indian black turtle (Melanochelys trijuga) or Indian pond terrapin
A beautiful little butterfly
And a beautiful little lizard

In the three days that i spent inside Keoladeo National Park, two sightings stand out. The first was a creature I had seen a lot as a child growing up in north Bengal (for images of north Bengal, or Dooars as it is better known see this, this, this and this). The sun had just come out and i was walking beside Bachchoo Singh, trying to shoot a pair of grey headed canary flycatchers. Suddenly this black shape slithers out of the grass on the left side of the road. It was a common cobra. The same creature that almost left me fatherless, but that is a story for another day. As i drew closer, it showed absolutely no sign of fear and started to cross the road.

I could tell that it had just molted and the scales were shining in the morning sun like thousands of little amethysts. I probably got a little too close when without warning, it spread its hood. I was fortunate to get the perfect light and just had time to get off a few shots. here are the results:

Eyes glinting in the sun
Close look at the skin
When you see this, back off
last shot before it slithers back into the thicket

Now the second encounter: Sarus cranes. I have been an admirer of these beautiful birds for years now. Even before i got into birding. So far, I have always viewed them from a considerable distance, at Sultanpur and Basai. This time,however, i was determined to observe them from up close.

On the first and second days at Bharatpur I heard their calls numerous times, saw them fly past and watched them for hours again from a distance. So I decided to devote my third and last day entirely to these most elegant of birds. As we entered the park at 6:30 am on a chilly November morning, we headed straight to the grasslands by the painted stork colony where they usually spend the mornings. Sure enough, there was a couple there, but again, at a considerable distance.

There were three other pairs in the general area and they were taking turns answering each others calls. On Bachchoo Singh’s advice, i started following one of the distant calls along one of the trails branching off from the main road into the sanctuary. I walked for some 3 kms and with every step the call kept getting closer and closer. Then i turned left and BAM! there was a crane barely 30 feet from the trail. It took me the better part of five minutes to actually register what I was seeing. It was a female and she was so close that i did not have to employ the 500 mm end of my lens. The light was perfect too! The first shot below is from the original couple i viewed from a distance. The rest are from the close encounter.

Responding to a call
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the Grus Antigone
The ballerina
Spreading her wings. I was late with the shot here
In her habitat

Thus ended a most satisfying trip to the paradise for birders. Here’s hoping that the water levels remain true and the bird numbers remain large. Also it wouldn’t hurt if a couple of Siberian cranes re-visited their old haunt.

Here’s to high hopes.


1. Black francolin (Francolinus francolinus) Resident, Breeds

2. Grey francolin (Francolinus pondicerianus) Resident, Breeds, very common

3. Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) Resident Common

4. Lesser Whistling-duck (Dendrocygna javanica) Resident Common

5. Greylag Goose (Anser anser) Migratory, very common

6. Comb Duck (Sarkidiornis melanotos) Resident, common

7. Spot-billed Duck (Anas poecilorhyncha) Resident, common

8. Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) Migratory, very common

9. Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata) Migratory, very common

10. Eurasian Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) Migrant, common

11. Brown-capped Woodpecker (Dendrocopos nanus) Resident

12. Yellow-crowned Woodpecker (Dendrocopos mahrattensis) Resident

13. Back-rumped Flameback (Dinopium benghalense) resident, breeds

14. Indian Grey-Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris) resident, breeds

15. Eurasian Hoopoe (Upupa epops) Resident and migrant

16. Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis) Resident, common

17. Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) common resident

18. White-thoated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) resident, very common

19. Black-capped Kingfisher (Halcyon pileata) LM, U

20. Little Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) Resident common

21. Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Merops philippinus) passage migrant

22. Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopacea) R,O

23. Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis) R,C

24. Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri) R,C

25. Collared Scops Owl (Otus bakkamoena) R,O

26. Dusky Eagle-Owl (Bubo coromandus) R,C

27. Spotted Owlet (Athene brama) R,C

28. Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) R,C

29. Laughing Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis) R,C

30. Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis) LM,U

31. Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) R,C

32. Yellow-footed Green-Pigeon (Treron phoenicoptera) R,C

33. Sarus Crane (Grus antigone) Resident, breeds, common

34. White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) Resident, very common

35. Watercock (Gallicrex cinerea) breeds

36. Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) R,C

37. Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) RM,C

38. Common Coot (Fulica atra) very common migrant

39. Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus) M,C

40. Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) M,O

41. Bronze-winged Jacana (Metopidius indicus) R,C

42. Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) LM,C

43. Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) LM,U

44. Lesser Sand Plover (Charadrius mongolus) ?

45. Red-wattled Lapwing (Vanellus indicus) R,C

46. Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius) Migrant uncommon

47. Oriental Honey-buzzard (Pernis ptilorhyncus) R,C

48. Black Kite (Milvus migrans) R,U

49. Crested Serpent-Eagle (Spilornis cheela) LM,C

50. Eurasian Marsh-Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) M,C

51. Shikra (Accipiter badius) R,C

52. Oriental Hobby (Falco severus) M,U

53. Oriental darter (Anhinga melanogaster) R,C

54. Little Cormorant (Phalacrocorax niger) R,C

55. Indian cormorant (Phalacrocorax fuscicollis) R,C

56. Great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) R,C

57. Little egret (Egretta garzetta) R,C

58. Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) R,C

59. Purple heron (Ardea purpurea) R,C

60. Great egret (Casmerodius albus) R,C

61. Intermediate egret (Mesophoyx intermedia) R,C

62. Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) R,C

63. Indian pond heron (Ardeola grayii) R,C

64. Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) R,C

65. Little bittern (Ixobrychus minutus) LM,U

66. Black Bittern (Dupetor flavicollis) LM,O

67. Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) LM,C

68. Black-headed ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus) R,C

69. Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia Linnaeus) RC,O

70. Painted Stork (Mycteria leucocephala) R,C breeds in large numbers

71. Asian Openbill (Anastomus oscitans) R,C, breeds

72. Wooly-necked Stork (Ciconia episcopus) R,C, breeds

73. White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) M,U

74. Black-necked Stork (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) R,C

75. Brown Shrike (Lanius cristatus) M,U

76. Bay-backed Shrike (Lanius vittatus) R,C

77. Long-tailed Shrike (Lanius schach) LM,C

78. Rufous Treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) R,C

79. House Crow (Corvus splendens) R,C

80. Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) R,C

81. Eurasian Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus) BM,O

82. Scarlet Minivet (Pericrocotus flammeus) LM,O

83. Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus) R,C

84. Common Woodshrike (Tephrodornis pondicerianus) R,C

85. Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher (Culicicapa ceylonensis) M,U

86. Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis) R,C

87. Indian Robin (Saxicoloides fulicata) R,C

88. Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) M,C

89. Common Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) R,O

90. Pied Bushchat (Saxicola caprata) R,C

91. Grey Bushchat (Saxicola ferrea) LM,U

92. Indian or Brown Rock Chat (Cercomela fusca) R,C

93. Brahminy Starling (Sturnus pagodarum) R,C

94. Rosy Starling (Sturnus roseus) M,O

95. Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) M,O

96. Asian Pied Starling (Sturnus contra) R,C

97. Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis) R,C

98. Bank Myna (Acridotheres ginginianus) R,O

99. White-eared Bulbul (Pycnonotus leucotis) R,C

100. Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer) R,C

101. Ashy Prinia (Prinia socialis) R,O

102. Plain Prinia (Prinia inornata) R,C

103. Oriental White-Eye (Zosterops palpebrosus) R,O

104. Common Tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) R,C

105. Common Babbler (Turdoides caudatus) R,C

106. Jungle Babbler (Turdoides striatus) R,C

107. Purple Sunbird (Nectarinia asiatica) R,C

108. House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) M,O

109. Red Avadavat (Amandava amandava) R,C

110. Indian Silverbill (Lonchura malabarica) R,C

Symbols used(in alphabetic order).

? = status or source or occurrence unknown or doubtful

C = Common

Evans = Bharatpur Bird Paradise by Martin Evans

HA = Checklist by Humayun Abdulali and Pandey

Handbook = Salim Ali & S.D. Ripley’s Compact Handbook

LM = Local Migrant

O = Occasional

PM = Passage Migrant

R = Resident

SM = Summer Migrant

U = Uncommon

VSS = Flora and Fauna by V.S. Saxena

VSV =VSVijayan(BNHS publications or Ramsar site booklet)

WM = Winter Migrant(Migratory in the list usually refers to this category)

Suddenly Shekhawati

For years, I have been wanting to go to Shekhawati. But whenever I did have the time, i scooted off to the Himalayas. But this time around, an impromptu plan took shape. My friend Rohit was about to visit his parents at their village outside Jhunjhunu and I decided to tag along. We took a 10:30 pm bus from Sarai Kale Khan which dropped us off to Jhunjhunu bus depot around 5 in the morning. As luck would have it, we immediately got the first bus out of Jhunjhunu and headed out towards his village in the early morning darkness.

But no, this was not the end of the journey. The bus dropped us by the side of the road, some 15 kms from Jhunjhunu. Rohit disappeared in the darkness, only to reappear with a guy and a jeep who agreed to drive us to his village of Bajawa, 3 kms further. The next three days were blissful. We walked around the village, climbed sand dunes, went for a joyride on a camel cart and made a day trip to the nearby Nawalgarh to look at the painted havelis.

Rohit’s mom adds colour to the mustard fields

Ok, I have to admit that I have shamelessly lifted the iodea of this shot from Sriparna’s Travelling Teadom site

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Peacock, cattle, backyards and the distant dune – view from my window
DSC_0355 (3)
I spent much of my early childhood in a village where I saw a lot of these weaver-bird nests. This tree did bring back a lot of memories.
DSC_0355 (5)
Rolling mustard fields
DSC_0355 (6)
Looks like wild flowers
DSC_0355 (7)
Looking out over the village from the sand dune. Just a patchwork of colours
DSC_0356 (2)
Sunset on the dune
Close-up of a temple door
DSC_0357 (1)
Indian roller. Pity I was shooting with a 18-55
DSC_0357 (2)
I sneaked up on this one
DSC_0357 (3)
A long-tailed shrike
DSC_0357 (4)
Another long-tailed shrike
Waiting for someone to come home at the end of the day
Mustard sunset
Green and Yellow
Riding the camel cart
Rohit inspecting the baya colony
Our village transport
Empty houses sway in the wind
Crazy grass lanterns
Village highway
Gentle on the curves
Lovely evening light

A slice of Shekhawati: Nawalgarh

To the initiated, Shekhawati is Rajasthan’s open art gallery. For those who have not heard about it, Shekhawati is a term used to denote a region in northern Rajasthan comprising of the districts of Jhunjhunu, Sikar, Churu and Nagaur. Apart from a long and eventful history, this region has also produced some of India’s best known business families – the Dalmias, thye Murarkas, the Goenkas to name a few.

Oh histories and havelis

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Marwari merchants moved to and prospered in India’s new commercial centres – Bombay and Calcutta. They sent the bulk of their vast fortunes back to their families in Shekhawati to construct grand havelis – to show their neighbours how well they were doing and to compensate their families for their long absences. As more and more merchants prospered, it soon became a competition to build ever more grand edifices – homes, temples, step-wells – which were richly decorated, both inside and out, with painted murals.

Haveli walls, particularly at the entrance, in the courtyards and sometimes within some of the rooms, were frequently painted by the  from the ground to the eaves. Often the paintings mix depictions of the gods and their lives with everyday scenes featuring modern inventions, such as trains and aeroplanes, even though these artists themselves had never seen them. Hence, Krishna and Radha are seen in flying motorcars and Europeans can be observed inflating hot air balloons by blowing into them, or travelling in trains, the compartments of which look like English cottages. On these walls, fact meets fiction, the popular meets the chaste and in some unfortunate cases money meets bad taste.

These days most of the havelis are still owned by descendants of the original families, but not inhabited by their owners, for whom small-town Rajasthan has lost its charm. Many are occupied just by a single chowkidar (caretaker), while others may be home to a local family. Many of the better known ones have printed brochures and booklets which give an insight into the history of the family and the architecture of the haveli in question. Though they are pale reflections of the time when they accommodated the large households of the Marwari merchant families, they remain a fascinating testament to the changing times in which they were created. Only a few havelis have been restored; many more lie derelict, crumbling slowly away.


In February, i followed my friends Rohit and Sriparna to Rohit’s parents place in a tiny village, around 10 kms outside Jhunjhunu. The idea was to relax for a few days in the village, take long walks, and if possible visit one of the towns and check out the Havelis. After much deliberation, we decided to head to Nawalgarh.

Nawalgarh, founded in 1737 by Nawal Singh is almost at the centre of Shekhawati. Nawalgarh is quite compact, and most of its havelis are centrally located and easy to reach on foot. We started our tour from  Morarka Haveli which is a good point to start your tour as most guides (you will need one) congregate here. Please remember that most havelis have individual tickets .

Paintings above the doorway
Krishna and his gopis
The caretaker explains to us the finer points of the haveli
No one lives here anymore
The upstairs balcony
Jesus Christ! No, really.
View from the upstairs balcony
Details of the absolutely stunning work on the haveli walls
More intricate artwork
Stained glass and paintings decorate the entrance to the baithak.
One last shot: View of the main entrance of the Morarka Haveli

Understanding the Haveli

Haveli is a Persian word that means ‘an enclosed space’. But contrary to its literal meaning, the architecture of the haveli did much more than simply enclose space; it in fact provided a comprehensive system that governed the everyday lives of its inhabitants.

Most havelis are entered through a massive arched gateway, protected by a solid wooden door. While most of the times the larger door is locked, a smaller portal carved within the larger door allows people into the first of the many courtyards.  This outer courtyard is known as the mardana (men’s courtyard). More often than not, on one side of the mardana is a baithak (salon) in which the merchant of the household could receive his guests. In order to impress visitors, this room was generally the most elaborately crafted and often featured marble or mock-marble walls. Here, you’ll frequently see images of Ganesh, god of wealth and good fortune. The baithak usually came equipped with a manually operated punkah (cloth fan). Opposite the baithak is often a stable and coach house, called nora for accommodating camels, horses or elephants. A turn of the century garage, if you will.

A wall separates the outer mardana from the inner zenana (women’s courtyard).  Between the two courtyards there was often a small latticed window, through which they could peep out at male guests. Sometimes, there was also a screened-off balcony, known as the duchatta, above the mardana for them to spy on proceedings. Entry into the inner courtyard was restricted to women, family members and, occasionally, privileged male guests.

The zenana was the main domestic arena. Rooms off this courtyard served as bedrooms or storerooms, and staircases led to galleries on upper levels, which mostly comprised bedrooms – some of which were roofless, for hot nights. The courtyard arrangement, together with thick walls, provided plenty of shade to cool the inner rooms, a vital necessity in this sun-scorched land. The haveli thus provided everything for the women and there was no need for them to venture into the outside world – and in Shekhawati these were spectacularly gilded cages.

In the wealthiest of families, there were far more than two simple courtyards, some havelis enclosing as many as eight, with galleries up to six storeys high. This meant plenty of wall space to house the elaborate murals that wealthy Shekhawati merchants were so fond of commissioning.

Art, in Nawalgarh,  restricted not only to the havelis

Half a kilometre and a walk through an amazing Nawalgarh bazaar are the Ath Havelis. Although ath in Hindi means eight, there are in reality, six havelis. The havelis were finished around 1900 and are painted both on the inside and on the outside. Most of the havelis are rented out for marriages and parties. As a result these century-old paintings are facing not only neglect but also, what can be best described as senseless vandalism. As is widely known, most of the havelis belong to some of India’s richest industrial families. While the Morarkas clearly spend some time and money looking after their havelis, it is not the case with Ath Havelis. Case in point, the following photograph:

Artists who painted this train had clearly not seen one in real life.
The entrance of one of the havelis
Paintings on the exterior walls
Can you spot the Rohit?
Back to the exterior walls and to the neglect
Another train. This time slightly more realistic
Ghost of paintings past
Just another house along the street
Somewhere in the main bazaar
Neglect. Senseless neglect.

Our next stop was Bhagton ki Chhoti Haveli. Located at the end of a narrow lane, off the main bazaar, this haveli has one of the most striking doorways. The frieze on top is a gallery of portraits depicting both locals and Britons. This haveli felt more compact and personal than the others we had seen so far.

An European man with a cane and pipe and what appears to be a small dog on his shoulder
The dandy rahaj keeps an eye on the melancholy Englishman playing the accordion
These doors and windows were fascinating. Couldn’t stop clicking them
Guess who?
A city full of havelis as seen from the terrace of Bhagton ki Chhoti Haveli

For our last haveli, we came back to Morarka where we had started the walk from, and walked past it to Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum. As the name suggests, not only is this a haveli but it is also a museum on Shekhawati and  Shekhawati’s culture. This is one of the best preserved havelis around. In fact at times, one tends to feel that maybe it is a little too looked after. Various rooms of the haveli have been converted into individual galleries displaying musical instruments, models of forts of Rajasthan, headgear, etc.

Read the board!
The exquisite doorway to the haveli. The caretaker will point out (with much pride) that an image of the gateway was once adorned the cover of Air India’s in-flight magazine!
The details are simply mind-boggling
A closer look at the doorway
Another attraction of the haveli – an elephant made entirely of ladies!
Painted walls of the baithak
Looking into the inside courtyard
Painted niches depict the playful nature of Krishna
The inside courtyard
First floor corridor
Some frames just make themselves
Beautiful afternoon light streams in

For each haveli we managed to visit, we skipped two. It is amazing how this corner of the country produced so many families with so much wealth. In the post, we will look at some photographs from the rural (not that Nawalgarh can be called ‘urban’) part of Shekhawati. Expect colours!